Denver to the Grand Canyon South Rim
Start: Denver, CO
This route, which takes you from Denver south through Colorado and into New Mexico before heading west toward the Grand Canyon, is seeped in southwestern American Indian history and culture. Ruins from ancient towns, cliffs covered with pictographs and petroglyphs, trading posts selling Indian artwork and crafts, Indian festivals and performances, and countless national monuments dedicated to preserving our Native American legacy can be found along this journey. But the route offers much more as well. A large portion of it follows the old Route 66, made famous by the hit song and still an integral part of modern Americana. Not to mention the natural wonders you’ll pass along the way: views of snow-capped mountains, colorful deserts, barren lava beds, ponderosa pine forests, and ancient volcanoes fill your car windows begging you to stop and explore for a while.
Denver International Airport to Colorado Springs (87 miles)
Colorado’s second most populous city, Colorado Springs is a bustling metropolitan area with a full complement of restaurants, theatres, parks and museums to entertain visitors. Home to the United States Air Force Academy as well as the United States Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs was named America’s Best City in 2009 by Outside magazine.
Colorado Springs serves as a gateway to the southern Rocky Mountains with 14,115-foot Pikes Peak dominating its skyline. You can drive, hike, ride a train, or bike to the summit of the mountain and be rewarded for your efforts by dramatic 360-degree views of the high plains to the east and waves of craggy peaks to the west; views that inspired the song America the Beautiful. Near the base of Pikes Peak, Manitou Cliff Dwellings historic site preserves a cluster of 700-year-old rock dwellings tucked back into a giant sandstone alcove. During the summer months, Native American dancers perform daily for Manitou’s visitors.
Not far from downtown Colorado Springs, you can wander through the red rock fins of the Garden of the Gods, or head west an hour to the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in the world. Royal Gorge caters to thrill seekers, so if you are after a little adrenalin fix, you’ll find something here to get your blood moving whether it’s a rollercoaster ride 1,200 feet above the river bottom or a whitewater raft trip in Class V water that crashes through the gorge far below.
Colorado Springs to Bishop’s Castle (91 miles)
25 miles west of Colorado City on Hwy. 165 you’ll find a unique bit of Americana tucked away in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Built single-handedly by Jim Bishop, Bishop’s Castle is a meandering stone structure complete with towers, a grand ballroom, stained glass windows, and a fire-breathing dragon. The castle is a work in progress. Started in 1969, Jim is still adding to and refining his creation today. You can visit the castle for free. If you are lucky, you may catch Jim at work and end up with a personal guided tour. (www.bishopcastle.org)
Bishop’s Castle to Raton, New Mexico and Sugarite Canyon (101 miles)
Raton, population 9,000, was originally a layover stop for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. The coming of the railway allowed Raton to boom, and downtown’s main arteries are still lined with historic 19th century buildings. In addition to shops and restaurants, visitors can enjoy a bit of gambling at the newly opened La Mesa Racetrack and Casino.
Outside town lies Sugarite Canyon State Park, one of the nation’s top-ten rated state parks. Sugarite is a corruption of the Cherokee word, chicorica, meaning “place of wild birds.” Today the park is a peaceful oasis with woods, meadows, and two lakes for fishing and boating. Numerous hiking trails wind through the forest allowing visitors an opportunity to observe some of the park’s abundant wildlife and birds.
Raton, New Mexico to Las Vegas, New Mexico (109 miles)
Laid out in the traditional Spanish Colonial style around a central plaza, Las Vegas was also an important stopover for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. When the railway arrived in 1889, the town boomed and soon became one of the largest cities in the American southwest complete with its own electric streetcar, an opera house, and a large library as well as many fine homes and hotels catering to the city’s elite. But not all the town’s inhabitants were respectable. The eastern side of Las Vegas became known for its lawlessness and many of the Old West’s most notorious desperados are associated with Las Vegas including Doc Holiday, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and others.
More than 900 structures in Las Vegas are listed on the National Historic Register and you can see many of these fine buildings by simply wandering around the central downtown area. You can also visit the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial to learn more about the area’s colorful past.
If you are passing through town in the spring or the fall, head out to the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge to see some of the migratory birds pausing here on their way north or south. Storrie Lake, located four miles north of town, has a full-service campground and marina and is a great place to windsurf.
Finally, take a few minutes to soak in Montezuma Hot Springs. Located on the property of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, the hot springs bubble out of the hillside and are captured in a series of cement pools originally developed and run by the Montezuma Resort. Today the resort is no longer in business, but the pools remain open for soakers at no charge.
Las Vegas, New Mexico to Pecos National Historic Monument (42 miles)
Located at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Pecos Valley has long been an important center for trade between the Rio Grande Valley to the west and the high plains to the east. The monument preserves 12,000 years of this history including the remains of the ancient pueblo of Pecos and an early Spanish mission, as well as Santa Fe Trail sites, a Civil War battle site, and remnants of 20th century ranching in the valley. The park visitor center is a good place to begin your visit as displays explain the area’s complex history. Guided tours are available if you call ahead.
Pecos National Historic Monument to Santa Fe, New Mexico (30 miles)
Santa Fe needs little introduction. The city’s historical, cultural and artistic heritage has attracted visitors since the 1920s, and today it ranks as Conde Nast’s Traveler Magazine’s 3rd most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Visitors have no shortage of things to do in Santa Fe. The city is full of galleries, museums, and restaurants to explore, and the Santa Fe Opera is renown its dramatic summer open-air performances. And if you are lucky (or planned ahead), you may be in town for Santa Fe’s number one tourist attraction: The Annual Indian Market.
