Five Enchanted Days in New Mexico

Last February, we set off on a five-day road trip through the Land of Enchantment. While the highlights of our trip were the alien-crazed town of Roswell and the lunar-like magnificence of White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, we found many other historical, quirky, and kitschy roadside attractions. One of the reasons that we love to frequently visit New Mexico is the many back roads with their weathered and abandoned remains that provide a glimpse of the past and the heyday of American road trips.

Day 1: From Red Dawn to Green Men

Calumet Says Howdy- Las Vegas
Everyone is familiar with Las Vegas, city of neon lights and excess, but did you know there is another one? Welcome to Las Vegas, NM, where we began our Enchanted Tin Sheets trip. Las Vegas is a surprisingly cool town with a traditional plaza, cute neighborhood parks, and blocks of interesting buildings. It also happens to be the filming location for most of the movie, Red Dawn (the 1984 version), and although the film took place in the fictional town of Calumet, Colorado, it was filmed here and the ‘Calumet Says Howdy’ sign seen in the movie still exists on the side of an antique store.

Castañeda Hotel- Las Vegas
Before there was Howard Johnson and Ray Kroc, there was Fred Harvey. For nearly 100 years, his Harvey Houses, the nation’s first restaurant chain, served passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. At its peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses, from Kansas to Los Angeles, some of which were full-service hotels, while others were just a lunchroom. Regardless of where passengers stopped, they knew exactly what to expect- quality food and impeccable service from his Harvey Girls (if you love old musicals, check out the Judy Garland movie from 1946). As travel transitioned from train to automobile, the Harvey Houses became obsolete and the Fred Harvey Company was eventually sold in 1968, the true end of an era. Sadly, most Harvey Houses did not survive, though there are, thankfully, a few gems that remain. The Castañeda Hotel, Fred Harvey’s first trackside hotel, opened in 1898, serving celebrities, politicians, and even hosting the first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in 1899. Closed in 1948, it fell into a state of disrepair until being purchased by the same couple the brought new life to La Posada, a gorgeously redone Harvey House in Winslow, AZ. Located along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route, the hotel was under construction when we visited, but officially reopened on April 1, 2019, providing lodging to guests for the first time in 70 years. We can’t wait to head back down to Las Vegas to stay and experience this true piece of American history!

Blake’s Lotaburger- Las Vegas and throughout New Mexico
A staple of dining in New Mexico, Blake’s Lotaburger has been serving tasty burgers, shakes, and breakfast burritos to locals and visitors since 1952. With more than 70 locations, most of which are in the Land of Enchantment, it’s hard to miss a Lotaburger when traveling throughout the state. Named the “World’s Best Green Chile Cheeseburger” by National Geographic and the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger in New Mexico” by USA Today, a stop at Lotaburger was the perfect way to begin our Ultimate Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown. Without getting into the drool-inducing details (check those out here), we can say that the winner of the smackdown was Blake’s and we frequently consider driving the three-and-a-half hours from home to get another one.

Original Alignment of Route 66- Dilia
Before Route 66 traveled along much of the same route as today’s Interstate 40, the original 1926-1937 alignment took it north from Santa Rosa to Santa Fe. Since it was retired from its Route 66 service so early into the Mother Road’s existence, there aren’t many roadside stops and sights to see on this stretch; however, a few still remain. About 20 miles north of Santa Rosa lies the tiny farming town of Dilia. It seems that Dilia was never really a booming metropolis, as it didn’t even appear on a 1927 road map, but it clearly had enough visitors at one time to support the once (and still) ubiquitous roadside ice cream stop.

The Crossroads of New Mexico- Vaughn
Home to the intersection of three US Highways- 54, 60, and 285, Vaughn proclaims itself the “Crossroads of New Mexico”. Before it was the home of crossing roads, it was the only location in New Mexico where two major railroads crossed. At one time home to a Harvey House, Vaughn received national attention in 2012 when the chief of police resigned due to a felony conviction in Texas, leaving the only “clean” cop in town, a drug-sniffing dog, named Nikka. Now home to a few hundred people, just a few motels and restaurants survive amidst the abandoned buildings and weathered neon signs indicative of better times.

