Now that I am fully vaccinated, I wanted to somewhat escape our current reality even for one week. The thought of no longer becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 made me feel a like celebrating during the second week after taking my second shot (when I am officially considered "fully vaccinated").
I have always been the type of person that values growth and experiences. I would much rather spend money on learning something new or meeting people from different places or cultures rather than buying expensive status symbols and material things.
I wanted to try Native American food or have really good pizza in Arizona, but I saw the Rudy's BBQ sign on the freeway, so I had to stop here instead. I absolutely loooooove their sides. Rudy's was part of my annual trips of Austin, Texas when I would visit for week for 5 consecutive years for SXSW. My colleague that would join me every year thought their brisket was "good enough," but their sides were amazing! None of the top barbecue places in Texas we tried had sides like Rudy's.
Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona was not originally a planned stop on my way to New Mexico. I saw the sign along the freeway and looked at the clock and thought I could fit in an hour or 2 to visit this national park. I create spreadsheets for my trips (such a nerd!), but I always allow spontaneity. This is how I like to roll when I travel.
The following morning, I visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You must pre-book before visiting. During these pandemic times, most places won't let people visit without advanced reservations or tickets so you need to be strategic when planning your vacations especially at indoor settings like a cave or museums. If you don't, you will be sadly disappointed that you won't be able to see these places. Research and reserve weeks or months in advance. I met people who could not get tickets into Carlsbad Caverns. This is one of the main attractions in New Mexico and I would be really sad and disappointed if I drove all this way and made the mistake of not making my reservation in advance.
Can you see my thrill, excitement, and happiness in my eyes? I was so happy to finally visit this cave which is one of the largest in the world. I went straight into the Big Room, which is "the best" chamber at Carlsbad Caverns if you're limited on time. Big Room is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at its highest point for some perspective. The Big Room is the largest underground chamber in North America and the thirty-first largest in the world! The immense size of the cave underground was a lot to take in. You can take the hike down taking the nature trail or go straight down to it by taking an elevator. I took the shortcut since I had so many places to see in one week. I wanted to explore all day, but there was still so much to see in New Mexico. I was told that your ticket grants you admission for 3 days inside the Caverns. I timed this visit to be on an early weekday to avoid crowds. There was hardly anyone along my path and it was very quiet inside. They tell people that noise easily travels through the cave so people were speaking really softly along the walking trail.
Two locals who worked at Carlsbad NP recommended hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park if I were to choose a hike in the area. I took the hike to the springs as recommend by the lady at the gift shop. She was a proud New Mexican who have me a lot of advice. I met friendly people along the route who also gave me travel advice. One lady from Albuquerque told me that there was much there. When I told her that I was staying in Santa Fe, her face lit up. There was one guy who was coming back from the hike that looked winded as he told me he was out of shape, but the hike wasn't too strenuous, but it was worth going to the springs.
That pen clipped on my shirt? That's my pepper spray to protect me from possible "Asian hate" during my trip. Luckily I had no use for it. Everyone was so kind -- I met locals and fellow travelers I had conversations with along the way.
Silly me. I thought I could fit in White Sands National Park, but I underestimated drive time between each attraction. I was only able to visit two national parks as by the time I would arrive at White Sands, they would be closed. I decided to drive to Cloudcroft for dinner and retire for the evening. You'll have to check the schedule for White Sands as they close the roads during missile testing.
Stayed at this budget motel. There weren't that many options in this mountain town. The interiors were really dated and not worth taking a photo. It was pretty bad, but it was clean and more comfortable than camping. Gotta turn the negative into a positive. It happened to be really close to Mad Jack's and within walking distance. The owner told me to get there early because a line forms before opening much like places in Texas.
Cloudcroft Brewing Company was a great place to buy canned beer from different local breweries. They were only about $2 each. I enjoyed the beer -- including pickle beer! Which was a novelty item. They recommended it as a must.
I wanted to stay and drink at the brewery. Even if I am vaccinated, I'm not ready to take my mask off and drink indoors. I brought so many cans to bring back home as a gift for someone (and myself).
