New Mexico

7 Awesome Scenic Drives in New Mexico

Posted by
Kristen Arendt
November 10, 2021
Updated July 25, 2022

Scenic Drives in New Mexico
Photo: Shutterstock

From the staggering expanse of White Sands National Park to the “Green Chile Capital of the World,” New Mexico is home to a land of sweeping vistas and culturally diverse towns.

And what better way to get acquainted with the Land of Enchantment than a driving tour through some of the most scenic corners of this southwestern state? From beautiful natural parks and historic sites (both ancient and modern) to fine arts and tasty dining (be sure to try the green chiles), a scenic drive in New Mexico promises to deliver on all fronts.

So next time you’re in the state, plan a few extra hours to take a tour of New Mexico on one of these top scenic drives.

Related Read: 9 Best Hot Springs in New Mexico for Soaking Your Worries Away

1. Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway

scenic drives in new mexico
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Mesmerizing mountain scenery and cute resort towns highlight this loop drive.

  • Distance: +/- 84 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 2 hours

The artsy town of Taos makes a great starting point for this loop drive. Best known as a hub for local artists, the town is also home to plenty of museums, galleries, shopping, and dining, much of which are unique and have an artsy, outdoorsy vibe. So make time to stay in town either at the start or end of your drive. From Taos, the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway takes you on a beautiful tour through the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico, circumnavigating the state’s highest mountain: 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak.

Along the route, plan some time to stop off at the small towns of Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, and Red River. Eagle Nest Lake State Park makes a great stop-off for an afternoon picnic, especially if you pack your fishing rod to enjoy an afternoon of angling on Eagle Nest Lake. Both Angel Fire and Red River are known for their outdoor activities, including backcountry and resort skiing in the winter. Angel Fire Resort and Red River Ski Area have old-school ski resort vibes.

Other highlights along the route that make for worthy side trips include the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial, the Taos Pueblo World Heritage Site, and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Of course, if spectacular mountain scenery is all you’re after you’ll find it in abundance on this New Mexico Drive. No one would accuse this loop of being anything less than gorgeous.

Related Read: 10 Relaxing Cabin Rentals Near Taos, New Mexico

2. High Road to Taos Scenic Byway

scenic drives in new mexico
Photo: Maria Ding / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Beautiful byway scattered with historic and cultural sites.

  • Distance: +/- 70 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1.5 hours

The High Road to Taos, as you might imagine from the name, winds through the foothills of the mountains, following a historic route once taken by Spanish settlers heading north from Santa Fe. Today, the paved road enjoys breathtaking scenery interspersed with old churches and forts from the Spanish colonial days. The route, which skirts to the west of the Santa Fe Mountains and the Sangre De Cristos, connects Santa Fe and Taos. Plan an overnight stay at either or both towns to extend your New Mexico exploration.

Heading north from Santa Fe, the route turns west before Española heading to the town of Chimayó. Plan a stop off at the beautiful Santuario de Chimayó, one of the most visited churches in New Mexico before heading to the historic Plaza del Cerro, one of the last surviving Spanish colonial plazas in the southwest.

Other noteworthy towns along the way include Cordova, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Penasco. A stop off at any of these villages will give you a glimpse into the past with their historic churches and ancient adobe structures, as well as a taste of the present. Many modern-day artists and craftsmen call these towns home.

Related Read: 9 Beautiful Hikes Near Albuquerque, New Mexico

3. Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway

Turquoise Trail Cerrillos
Photo: Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Ditch the Interstate and take the scenic route through mining ghost towns with million-dollar views.

  • Distance: +/- 75 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 30 mins

Slow down and get off the beaten path on the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway. This scenic drive connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but exchanges the multi-lane highway for a much more mellow scenic drive through New Mexico. The road runs east of the Sandia Mountains and the scenery along the way is punctuated by quaint, small towns.

Heading south from Santa Fe, your first stop should be the town of Cerrillos. Once a booming mining town, Cerrillos went bust but is now building its population back up with shops and cafes for tourists interested in western history. The historic downtown is a good spot to stretch your legs.

Not far from Cerrillos is the small town of Madrid (pronounced mad-rid, unlike its counterpart in Spain), one of the best-preserved ghost towns in North America. In addition to the historic 1880s buildings, the cool little town also has art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, and shopping.

If you have more time, plan a short side trip to Sandia Crest to check out the Sandia Peak Tram, which offers a stunning view overlooking Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. In Albuquerque, stop at the Turquoise Museum for a glimpse into the history of the blue mineral that gave the scenic byway its name.

