Usually I write these with other folk's trip planning in mind. The problem on this trip is that the reason we were there is that my wife had a conference in Santa Fe for a couple of days, and then we traveled around some, and then I had a conference in Santa Fe. So for the Santa Fe parts we spent a ton of time doing non-tourist stuff. So I'll just talk about what there is to do and not so much about how long it takes to do it.
Santa Fe is very old - there's a bunch of oldest this and second oldest that - suffice to say there are buildings from the 1600s. The layout is old fashioned - there's a central plaza and everything kind of revolves around that. There's lots of cool old stuff near the plaza, and the further away the more you get cheaper hotels and big box stores and so forth. So the first question is basically if you have money, you want to stay at the La Fonda which is right on the plaza and plan on dumping the car there and walking a lot. If you don't you want to stay down the road a few miles and plan on finding a parking garage near the plaza (there's one in the La Fonda!) every day, because 90% of what you're going to be interested in is in walking distance of the plaza. We actually did some of each because one conference was in the La Fonda and we got a great rate, and the other was out in the boonies.
Many folks basically come for the Opera and the art. Santa Fe is the second largest art market in the country (after New York) - there are at least 100 galleries. There are some art museums but most of what you're going to be doing is hitting galleries if you like art. If you go to the Gallery Association website and look by Genre it does a great job of letting you find things, or you can just poke along Canyon street where many of them are located.
In terms of museums, there's a cluster of them near the Plaza, a cluster on "Museum Hill" and the Georgia O'Keffee Museum. There's a four day pass that gets you into 5 museums which is worthwhile - all the museums on that pass were great. If you only had time to do two I'd do the folk art museum (on the pass) and the O'Keeffe (not on the pass). Note that next to the O'Keeffe is one of the best photography galleries in the country, owned by Andrew Smith (who has two in town - visit both).
There are some surprisingly good food carts in the plaza, incidentally, and often music so that's a great lunch spot. Good thing too, I ate there a bunch just because of my schedule and needing to grab something.
Night life? Does the opera count?
You'll probably be here even if it's only because that's where the airport is. As far as I can tell the Costcos there have the cheapest gas in the state. The petroglyphs nearby are worth a visit, and there's a great natural history museum and a decent aquarium.
Truth or Consequences
Just another place to stop and get lunch and some gas. We got some Blizzards at Dairy Queen and of course the receipt said "Dairy Queen of Truth or Consequences". Has a ring to it.
We were in Las Cruces because it makes a decent staging area to visit the White Sands National Monument although you could stay in Alamogordo as well (which has a cool space museum). But we needed some services (like a laundry!) and Las Cruces is a nice enough town and has a college which means decent late night laundry and some variety in the food and so forth.
White Sands is very cool, incidentally.
Very laid back park, you can even buy saucers in the gift shop so you can slide
down the dunes (in the part of the park where there's not even any vegetation).
Yeah, I know it's in Texas - I'm just pointing out that the best way to get from Las Cruces to Carlsbad is to dip down into Texas which means going through El Paso. We were going to eat lunch there but it looked unhygienic. Yes, the whole town. And I'd been eating out of a cart for four days running in Santa Fe - it's not like I'm that picky.
If there's some great part of town I didn't see I apologize. But if you just take direct route through town everything I saw was just nasty.
Note that if you're going to be in the area you should
have your passport in case you want to pop over the border. Always good to have
options. Although I just double checked how to spell Ciudad Juárez and
it turns out that in the past 10 years they've found 370 bodies of murdered young
women and 400 more are missing. Charming.
Carlsbad Caverns is extremely cool. It's been a bit neglected by the park service. Visits are down 30% (I think due to people flying more and roadtripping less - it's not really near anything but you might go near it if driving cross country). But they're finally replacing their 50 year old visitor center. Of course they'd just started so everything was operating out of temporary trailers, but it should be done by next summer (2008). Not only was the cave super cool - we spent days exploring it and going on guided tours - but everybody who worked for the park service was just wonderful. Best interpretive rangers I've run into in a long time.
We just got lunch there, but it's a nice enough
town. Lots of "Aliens Welcome!" signs on the businesses. Fun, and if
you want to buy a tacky t-shirt they're prepared to supply your every need.
Yep, back to Santa Fe again. The only thing to note here is that we'd been pretty lucky on weather the whole trip. Some thunderstorms in the distance and a bit while driving but not too bad. Well, the last couple of days it was beautiful every morning and we just got hammered every day from about 2-3 in the afternoon, then it cleared up again. The locals made calm references to the "monsoon season" which is apparently a normal July/August deal. They get most of their rain over about a six week period. Being from California it was like "Rain in July? Huh?" Anyway, bring an umbrella and just be prepared to wait it out.