At the start of November, my family took what might be the last family vacation road trip. This time we set out west for the first time, heading out to New Mexico and eventually southern Colorado.
Here’s how it went.
Midland, TX to Roswell, NM
So technically the first day of the trip was heading from the DFW Metroplex out to Midland, but we’ve already done that a couple of times.
Really the vacation felt like it started when we left Midland and Texas and got into Roswell, New Mexico. I feel like it goes without saying that the drive between the two towns is nothing to write home about.
It’s flat. That’s it.
But things did get really interesting when we got to Roswell. I’m not sure if it was intentionally planned this way or if it was a happy little accident, but we arrived in town during the second day of their annual UFO festival, and this was the 75th anniversary.
As you can imagine, the crowd was filled with enthusiasts and normal people who were perhaps curious about the UFO thing and just about everything in between.
Of course, we had to have lunch at the McDonald’s shaped like a flying saucer.
Then we went down to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. I will admit, it’s quite an interesting museum that documents what happened in Roswell with the UFO incident shortly after World War II. I will say that I don’t think I’m quite a believer in UFOs still, but I do feel like something interesting happened out there and that the government was quite quick to keep the public from seeing anything.
It’s definitely worth a walk through if you find yourself in Roswell (and it’s probably better when it’s not packed with people).
Since the town was packed with tourists for the festival, we felt the best plan for dinner was to head out an hour west to Ruidoso and the mountains for dinner. That turned out to be a great idea.
We got a taste of our first mountains out there, and the scenes were quite incredible. It should go without saying that there aren’t a lot of mountains in Texas, so seeing these mountains, even if they were relatively small, was a sight to behold. Oh, and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees from when we left Roswell, so that felt amazing.
After a lovely dinner at the Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room, we headed back to Roswell for the night.
Roswell to Albuquerque
The second day in New Mexico saw us leave Roswell and the plains behind and really get into the mountains on our way to Albuquerque. The Sandia Mountains just east of town were incredible to drive through. As we drove along I-40, which parallels the old Route 66 path, I couldn’t help but imagine what went through travelers’ heads as they rolled along the mountainous path.
Once in Albuquerque, we headed down to the 66 Diner for lunch. Great place with great grilled cheese sandwiches, and I highly recommend them if you’re ever in town.
After lunch, we searched for something to do before the Albuquerque Isotopes game that evening. We found the Sandia Peak Tramway, but upon arrival learned that you needed to buy tickets online and that tickets were sold out. That was for another day.
So instead we headed down to the Al Unser museum in town. I’m not the biggest racing fan, but I do love IndyCar and I’ve heard of the Unsers. And the museum is incredible. Since we were basically the only ones in the museum at the time, we practically got a private tour of the museum.
There are a lot of cars there, and the history the museum covers — not only of the Unsers but basically racing itself — is incredible. One section of the museum covers the early days of boardwalk racing, which from what I could tell was like playing Russian Roulette with your left. Another section covers the Unsers’ history with the Pike Peak Hill Climb, which again is apparently pretty dangerous.
And in one of the backrooms is a large room of cars, from pace cars from races, to a car Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced in to soap box derby cars and more. All in all, it’s a great museum, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re ever traveling through Albuquerque.
Finally we made our way downtown for the Isotopes game. I forgot the feeling of going to a game where you legitimately do not care who wins the game. And as it turned out, it was a pretty darn good game. The Isotopes ended up losing the game, but at 13-10 it was a game filled with fireworks.
The stadium itself is a nice little stadium, and it was a great crowd. I loved the little forest used as the batter’s eye in centerfield as well as the little hill that is in play leading up to the fence (although they have apparently removed that hill, so boo).
And to top off the day, we got a nice actual fireworks show after the game to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Albuquerque and Santa Fe
Our third day in New Mexico saw us finally go up the Sandia Peak Tramway to Sandia Peak. And let me tell you, that is a heck of a trip.
This was my first time on a proper tramway, and I’m proud to say that I conquered my fear of heights, I think. At one point you are roughly 1,000 feet above the ground and apparently it takes just a few seconds to cover that distance if you fall. Oh, and shoutout to the crew member in our car with the Jungle Cruise-esque jokes on the way up to pass the time.
And once we got to the top of the mountain, the view was absolutely breathtaking and worth the trip up. You can see for almost a hundred miles. Downtown Albuquerque is easily in sight, and it was cool to see windmills way off in the distance.
Everywhere you looked was something cool. And I imagine it’s even better in the winter with the snow and the skiing. I initially thought we would take maybe 30 minutes up at the top of the mountain; instead we were up there for almost two hours.
Coming down the mountain was much easier than going up. And by the time we got to the bottom, it was time to travel to Santa Fe for lunch.
After enjoying a wonderful lunch at Tomasita’s Santa Fe New Mexican Restaurant, we drove around downtown Santa Fe, which is absolutely lovely, and went over to Meow Wolf. I’m not going to lie, it’s really hard to accurately describe Meow Wolf. There’s so much to see and do in there. The best description I can come up with is it’s an avant garde interactive art gallery, but it’s really so much more than that. You just have to go see it for yourself.