The reason I stayed the night in Cloudcroft was to have some Central Texas barbecue. Some Texans I met in Cloudcroft told me that Mad Jack's Mountaintop Barbecue is better than any of the places in Lockhart, Texas where the pitmaster is from. Employees at Franklin BBQ told me the best barbecue is found at Smitty's in Lockhart which I've tasted several times before. Pitmaster James Jackson said that he has never tasted Franklin Barbecue, so he doesn't know if it is any good. His employee says Pitmaster James' barbecue is better than Franklin. Even someone I met in line told me Mad Jack's is better than all of the barbecue joints he has tried in Austin and Lockhart -- including Franklin BBQ. Pitmaster James is self taught and spoke to Aaron Franklin for advice via email.
The Texan I met in line recommended Trestle Recreation Area nearby where I could enjoy my barbecue outdoors. They have clean restrooms and you can take walk or hike after your lunch.
After lunch, I drove down to White Sands for about an hour for some photography and fun down the sand dunes. It's not as large as I thought it would be. I drove as far as I could with my car and parked it so I could walk around, take photos, and ride down the sand dunes.
My baby's last road trip before her engine started to fail when I brought her back home. So many memories and adventures over the past 9 years and I was sad to give her up. I am so glad that she made it back home and I didn't get stuck in New Mexico. My mechanic told me it was time to trade her in for a new one. When I bought this car, I swore I would drive her to ground and mission accomplished. It was a sweet feeling not have a car note for almost 5 years. I had a wealthy friend and what he told me stuck with me. This man owned a $20 million home and he told me German cars are a waste money. He had a Porsche and it was too expensive for him maintain. I had another friend who also had a Porsche and just to change a tire or repair the issue was $3,000. He ended up trading it in (for another Porsche). Another friend who had a BMW complained about the $1,000 to $2,000 he had to pay to repair a light issue. That just doesn't seem to make financial sense to me. I'm stuck with Toyota and Lexus as my car was inexpensive to maintain during her lifespan.
interesting !I wanted you to see at least one of the places I usually stay at. I like low budget motels with character (also clean and great reviews). I have found that mid-range chain hotels like a Hyatt can be filty for twice the price. This is the Silver Saddle Motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico which was away from the tourist zone and close to great restaurants and craft breweries. To me, it only makes sense to stay at a fancy hotel if you're spending most of your time inside the luxury hotel room or using the facilities of the beach resort. What the point of traveling and staying inside your hotel room? That's no fun. I value cleanliness and proximity to restaurants and siteseeing. I enjoy staying at Air BnBs as well during my travels either to meet locals or interesting places to stay in.
The other places I stayed at were budget motels with great reviews, but nothing charming about them. I would rather not share them as they weren't this cute. I really like parking my car near my motel room during road trips. That is why I prefer staying at interesting kitschy motels on road trips. Less walking to my room! Easy in and out.
And yes, I always bring my own bed sheets, a HEPA air filter, disinfection wipes, a hot water kettle, and tea bags for my comfort. Sometimes I bring a Ziploc bag for the TV remote. For this trip, I forget to bring Ziplocs so I used the ice bucket bag to shield me from the germiest item in a hotel room. I was not in a luxurious hotel, but I still had the conveniences of a clean bathroom and television. I recently stayed at a luxurious $800 a night hotel room and thought the experience was such a waste of money. Call me frugal and practical.
The close proximity to my car is key! The Silver Saddle Motel was my home base while I explored Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and northern New Mexico. I figured staying in one place would decrease my exposure to COVID-19 and make it easier by only disinfecting my room once.
I always research "where chefs eat" when I travel and one local chef loves the breakfast burritos at Sunrise Family Restaurant. It seems like a very "locals only" spot. I ordered my breakfast burrito with chorizo "Christmas style" -- half red and half green chili. Apparently the breakfast burrito was invented in New Mexico so it was on my "must try" list. They asked me if I wanted to hold it while I eat it. I told him to do whatever you want to it. He made me a wet burrito as his recommendation.
I will stress the importance of advanced reservations before traveling during COVID-19. I was not able to get tickets to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, which is the top attraction in Santa Fe, so I "settled" for the next best thing... the better thing! I decided to visit her home and inspiration for her paintings for about 40 years! She traveled between New York City and her home here in Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I can see why she fell in love with the New Mexican landscape. You can take a hike in Ghost Ranch, but you cannot visit her home which is operated by the museum for scheduled tours. I took the easy, but scenic hike and walked through the labrynth. You probably might recognize this area from the film City Slickers.
