Backroads of New Mexico

Story and photos by Ryan Ireland

A visit to New Mexico conjures up images of relaxation, adventure, art, history and gastrotourism. Usually folks flock to Taos or Santa Fe or Albuquerque for their New Mexican excursion. In 2023, leave the big cities behind and hit the backroads – you’ll see a whole different side of The Land of Enchantment. 

Jemez Springs is tucked into a river-cut valley with plenty of picnic spots and fishing opportunities. At the center of town, you can easily walk from the public library to an honest-to-god Wild West saloon. I’ve long said the two best places to find the pulse of a town are the library and neighborhood bar, so Jemez Springs is perfect.

We arrived during the library’s outdoor exercise program. The non-exercising librarian gave us the lowdown on things to do, including a scenic drive along the edge of town. A short drive past the Jemez Graveyard and up a one-lane road took us through a series of tunnels blasted through the mountainside that opened into a canyon misting and rushing with wild waters.

But first, we stopped at the neighborhood bar – a place with a sepia mural on the side of the building. The inside of the saloon – low-lit, adorned with high ceilings and dark wood – was quintessentially western. The bartender mixed margaritas from scratch and sold us on the green chili stew. In a state that prides itself on green chili everything, the stew at the saloon deserves the title of Best Green Chili Anything.

Of course, Jemez is named for its hot springs. The town’s resorts are not posh in a hoity-toity way; they are authentic, piping in the spring water still smelling of sulphur and rich with healing minerals. 

If you look out in any direction, mountains crown the horizon. Again, it was our friends at the library and the bar who told us about the wild hot springs and how to find them. Natural hot springs flowing from mountainsides are a different type of relaxation – more a communion with nature than a spa day. We hiked a half-mile through a meadow and up a steep trail to a warm spring, where the temperature was just right for the midday heat. 

Tumbleweed’s Diner is a modest roadside stop in the hamlet of Magdalena. Their pimento burger proved to be the perfect meal after we spent the day hiking through the closest thing to a suburb you’ll find out here – the Kelly ghost town. 

Magdalena, with its bleach brick buildings, retro signage and the tumbling tumbleweeds, seems to be a place content to be lost in time or forgotten altogether. As we finished our meal and sat sipping pinyon coffee, watching the shadows of the mountains creep toward dusk, a guy – inexplicably cool with sunglasses and a flat-billed baseball cap – walked over to our table. His name was Bale Creek Allen, he said, and his photo exhibition was premiering at Kind of a Small Array Gallery (the name is a play on the government’s nearby Very Large Array satellite dishes). Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled into an arts community. (To be fair, Tumbleweed’s itself could be an art gallery with its murals and artwork.) 

Allen’s panoramic, crisp photographic exhibition centered on the overlooked bits of America – blighted trailers, a snow cone stand in a weed-festooned parking lot, discarded trash. Juxtaposed with the sparse and dramatic work though was his party: a couch and floor lamp on the sidewalk outside the gallery and a cooler full of beers, Bale wandering around the gallery chatting with the gallery-goers. Upon seeing us arrive, Bale came over, genuinely glad we decided to come. So were we.

If you’re traveling Route 70 between Roswell and White Sands, make the turn onto US 82 and make the climb to Cloudcroft, an aptly-named mountaintop town that is cool in every sense of the word. We were trying to escape the heat from the desert pan and the 9,000-foot ascent provided respite. 

Even in late April, snowdrifts piled high at the edge of town. Year-round Cloudcrofters live the honest, rugged mountain life. Although the town has a thriving ski season, an avid outdoors enthusiast can find plenty to do with access to major trails, cycling, ice skating and fishing. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, the town offers a bevy of options for eating and drinking. 

No matter your reason for visiting Cloudcroft, the overlook of the Mexican Canyon Trestle is a must. The preserved section of track sweeps out over the land. Dwarfed by the sky and the landscape, it becomes hard to gauge the magnitude of the engineering feat, the prowess and utter grit of the laborers who constructed it. If the mountain air hasn’t already taken your breath away, the view of the trestle from the observation deck will. 

On the way back down, stop at the Old Apple Barn for kitsch and hot apple cider. If you have kids with you, they’ll love it; if you don’t have kids, you will feel like one. 

I love the national parks, including the two in New Mexico, but when it comes to escapism and solitude, I seek out the national monuments. Even as you pull into El Morro National Monument with its sign lettered in an Old Spanish style script, you know you’re someplace special. 

For seven centuries the shade of the sandstone promontory with its freshwater spring has been an oasis in an otherwise harsh land. Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish explorers and American pioneers literally left their mark, engraving their names into the sandstone as they replenished themselves by the cooling waters. 

Thirteenth-century petroglyphs are a short stroll on a semi-shaded path from the aforementioned Spanish script and next to the Anglo words and names scratched into the rock by early Americans. The messages themselves are an education, ranging from a young woman pioneer who simply scratched out her name to the long-winded proclamation of a Spanish general. In all, over 2,000 inscriptions adorn the rock. 

The paved Inscription Trail wraps around the foot of the plateau, transforming into a steep, unimproved trail leading to the summit. Hold on to your hat – the wind is fierce, but the views are incredible. As you wind through the white sandstone channels atop the mesa, you can see all the way to the Zuni Reservation. A short walk to the other side of the plateau takes you to the Pueblo ruins of a 355-room structure. 

National Park Service rangers are a friendly lot and the few we chatted with at El Morro were among the most helpful and knowledgeable. They fielded my questions about camping (free, first-come first-serve) and about the typography on that entrance sign (part of the aesthetic of the park meant to pay homage to the Spanish explorers). By the end our chat, camping at El Morro was the obvious choice. We snagged a front row spot of a magnificent sunset, a mere warm-up act for a night filled with stars.