The end of our first day brought us to the Best Western El Rancho Palacio in Roswell. Roomy and quiet, we enjoyed a very tasty piece of apple pastry that we had picked up at Charlie’s Spic and Span in Las Vegas, before settling in to rest for the big day to come.

Day 2: Otherworldly Experiences

Little Green Men- Roswell
Our second day began in Roswell, desert outpost of all things alien. Home of a supposed UFO crash that occurred in a local sheep pasture in 1947, Roswell has done a fantastic job of embracing their claim to fame. Aliens and UFOs are everywhere (fake…or so we’ve been led to believe)- from the McDonalds shaped like a flying saucer to the alien streetlights to the giant alien statues in motel parking lots. One of the most obvious signs that you are in the last of little green men is the giant spaceship atop the Welcome to Roswell sign. After seeing the cows being abducted on the sign, Finley let us take a picture, but only if we did it quickly so that he could avoid capture.

International UFO Museum & Research Center- Roswell
Created to educate the public about “The Roswell Incident”, the International UFO Museum & Research Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization housed in an old movie theater filled with all types of alien-related miscellany. The $5 admission fee gives you access to a number of exhibits, including information about the “Incident”, Area 51, and crop circles; life-sized displays of some aliens with their ship and others enclosed in glass cases, and much more. The museum is dog-friendly, so you can take your time checking out the exhibits and get some fun photos, in which hopefully your furry friend will look a little less freaked out than Finley did.

Young Guns and Cattle Wars- Lincoln County
We all have those movies that we can watch over and over again. For Jen, in college, one of those was Young Guns with its Brat Pack-heavy cast and entertaining depiction of a real-life event, the Lincoln County War. Arising from a struggle for control over the sale of dry goods and cattle interest, in what was at the time the largest county in the nation, the Lincoln County War may have gone down as just another conflict in the Old West; but the involvement of famous young gunslinger and outlaw, Billy the Kid, made it famous. Having been such an avid watcher of Young Guns, imagine how excited we were to stumble across the town of Lincoln, in southeast New Mexico, with many of its original buildings still intact and preserved. Throughout town there are seven museums and a small fee gets you access to all of them. If you prefer to just enjoy a nice walk (or if you have your furry co-pilot in tow), you can walk along the highway and on the old boardwalks, like Jay and Finley did in front of the Tunstall Store. A beautiful and interesting glimpse into history…and a great excuse to go home and watch Young Guns.

World’s Largest Pistachio- Alamogordo
A few miles north of Alamogordo, at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, stands a 30-foot tall pistachio. Just as businesses used to back in the day of the family road trip, the World’s Largest Pistachio was built as a way to attract passing motorists. In addition to the super-sized nut, there is a gift shop on site selling everything pistachio- from lemon lime and green chile pistachios to Pistachio wine to chocolate covered pistachio brittle; as well as other locally made gourmet foods and gifts. Definitely grab a snack or a bottle of wine; but most importantly, don’t miss this nutty photo op!

Hi D Ho Drive In- Alamogordo
As lovers of Americana, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop at a real drive-in for our second green chile cheeseburger. The Hi-D-Ho in Alamogordo has been in business since 1952 and been voted the “Best Cheeseburger in Otero County” for more than 20 years. Famous for their Tiger Burger, the food is made-to-order and definitely worth the wait. So that we could add another sample to our Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, we each opted for a regular burger with added cheese and green chiles, that was a seriously tasty contender.

White Sands National Monument- Alamogordo
One of the coolest places we’ve ever been, no words or pictures can possibly describe the amazing beauty and solitude that is White Sands National Monument. The world’s largest gypsum dune field, the desert of White Sands covers 275 square miles and we imagine feels like walking around on the moon (ignoring the whole atmosphere and gravity thing).