After spending a couple of hours there, it was time to get back to Albuquerque for dinner and to enjoy a fireworks display at a nearby park.
Albuquerque to Chama
Our next day in New Mexico saw us start out in Old Town Albuquerque.
This is a really nice park and shopping area. There are a lot of nice local shops that sell souvenirs, hats, purses, bags, stickers and just about everything else you can imagine.
It’s definitely a nice place to walk around and support the local economy. There’s a church at the center of it all and a nice plaza to sit and have a bite to eat if you wish.
But we didn’t have long to stay there as we needed to get north to Chama. So we left after about an hour and took the scenic route to get to Chama.
It doesn’t take long to really get out into the middle of nowhere once you leave I-25. And you get really up close and personal with the mountains.
After stopping off at a cafe in Cuba, New Mexico, we got further off of the beaten path as we took State Highway 96. This was our first time on a two-lane road in the mountains, and it was quite the journey.
I don’t think I’ve ever had the up and down feelings on a road trip like I had on that stretch of road. Coupled with the fact that we were hoping that this road would still be intact and it was quite the couple of hours until we got to U.S. Route 84 and the last stretch of road to Chama.
We reached Chama after roughly six hours of travel and found our lodging for the next day. It was quite the travel day.
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
Finally the day arrived for the highlight of our trip: a journey on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.
My brother and I have heard about this line for a long time. We grew up loving trains, and I’ve always wanted to travel on this stretch of railroad. And now was our time to ride it.
We got to the station well ahead of departure, which gave us time to peruse the yard around it and take a look at the gift shop. Then it was time to hop aboard for the trip to Antonito, Colorado.
The stretch out of Chama is one of the steepest grades in the world at four percent. That means for every 100 feet the track rises four feet. And you can really feel it in the train.
Shortly after we left Chama, I headed back to the open air gondola car to take photos. I planned to be out there for only a little bit, but I ended up staying out there all the way to the halfway point.
The views were absolutely breathtaking. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen views as beautiful as that. It was the rainy season, and everything was so green and lush around us. I ended up taking well over 400 photos along the entire route just because there were so many things to photograph.
Also, the one thing about traveling with a steam engine is the wicked wheel slip that occasionally happens going up the grade. If you ever go on this trip, just be aware that there might be some sudden stops and starts.
Anyway, before we knew it we were at Osier and the halfway point in our journey. Here you hop off the train to grab lunch before the train coming from Antonito arrives. Oh, and I guess I should have mentioned that the whole trip takes about six hours one way.
After lunch we got back on our train and I headed back to the gondola car. The best point of the trip was the trek through Toltec Gorge, where you are roughly 700 feet above the canyon floor. There’s one point where you can see all the way down to the bottom, and oh boy is that a view.
Unfortunately rain set in for the last fourth of our journey and we were forced back into the coach car we started from. And the rain basically made everything unphotographable. And before we knew it, we were in Antonito and boarding buses for the one-hour trek back to Chama.
Overall, I can’t recommend the Cumbres and Toltec enough for anyone, even if you’re not a train person. It’s an incredible experience with amazing views, and it’s worth every single penny.
Our sixth day in New Mexico saw us continue traveling northward into southern Colorado and Durango.
The trip between Chama and Durango, like everything else in that part of the U.S. was absolutely beautiful. It was roughly a two-hour trek one way, but the scenery along the entire route was amazing.
We got into Durango around lunchtime and met up with one of my mom’s friends for lunch outdoors. To this Texas guy, the idea of eating lunch outside in July is ridiculous, but in the mountains of Colorado, it was glorious.
Downtown Durango is a wonderful place. I love the shops along the main road and the cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating along the road. We took a nice long walk along all of the stores that felt like a slightly more modern version of what we walked through in Old Town Albuquerque.
After a nice post-lunch walk, we went over to the Durango and Silverton train station.
Slight fun fact: the Durango and Silverton line and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad are sister railroads so to speak. They were a part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s San Juan Extension narrow gauge line. But when the line was abandoned only those two sections remained. And sometimes you’ll see locomotives from one run on another.
Anyway, we didn’t have time to catch another train, but we were able to walk through the free museum that’s filled with a ton of railroad memorabilia. If you ever have a day in Durango, go make sure you check out the museum. It’s a great one (and again, it’s free).
Finally before heading back to Chama, we went north on Highway 550 about two-thirds of the way to Silverton just to see what was up that way. We eventually turned around and headed back to Chama, before making the trek all the way back to Texas.
Chama to Midland
Well, it’s time to finally head back to Texas. And for the first time I can remember, I don’t want to get back to Texas.
This has been one of the best vacation trips we’ve ever taken. Literally everywhere we went was amazing. New Mexico is a gorgeous state, and I wish we could have stayed here even longer.
As we crossed the state line into Texas after over six hours of driving, I started planning a return at some point. Maybe WordCamp Albuquerque will make an appearance again, which would be a great excuse to return to the Land of Enchantment.
But until next time, New Mexico! That was an amazing trip!