When you are in Santa Fe, do not miss Bandelier National Monument. You will get to hike and climb into ancient Ancestral Puebloan cave dwellings. If you have time, visit Valles Calderas National Park, the volcanic national park next door. I would schedule these back-to-back since they are close by. You'll probably want to try the local hot chocolate after your hike at Bandelier. The cookie and pastry they gave me was stale.
While I was walking the tourist zone at Old Town Santa Fe, I saw the Five and Dime General Store. This is where Anthony Bourdain ate frito pie at the place that claims to have invented it. He bashed it on his show, Parts Unknown, and later backtracked his words. They were closed so I wasn't able to try it. I have feeling he hated the feeling walking into this tourist trap of the store.
The craft breweries are open for indoor drinking, but I decided to again buy and drink in the safety of my motel room. In before times, I would much rather drink at the bar and chat up the bartenders. My motel was located in a great location! I recommend trying the award-winning Alien Burger (if a green chili cheeseburger is on your must-try list) and grabbing some beer to-go at Second Street Brewery. The beertender recommended their brewery at Rowley's Farmhouse Ales both near my motel.
New Mexico is know for its creative spirit and art. I drove past the famous Canyon Road to see the art galleries and decided to spend more time at SITE Santa Fe, the contemporary art museum and neighboring art galleries. I am fan modern design and enjoyed perusing their gift shop.
I recommend getting lost at the Petroglyphs National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit the visitor center for maps and advice on which sites to visit. There are some urban volcanoes and several other sites to see petrogyphs. The ranger recommend Piedras Madreas Canyon. This one has the highest concentration of petroglyphs. If you don't need a map or a stamp in your Natioanl Park Passport, you can go straight to this urban hike.
I met a retired couple from Los Angeles or more specifically North Hollywood along the trail. They moved to Albuquerque about a year ago. They wanted to be closer to hiking and live in a Pueblan-style home. They took the tramway up thelocal mountain and got sold with the view and hiking opportunities up there. They told me to go, but I was afraid of possibly catching COVID-19 on the enclosed tram up and how they told me is usually very crowded. On Trip Advisor, the tram ride up the mountain is the top attraction in Albuquerque.
I was able to go in but was shewed away as they were sanitizing the pews after mass.
Red chile enchiladas at Dulan's Pharmacy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was the recommended dish. I was a bit enchiladad out. By the time they gave me the food, it ended up being room temperature. From the looks of the parking lot, this is where the moneyed set ate with the Range Rovers and Audis I spotted.
The beauty of travel is meeting new people and having conversations with them. I enjoy my solo time, but I am also a people person. I was to talking to some rangers and they told me to visit Petrified National Park. I wasn't complete sold on this park with all the options to see, but they told me I had to and there was more to see than the Grand Canyon. I just envisioned some old logs laying on the ground. The highlight is the striking lanscape of the Painted Desert and the other worldliness of the Blue Mesa. My mind was blown exploring this park. I would spend more time on it and visit in the morning. I visited close to the end of the day so I didn't get to do much walking and exploring other than driving around and taking photographs.
For breakfast (in my car), I ordered the eggs benedict and sticky buns from Brandy's Restaurant and Bakery in Flagstaff.
Located near Flagstaff, Arizona, you can visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Park and Wutpaki National Monument in one morning. You can also fit in Walnut Canyon National Monument and visit three national parks in one day. Since Walnut Canyon also had cave dwellings, I decided to skip it and spend more time in Sedona spiritual "vortex" hiking and buying someone who really likes souvenirs her "black rock."
If you haven't been part of the United States, it's definitely worth exploring. The food is different, the people are friendlier than LA (much like the people I met in Utah)... so to me, an enjoyable travel experience.
If you're able to bring a high clearance vehicle, it would allow you explore places I couldn't with my car. I wanted to visit the UNESCO Chaco Culture National Historic Park or the New Mexico badlands, but that would require a vehicle that can handle unpaved roads really well.
I recommend planning a "must see" list and find out if you need advanced reservations months in advance and definitely buying a National Parks annual pass for free admission and parking at our national parks and in places like Sedona.
Enjoy New Mexico. Much like New Orleans, I left my heart in Santa Fe.
Follow my adventures on Instagram.
Hello, I'm Anne.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I love exploring Los Angeles like a tourist. I have as much fun in my hometown as I do traveling in another country. I live to eat (good food) and travel!