Our visit to White Sands began later in the day because we’d read that sunset at the dunes was an experience not to be missed. We walked across dune after dune and saw nothing but white waves of sand and the occasional person off in the distance. Up close, the sand looked surprisingly like heavy, wet spring snow and we kept expecting to be cold, but the weather was beautiful, warm and a bit windy. We enjoyed the views, but no one had as much fun as Finley. Of all the places we’ve traveled to and all of the adventures that Finley has had, we have never seen him as excited to be somewhere as White Sands. He ran around squeaking and bounding for hours, and even after we settled down to watch the sunset, he still could hardly contain himself.

If you visit White Sands, we suggest packing a meal to enjoy under one of the funky picnic shelters and plan to spend a few hours exploring the dunes- you won’t be able to wipe the smile from your face. Definitely be sure to stay for the sunset (pack a coat- the temperature dropped 20+ degrees while we were there), it was in a word, stunning. Our visit was one that we’ll remember forever, both for the experience and because we took what may be our most favorite Finley picture ever.

A 45-minute drive to the south of White Sands, we spent our second and third nights in Las Cruces at the Best Western Mission Inn. Not only was our room was huge, but the motel had a Southwestern Mid-Century look that appealed to our roadside motor court-loving side.

Day 3: Chiles, Chiles Everywhere

World’s Largest Chile- Las Cruces
Whatever your preference, it’s no secret that New Mexico is known for its chiles, so it’s fitting that you can find the World’s Largest Chile Pepper in Las Cruces. Located in the parking lot of the Big Chili Inn, the 47-foot long, 2 1/2 ton concrete chile was built to attract customers and quirky roadside attraction seekers. Based on his expression, it’s also a way to torture your dog by forcing him to pose in front of another “World’s Largest” statue (not to worry, Finley was well compensated for his work).

Mid-Century Motels- Las Cruces
Appropriately named for its proximity to the amazingly awesome White Sands National Monument, the Sands Motel in Las Cruces, NM, appears to have seen better days. Built in 1943, the sign is most likely from the 1950s and once boasted “Color TV” and a “Pool”, that we assume is no longer there since that part of the sign has been painted over. We weren’t able to find any other information about the motel’s history but love the stars and wonder what stories the rooms would tell, if they could talk.

The Town House Motel is located along the mid-century motel-lined (both open and closed) Picacho Avenue in Las Cruces, NM. Still open, though sadly its pool is now filled in with dirt, the sign appears to be from the 1950s/1960s and seems to relatively well cared for, receiving a new coat of paint as recently as 2012.

Hatch
Although it is a little town, Hatch has a big reputation as the “Chile Capital of the World”. Home of the world-renowned Hatch Chiles, the annual chile festival brings more than 30,000 people to town looking to immerse themselves in all things chile.

Our visit in February found us in a sleepy town with only a handful for businesses open. We were really looking forward to trying the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger” in New Mexico at Sparky’s Burgers & BBQ, but we happened to visit on a day they were closed. However, we weren’t totally disappointed as Sparky’s had a number of kitschy roadside photo ops. The owners have created their own roadside attraction with Teako’s Giants of Hatch, which include a giant Uncle Sam holding a chile, a robot, a pig, Robin Hood, Yogi Bear, a giant tub of KFC with a red and green chile wedding topper, and many more. Just up the road is a Muffler Man holding a tiny RV and an old Dairy Queen that has a whole lot of quirky going on- we’re not sure what the intent of the attraction is, but we like it.

Day 4: US Highway 60- Skies and Pies

Very Large Array- Datil
Finley Phone Home. Located about 50 miles west of Socorro is the Very Large Array (VLA). The VLA is home to twenty-seven radio telescopes (which starred in the movie, Contact, among others) that are distributed along three arms, each 13 miles long. The 25-meter diameter telescopes have been used by astronomers to observe black holes, quasars, pulsars, the sun, planets, and more. A self-guided walking tour allows you to learn about the VLA and walk right up to one of the telescopes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch it be repositioned, like we did! A little out of the way, but well worth the drive along beautiful and historic US 60.

