Take a day trip!
Head north out of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285, and exit in Pojoaque onto N.M. 502. San Ildefonso Pueblo (just off N.M. 502 next to the Rio Grande; Visitors’ Center: 455-3549), with its backdrop of Black Mesa and soaring Pajarito Plateau, has a long and complex history that includes resistance to the Spanish during the Reconquest of 1692. It is famous for its lustrous black pottery, especially that of the late, great artist Maria Martinez, her husband Julian and their family. Numerous artist studios, shops and a small museum offer classic black-on-black pottery and other artworks for sale.
The town of Los Alamos is an enigma. Home to the program that built the world’s first atomic weapons — the Manhattan Project, directed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — and still the center of U.S. nuclear weapons research and development, it looks like a tranquil Midwestern town dropped into Northern New Mexico. The best way to absorb its history is to visit the Bradbury Science Museum (667-4444), the John Gaw Meem-designed Fuller Lodge Art Center (662-1635) and the neighboring Los Alamos Historical Museum (662-4493).
Perhaps you’d prefer to bypass Los Alamos (you cannot expect to thoroughly see both Los Alamos and what follows in one day). If so, a wonderful alternative is a 1.5-mile walk on an easy trail with stunning views of the Rio Grande Valley at Tsankawi (on N.M. 4 near the intersection of East Jemez Road, 672-3861). This outlying unit of Bandelier National Monument — dotted with petroglyphs and ruins dating to A.D. 1400 — evokes the spirits of the ancients.
Approximately 15 miles south of Los Alamos is Bandelier National Monument (just off N.M. 4, 672-3861, www.nps.gov/band), once home to Ancestral Puebloans who migrated from Mesa Verde circa A.D. 1100. A full day can be spent just here: Cliff dwellings and kivas are a short walk from the Visitor Center, and despite fires of recent years, longer hikes are possible.
Lava rocks from the volcanic eruption that created the beautiful 89,000-acre basin known today as the Valles Caldera National Preserve (on N.M. 4, 866-382-5537, www.vallescaldera.gov) some two million years ago have been found as far away as Kansas. The Preserve offers, usually by reservation, hiking, fly-fishing, snowshoeing, birding, mountain biking, hunting, elk watching and other recreational opportunities.
About 30 minutes south on N.M. 4 from the Caldera find Jemez Historic Site (575-829-3530), believed to be the original site of Jemez Pueblo. It includes the 17th-century San José de los Jemez Mission Church built atop the ruins of a 14th-century Towa-speaking pueblo.
Continuing four miles south on N.M. 4, the tiny burg of Jemez Springs is an idyllic cluster of cafes and bed and breakfast inns, highlighted by the 1870-era Jemez Springs Bath House (62 Jemez Springs Plaza, 575-829-3303). Book a massage and soothe away your cares with a mineral soak in a private, old-fashioned tub. Dining options include the landmark Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon (575-829-3547), with a bowl of superlative red chile, the “just hot enough” vegetarian green chile stew or their “Famous Jemez Burger.”
Continuing south of Jemez Springs on N.M. 4 for 15 miles, find neighboring Jemez Pueblo. The best way to learn about its history and way of life is to visit the Walatowa Visitor Center (7413 N.M. 4, 575-834-7235), several miles further south of the Pueblo. Here native pottery and other crafts are for sale, and there are horno (adobe beehive oven) bread-baking demonstrations. The pueblo is only accessible to visitors on feast days, but shops along the roadway are open daily.
A memorable last stop on this day’s journey is Coronado Historic Site (485 Kuaua Rd. in Bernalillo, 867-5351), to behold the Sandia Mountains at sunset. When the magical light briefly paints the range’s granite face watermelon red, you’ll know how the Sandias got their name. Overlooking the Rio Grande, this site of the vanished Tiwa pueblo Kuaua is where conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado spent the bitterly cold winter of 1540-41 during the first European exploration into the Southwest. The ruins include a kiva (underground prayer room), with recently restored 14th-century frescoes that pique the imagination about ancient Pueblo life. It’s then a 45-minute drive north on Interstate 25 back to Santa Fe.