Few places in the United States so accurately portray the fascinating remnants of Spanish colonial life than the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Not far from the Mexican border, the sunlit city is a melting pot of heritages, with everything on offer from classic American art to Indian cultural centers and even authentic ranchos.
The gorgeous city feels as though it’s stuck in time, and though history buffs will no doubt be hugely entertained, nature lovers can also find their niche here.
The vast expanses of deserts, mountainscapes, and prairies in the surrounding regions offer epic day trip opportunities; within a matter of hours, you can find countless places to explore.
Here are 15 of the best day trips you can embark on from Santa Fe.
1. Jemez Springs
The village of Jemez Springs can be reached from Santa Fe in well under two hours, by heading west through the wonderfully scenic Los Alamos, characterized by its sweeping, high-altitude prairies.
The springs themselves have been visited for centuries because of their hot mineral springs with healing properties and the irresistibly inviting small-town nature of the settlement itself.
Filled with both spiritual and recreational retreats that draw influences from indigenous cultures, Jemez Springs is the kind of destination you go to in order to completely unwind and relax in some truly breathtaking natural surroundings.
2. Bandelier National Monument
Another striking example of an impressive collision of natural majesty and ancient living practices, Bandelier National Monument is a veritable playground for nature lovers and those curious about early settlements in the area.
The region is characterized by craggy, red sandstone cliffs and walls surrounded by pine-dotted hills.
It goes without saying that you can find some excellent hiking trails here and truly lose yourself in the staggering natural surroundings.
You can also learn about the cave-dwelling natives who inhabited the very walls themselves and marvel at the evidence of their ingenuity.
3. Road trip to Taos
The back roads and highways that make up the beloved route known as the “High Road to Taos” comprise of a winding journey through some of the most stunning geographical sights and cultural attractions that New Mexico has to offer.
The way is peppered with fascinating historical sites like the Spanish pueblo of Chimayo – known for its gorgeous adobe chapel called El Santuario.
Other sites include charming small towns like Truchas or Córdova; getting from one to the next is half the adventure.
The route takes you through high-desert badlands and pine-covered mountains that dominate the horizon and feel a world away from the urban areas behind you.
Make sure you leave time to explore Taos itself – the town is an incredible testament to the millennium-old traditions its people employ to keep it alive.
4. Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch is an Education and Retreat Center that lies a mere hour from Santa Fe.
Its settings are the perfect embodiment of New Mexico’s signature rural vistas.
Deep red landscapes are punctuated by tabletop mesas almost as far as the eye can see.
The center itself provides endless tours and experiences, from horseback riding through the jaw dropping scenery to walking in famous artist Georgia O’Keefe’s footsteps.
It’s impossible not to tap into the serenity of your surroundings on this day trip, though if you’re more interested in the cultural heritage of the area, you can head to points of interest like the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology or the Ruth Hall Museum of Palaeontology.
Claiming to have more artists per capita than any town in the whole nation, Madrid is a quaint but gorgeously picturesque artist’s enclave that has grown steadily from its reputation as a ghost town in the 70’s.
Sporting brightly painted houses that are backdropped by the breathtaking Ortiz Mountains, the town boasts a huge number of galleries and artisanal stalls that line the streets and are impossible not to pay attention to.
History buffs may also be interested in the town’s past as a coal mining community and can learn more at the Mine Shaft Tavern.
6. Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Without a doubt one of the most stunning views in New Mexico, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is a worthy stop off that’s only 10 miles away from Taos and is guaranteed to take your breath away.
Suspended almost 600 feet over the Rio Grande, the bridge isn’t for the vertigo-prone traveler but will reward those who venture onto it with incredible photo opportunities.
From here, you’ll also find some of the most coveted views of Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in New Mexico.
7. Turquoise Trail
The National Scenic Byway – affectionately known as the Turquoise Trail – connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and if you’re planning a day trip to the latter, skip on taking the interstate and head down this route instead for a much more interesting journey.
The rolling landscape is so untouched that you’ll feel as if you’ve left civilization behind, with the Sandia Mountains rising majestically in the distance and scrub-dotted red earth on all sides.
8. Sandia Peak Tramway
If the views of the magnificent Sandia Mountains from the ground aren’t enough, then you’re in luck, because you can also soak them in from the highest aerial tramway in the USA.
The Sandia Peak Tramway is an exhilarating 15-minute tram ride that transports you from the hot desert environment at ground level to the significantly cooler alpine surroundings at the summit of the Sandia Mountains.
The views here are unobstructed and unparalleled, and you can enjoy everything from hiking to winter skiing here.
9. White Mesa
A destination for thrill-seekers, hikers, nature enthusiasts and dinosaur lovers all in one, White Mesa is comprised of a series of tabletop mountain trails with some intriguing attractions.
Its namesake comes from the gypsum that forms the white surface of much of the route, and it’s a veritable paradise for adventurous mountain bikers.
With panoramic views from the top of the mesa, you can bike up and down the rugged trails for hours on end, through sections of varying difficulty levels.
White Mesa is also famous for numerous paleontological discoveries and you can still spot fossilized bones there today.
10. Black Mesa
Transforming each year from deep red in the summer to mottled white in the winter, the landscape of Black Mesa is beautiful and dramatic, no matter the season.
It’s a sacred mountain that is part of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
It offers excellent hiking opportunities and houses a particularly interesting attraction: the privately owned Capilla de la Familia Sagrada chapel is one of the oldest in New Mexico and is well worth a visit.
11. White Sands National Monument
Far from the shores of Caribbean beaches where it’s typically found, the pure white sands of the White Sands National Monument make for one of the most unique day trips from Santa Fe.
The extraordinarily rare gypsum sand dunes are a favorite place for nature enthusiasts who are looking for an otherworldly experience; they form a vast desert that looks exactly like snow.
You can either hike the various moderate trails or even rent sleds to race down some of the steeper descents.
If you’re looking for a city with a slightly faster pace of life than the beautiful but sometimes sleepy Santa Fe, make the short trip to the vibrant, bustling city of Albuquerque.
Here, you’ll find an abundance of art galleries, museums, and some of the best eats in the state.
As it’s a hub of Southwestern culture that includes Native American, Hispanic and American heritages, there’s no shortage of tastes, sights, and sounds for the curious visitor.
13. Ojo Caliente Springs
Having attracted everyone from intrepid travelers to holistic wellness seekers over the centuries, Ojo Caliente Springs is widely thought to be the very best healing and relaxation retreat close to Santa Fe and it’s not hard to see why.
The resort and spa found there offers everything from hiking around the gorgeous surroundings to numerous tailored treatments in the mineral-rich natural springs themselves.
Though it’s only an hour from Santa Fe, consider spending the night in one of the beautiful suites available here for the full, rejuvenating experience.
14. The Very Large Array
Sprawled out amongst the vast Plains of San Agustin, the Very Large Array is a complex of satellite dishes whose sheer size and presence is almost as impressive as the groundbreaking advancements they’ve helped shed light on.
They form the largest radio telescope on Earth, whose accuracy is essentially unparalleled thanks to the lack of interference – given its remote location.
Visitors can walk freely among the enormous dishes on self-guided tours.
15. Valles Caldera National Preserve
A perfect escape from city life that offers almost a million acres of untouched wilderness, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is a haven for hikers, skiers, fishing enthusiasts, and visitors looking to get back to nature.
Formed inside a volcanic caldera, the vast expanse of land houses the gorgeous Jemez Mountains, countless lakes, and includes every landscape – from grassland to desert badlands.
Though it makes for a captivating day trip, it’s best enjoyed over the course of two days to see as much of it as possible.