Pie Town
If you continue west on US Highway 60 from the Very Large Array, it won’t be long before you find yourself in Pie Town. Named for a bakery located here in the 1920s, which was famous for its dried apple pies, a visit to Pie Town is a step back in time. During the busier seasons, you have your choice of three restaurants from which to enjoy a pie; but during the time of year we visited (early February) just one is open, The Gathering Place, which was warm and cozy, with the smell of freshly baked pies providing a welcome greeting. This town takes its claim to fame seriously, from the Pie Crossing and Pie Zone signs to an annual Pie Festival held each September. It’s definitely out of the way, but well worth it for the pie and the beautiful, peaceful drive.

After leaving Pie Town, we found ourselves without a paper map (which is inexcusable) and no service for GPS, so we headed north on Pie Town Road and hoped that we’d eventually reach I-40. Thankfully, we did and along the way were unexpectedly treated to a beautiful drive through remote New Mexico ranch country and alongside the edge of El Malpais National Monument.

Once reaching I-40, we headed towards Albuquerque to spend a night at one of our favorite hotels, the Hotel Parq Central. Once home to a hospital for employees of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the building was renovated into a beautiful and welcoming hotel in 2010. We always love an excuse stay here and it earns major bonus points for being dog-friendly and on Route 66! Check out a review from one of our previous stays in our Enchanted Travels: Route 66 in New Mexico post.

Day 5: Scenes from Yesteryear

Sears Kit Home- Estancia
It’s no secret that we love taking pictures of old structures, but we were particularly excited to come across this house near Estancia. The spooky remnants of a Sears Catalog kit home built in the 1920s, it played a starring role in one of our most favorite TV mini-series, The Lost Room. With only six episodes, it was cancelled much too soon, but we find ourselves just as enthralled by those few episodes every time we watch it.

Espanola
Recently demolished, nothing remains of the Arrow Motel in Española, NM, but this very cool sign (which also serves as a nice landing place for birds). Research tells us that the sign is most likely from the 1950s, but we can’t seem to find much else about its history. For now, the city has placed the sign behind fencing to preserve it until its future can be determined. Fingers crossed that it will be saved and lit again.

Española is also home to a liquor store/bar with one of the coolest signs ever, Saints and Sinners. We’ve never had the opportunity to stop in, as we always seem to pass through early in the morning, but that doesn’t keep us from taking a picture of the sign every time we pass through town.

The final night of our Enchanted Tin Sheets trip was spent at the Inn on the Alameda in Santa Fe. We stayed in a Santa Fe Suite, a huge casita-style room with a fireplace and private entrance with an outdoor patio. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t conducive to sitting outside, so we walked the two blocks to the Plaza and found a bottle of wine from La Casa Sena Wine Shop, which we enjoyed in front of the fire with our dinner from La Choza and divinely decadent piñon and red chile caramels from Kakawa Chocolate.

It’s hard to imagine having a favorite Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe and believe us that it wasn’t an easy task to choose one, but it was certainly a fun one. After much research over many visits throughout the last decade, we’ve chosen a winner, La Choza. Warm, friendly, and with a dog-friendly patio, we always make sure to have a meal at La Choza whenever we come to town. While our standard order from La Choza is the Carne Adovada (which of course we ordered), we decided that trying a green chile cheeseburger from our favorite Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe would serve perfectly as a starter course and be another candidate for the Cheeseburger Smackdown. The simplicity of this burger was its winning virtue, not over-complicated or over-dressed, the flavors of each component were evident and worked in harmony to create a tasty burger that didn’t win the smackdown, but may have to become our new “appetizer” on future visits to La Choza. 

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