Related Read: 10 Rad Weekend Road Trips from Albuquerque, New Mexico

4. Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway

scenic drives in new mexico
Photo: Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Scenic New Mexico drive through past hot springs, red rock formations, and amazing hikes.

  • Distance: +/- 70 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 45 mins

Whether you’re covering the entire route or just exploring a small section, you’re in for a visual treat if you choose this New Mexico scenic drive. The Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway passes through some of the most incredible terrain in the Land of Enchantment —  a land filled with red cliffs, steep canyons, bubbling hot springs, and stunning mountain vistas.

Though you can make the drive in a single day, if you really want to soak up the area (and soak in the hot springs), plan an overnight along the route to get the most out of the experience. From ancient ruins and scenic fishing holes to miles of hiking trails and plenty of historic sites, the area has a lot more to offer than just the scenery.

A few of the natural and historic highlights to visit include Soda Dam, Spence Hot Springs, Jemez Historic Site, Valles Caldera National Preserve, and Bandelier National Monument (which protects some amazing Native American archaeological sites).

Make sure to leave time to visit the town of Jemez Spring to soak in a hot springs bathhouse from the 1870s. You’ll also want to spend some time in Los Alamos, home to the Bradbury Science Museum (named after sci-fi great Ray Bradbury) and the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

You can add as many off-shoots to this route as you’d like. Many people base themselves in Los Alamos and do day trips out to the various monuments and sites along the scenic route.

Related Read: The 7 Best Caves in Arizona for Subterranean Exploration

5. Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway

Billy the Kidd National Scenic Byway
Photo: Tim Malek / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Drive through history with a byway focused on the lore of the ol’ Wild West.

  • Distance: +/- 108 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 3 hours

Start this up scenic New Mexico loop from one of several small towns in southeastern New Mexico. Most people start the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway in Tinnie, but it doesn’t really matter. The loop is east of the White Sands Missile Range and about three hours from both Albuquerque and Las Cruces. So its a long way from anywhere (in a very good way). It’s probably the most remote scenic drive in New Mexico.

The remote feel adds to the impression that you’ve stepped back in time to the Old West. The road ducks in and out of Lincoln National Forest, at times following along the Rio Ruidoso and the Rio Bonito. The pine-covered hills are interspersed with grassy plains with wide-open views.

Along the route, you’ll pass through the town of Lincoln, which has old-time feel and plenty of Western charm. It’s very well-preserved and has multiple buildings dedicated to all-things-Wild West. If you’re interested in learning more about the byway’s namesake, head to the Lincoln Historic Site (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) to learn about the infamous Billy the Kid.

Related Read: The 9 Best Weekend Road Trips from El Paso

6. Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway

scenic drives in new mexico
Photo: Bonita R. Cheshier / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Drive or road bike this short but stunning route near Santa Fe.

  • Distance: +/- 15.5 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 30 mins

If long road trips aren’t your style, this short drive just outside of Santa Fe packs a scenic punch into its quick 15 miles. Starting in downtown Santa Fe from the Santa Fe Plaza, Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway winds past Fort Marcy State Park up through aspen and pine forests, climbing high into the mountains above the town. This is one of the few scenic drives in New Mexico you could do on two wheels if you’re a road biker.

There are plenty of pull-offs along the way for photos at the various scenic overlooks, especially of the Sangre de Cristo range receding into the distance. The area is particularly stunning in the autumn when the aspens turn bright gold. Pack your hiking boots to take advantage of the network of trails if some boots-on-the-ground exploration is more your style.

The road gets steeper and there are some tighter switchbacks, but nothing too hair-raising if you’re comfortable with twisty roads. The route dead ends at Ski Santa Fe, where you can flip around and enjoy the scenery just as much on the way back down the mountain.

Related Read: 11 Awesomely Unique Places to Stay in New Mexico

7. Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway

Trail of the Mountain Spirits
Photo: Erika J Mitchell / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Go back in time to a land full of archaeological and natural sites.

  • Distance: +/- 112 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 3 hours, 15 mins

Tucked in southwestern New Mexico, Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway winds through some of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the state. Along the drive, you’ll have views of the high desert plains and sweeping mountain vistas of the Gila National Forest.

The remote, rural roads will feel worlds away from civilization — well, at least modern-day civilization. A side trip to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument outside of Silver City will take you back thousands of years to explore the Gila cliff dwellings, once used as shelters by the nomadic Indigenous tribes.

You can also plan a stop at Silver City, Pinos Altos, or San Lorenzo for some more “on the town” attractions; Silver City especially has an impressive list of tasty restaurants. On the northern side of the loop, Lake Roberts is a popular fishing spot, but it’s also great for picnics if you want to break up the drive.

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