For the past 80 years, the city transforms itself during the third weekend of August as hundreds of the best Native American artists in the country gather to display and sell their wares. For two days, the town’s central plaza and surrounding streets become a bustling art market with 600 booths displaying the works of more than 1,000 Native American artists. You can find high-quality pottery, silverwork, basketry, quillwork, beading, paintings, rugs and much more for sale at the market.
Santa Fe also makes an excellent base for road trips to the Taos Pueblo or Bandelier National Monument, the site of a number of prehistoric ruins and some wonderful hiking trails. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, which preserves a cluster of strange cone-shaped rock pinnacles, is 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe and a fun place to explore for an afternoon.
Finally, Santa Fe is the center of New Age spiritualism. Zen centers, Tibetan shrines, yoga studios, ashrams, and literally thousands of mind, body, spirit therapists practice in the city making it a destination for those seeking spiritual renewal. If you are not into that kind of renewal, you may still enjoy the benefits of a spa treatment. Don’t miss the 1,000 Waves Spa where you can soak in a hot tub, enjoy a massage or herbal wrap, have a facial treatment, or take advantage of any number of options for pampering yourself during your travels. In 2010, Sante Fe celebrates its 400th birthday with a number of special events taking place throughout the year (www.santafe400th.com), so check out the calendar and see if you can time your trip to enjoy one of the anniversary festivities.
From Here You Can Join Our Santa Fe to Grand Canyon Road Trip Itinerary
More Points of Interest:
Albuquerque, New Mexico
While Santa Fe has implemented strict architectural guidelines to maintain its adobe dream-town character, Albuquerque is your classic, busy, eclectic, modern American city. Home to the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque teems with coffee houses, shops, bars, restaurants, music, and theatre. Nearby, the Sandia Mountains tower over the city and provide a refreshing escape from the urban heat and noise. You can ride the Sandia Peak Tramway for instant access to the alpine meadows and forest high above the desert floor below. In the winter, the tram is open to skiers and snowboarders. Within Albuquerque’s city limits, you’ll find Petroglyph National Monument, which protects an estimated 20,000 carved rock images portraying everything from animals and people to crosses and other abstract symbols.
El Malpais National Monument
Meaning “the bad country” in Spanish, El Malpais is eerie, jagged landscape created when lava poured out across the land millions of years ago. The molten rock left behind a complicated maze of lava tubes, cinder cones, pressure ridges and bridges. You can spend hours wandering through the labyrinth, coming upon unexpected clusters of hearty flowers or plants colonizing the bare rock. If you have a flashlight, sturdy shoes and a sense of adventure, take time to descend into one of the many lava tubes that bisect the area. Some of the tubes extend for 1,000 feet or more underground.
Gallup, New Mexico
Gallup bills itself as the undisputed Southwestern center for original Native American art, contrasting with Santa Fe, which is known as a center for all styles and traditions of collectible art, Native American and otherwise. Gallup is the largest Indian center in the Southwest and the ceremonial capital of Native America. The city is home to 110 trading posts, shops and galleries where you can find both modern and antique Navajo wool rugs, Hopi pottery and carved kachinas, and intricate Zuni silver jewelry.
The galleries and shops are clustered around the main downtown district, so your best bet is to park your car and walk. While you are there, take time to stop into the new Gallup Cultural Center located in a restored railroad station along the old Route 66. The center includes a Ceremonial Gallery, a Storyteller Museum, a Visitor Center and the Kiva Cinema, as well as a museum shop and caf?Gallup is also home to the largest annual gathering of native peoples, the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, which is held every August at Red Rock State Park. The gathering features ceremonial parades, Native American dancing, a rodeo, and plenty of Indian arts and crafts.
Not far from Gallup, you can visit the Zuni Pueblo, the largest of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and considered to be one of the most traditional. The Zunis main industry is the production of arts with more than 80 percent of the population involved in some kind of art whether it be the creation of inlayed silver jewelry, stone fetishes, pottery or other traditional and nontraditional forms.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Although Canyon de Chelly involves a bit of a detour off the main highways (the drive takes a little over two hours from Gallup), the monument is well worth the visit largely because it allows you to observe authentic Navajo culture and history up close and in a beautiful setting.
The park lies within the Navajo tribal lands and is administered by a partnership between the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. Visiting the monument allows you not only to explore the area’s history, but also to see the community that still lives and farms within the walls of this spectacular canyon. Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continually inhabited places in the United States and the area is rich in history, some of which is captured in the ruins, rock art and artifacts you can see during your visit, and some of which is handed down through stories, such as the tale of Spider Woman who is said to live at the top of Spider Rock, a towering pinnacle that juts up from the canyon floor. To truly get the most from your visit, take a tour. You’ll not only see the monument’s magical sites, but hear its incredible history as well.
Petrified Forest National Park
Okay, once again our top ten list has spilled over to 11, but you don’t want to by pass by the Petrified Forest. Here you can wander around one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood, including logs that are more than 10 feet across at their base. Set in the middle of the multi-colored badlands of the Painted Desert, the park is an excellent place to spend half a day.