I know that many of you are looking to get out of town this Memorial Day weekend...if only for a day. Or maybe you just need a few ideas to nudge you into taking that Subie out for a carbon-busting good time. This piece, which I wrote for last month's New Mexico Marketplace, might be helpful.
Did you ever get in your car to go to a restaurant and the person sitting next to you says, “Hey, let’s go someplace different.”? The same thing is true for taking a day trip or a Sunday drive. Do you ever hear this: “We always hike the Nature Center!” or “Not Santa Fe again!” or worse yet, that conversation-stopper, “You decide!”
I’ve come up with a plan. Here is a list of eight day trips, each less than two hours away from Albuquerque, and each just a little off the beaten path. They range from the ancient to the atomic age, from the natural to the quirky, and from the free to the cheap. I can almost guarantee you haven’t been to all of them... at least in the last 10 years. And it just might take the exasperation out of the phrase, “You decide.”
1. The Black Hole of Los Alamos
LOS ALAMOS — A self-proclaimed recycler of “nuclear waste,” Ed Grothus founded the Black Hole in 1951. It now contains over 17,000 sq. ft. of salvage material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Items range from rodent cages to atomic bomb detonator cables, from lab benches to a $35,000 brand-new helium storage dewar, from glassware to centrifuges. Artists, tinkerers and research facilities all come here to shop for bargains, hard-to-get items, and unusual objects to convert into a backyard water feature. It is only open Tuesdays through Saturdays... and even then their website advises a call beforehand to confirm they are open. Located at 4015 Arkansas Ave., Los Alamos, N.M. www.blackholesurplus.com. (505) 662-5053. One more thing: concerning the detonator cables... the Black Hole comments, “They are harmless without the rest of the bomb, which we do not have in stock.” Well, that’s a relief.
2. The Gilman Tunnels
GILMAN — Just beyond Jemez Pueblo is the turn-off to the village of Gilman. It was a logging area in the first half of the 20th century, and tunnels were built to get the lumber trains through the narrowest part of Guadalupe Canyon. Eventually the tunnels were enlarged enough to accommodate trucks... one at a time. The views near the tunnels are breathtaking. In fact, this whole drive is lovely. Past the tunnels, the road turns to gravel and continues up to S.R. 4 between Fenton Lake and La Cueva. What a drive! There’s spectacular scenery and lots of places to eat in Jemez Springs.
3. Sandia Man Cave
PLACITAS — Four miles south of Placitas on S.R. 165 is the legendary Sandia Man Cave. Archeologists date this home of Sandia Man back to 10,000 B.C., but the beauty of this cave is that, even if the date means nothing to you, you will enjoy the cave experience.
The cave goes back about 100 yards. You will need a flashlight to fully explore, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a spare. Also, there is a stretch of yellow dust in there that gets stirred up by people crawling across it. So go early in the day or bring a mask. Also, your pants will be yellow when you come out. Cool. Your kids will love it. The cave is accessed by an easy trail and a caged spiral staircase.
SAN ANTONITO — The Tinkertown Museum is the 40-year-long creation of artist Ross Ward who passed away in 2002. By that time, Ward had embedded 50,000 glass bottles in the masonry walls that enclosed his 22-room museum. This collection of wonderful and wacky objects will inspire you and awaken your own creative spirit. In 2010, Tinkertown was listed as one of America’s TOP TEN small museums by both Fox News and Huffington Post! Tinkertown is located on the Sandia Crest Road just east of the junction with S.R. 14.
Probably the greatest possible day trip for any age child would be a ride up I-25 and over to Placitas on S.R. 165, then continuing on south to Sandia Man Cave, stopping for a picnic at Las Huertas picnic area, and ending with a visit to Tinkertown on the way back to Albuquerque by way of S.R. 14 and I-40. The kids will be asleep before you get home... in their dirty yellow pants.
5. The Cerro Blanco Trail
MANZANO MOUNTAINS — The trailhead is about two miles south of Fourth of July Campground. To get to it, go south from Tijeras about 30 miles to Tajique, turn right at the graveyard and just follow the road. This little-used trail crests the Manzanos and you can see Los Lunas and Meadow Lake way down below. It is a perfect place for sandwiches and coffee. This is one of my favorite hikes. And it is uphill only half the time.
MOUNTAINAIR — Quarai is the northernmost of the three sites that make up the Salinas National Monument. The others are Abo (closest to I-40 and Belen), and Gran Quivera which is another 20 miles to the southeast. You can't possibly see all three of these missions in one day. Quarai, just north of Mountainair, is large and dramatic. It has a wonderful interpretive center to help you sort out the relationship between the Spanish Franciscans and the Puebloans.
For lunch, drive on to Mountainair and Pop Shaffer’s. His hotel/restaurant is another kind of masterpiece, a sort of Folk-Art Deco that adorns the ceiling and the painted wood chandeliers... and built without slave labor. Ask the locals about finding his Rancho Bonito workshop which is pictured at the right.
7. Ladron Peak Road
I-25 BERNARDO EXIT — The seldom-used, 50-mile gravel road around Ladron Peak is as good a definition of the phrase “high lonesome” as I can think of. It also goes to the ghost town of Riley. The road starts at the Bernardo exit south of Belen. It heads southwest a little before winding its way around Ladron Peak, eventually coming to U.S. 60 in Magdalena. “Ladron,” by the way, is Spanish for “thief” so you can guess at something of its history. You will want a four-wheel-drive, but probably won’t need it. As always, when leaving the pavement however, make sure you have plenty of gas, food and water. To get to the ghost town of Riley, turn at the sign near the only house on this long stretch of roadway and ford the shallow Rio Salado. Riley has numerous adobe houses, a school house, and a church that is still used today on special occasions. A mining and agricultural community, Riley was abandoned after WWII.
8. Coronado State Monument
BERNALILLO — When Coronado spent the winter here in 1540, the pueblo was already 250 years old. Kuaua Pueblo was virtually eaten out of house and home by Coronado’s men. Finally, the expedition moved on to Kansas, still seeking the Seven Cities of Gold. The kiva was excavated in the ’30s, and 14 decaying murals were carefully lifted and are on display in the visitor’s center. They are considered the finest example of pre-contact mural art in North America. Even the visitor’s center, designed by John Gaw Meem, is just beautiful. Despite all this, I bet 90 percent of us haven’t been there in a decade.
I hope I’ve given you some ideas for a few day trips. New Mexico is jam-packed with little treasures... many of them just a little off the public radar. Here’s to seeking them out. And see you down the road!