A car is a basic necessity in New Mexico, as even the few cities are challenging to get around solely using public transportation. Distances are considerable, but you can make excellent time on long stretches of interstate and other four-lane highways with speed limits of up to 75 mph. If you wander off major thoroughfares, slow down. Speed limits here generally are only 55 mph, and for good reason. Many such roadways have no shoulders; on many twisting and turning mountain roads speed limits dip to 25 mph. For the most part, the scenery on rural highways makes the drive a form of sightseeing in itself.
Interstate 25 runs north from the state line at El Paso through Albuquerque and Santa Fe, then angles northeast into Colorado and up to Denver. Interstate 40 crosses the state from Arizona to Texas, intersecting with Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, from which it's an hour's drive to Santa Fe. Although it's a long drive from big cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago, a surprising number of visitors drive considerable distances to visit Santa Fe, which makes a great stop on a multiday road trip around the Four Corners region, or across the Southwest.
U.S. highways connect Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos with a number of key towns elsewhere in New Mexico and in neighboring states. Many of these U.S. highways, including large stretches of U.S. 285 and U.S. 550, have four lanes and high speed limits. You can make nearly as good time on these roads as you can on interstates. Throughout the region, you're likely to encounter some unpaved surface streets. Santa Fe has a higher percentage of dirt roads than any other state capital in the nation.
Morning and evening rush-hour traffic is light in Santa Fe. It can get a bit heavy in Albuquerque. Keep in mind that there are only a couple of main routes from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, so if you encounter an accident or some other obstacle, you can expect significant delays. It's a big reason to leave early and give yourself extra time when driving to Albuquerque to catch a plane.
Parking is plentiful and either free or inexpensive in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos. During the busy summer weekends, parking in Santa Fe's most popular neighborhoods—the Plaza, Canyon Road, and the Railyard District—can be a bit more challenging. There are pay lots both downtown and in the Railyard District.
Here are some common distances and approximate travel times between Santa Fe and several popular destinations, assuming no lengthy stops and averaging the 65 to 75 mph speed limits: Albuquerque is 65 miles and about an hour; Taos is 70 miles and 90 minutes; Denver is 400 miles and 6 hours; Phoenix is 480 miles and 7 to 8 hours; Las Vegas is 630 miles and 9 to 10 hours; Dallas is 650 miles and 10 to 11 hours, and Los Angeles is 850 miles and 12 to 14 hours.
Once you leave Santa Fe or other larger communities in the region, there's a lot of high, dry, lonesome country in New Mexico—it's possible to go 50 or 60 miles in some of the less-populated areas between gas stations. For a safe trip, keep your gas tank full. Self-service gas stations are the norm in New Mexico. The cost of unleaded gas in New Mexico is close to the U.S. average, but it's usually a bit higher in small out-of-the-way communities, and significantly cheaper on some Indian reservations—on the drive between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the gas stations just off Interstate 25 at Santo Domingo Pueblo (exit 259), San Felipe Pueblo (exit 252), and Sandia Pueblo (234) all have very low-priced gas.
All the major car-rental agencies are represented at Albuquerque's airport, and several of them have branches at Santa Fe airport (Avis and Hertz) or in downtown Santa Fe (Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz).
Rates at the airports in Albuquerque and Santa Fe can vary greatly depending on the season (the highest rates are usually in summer) but typically begin at around $25 a day and $150 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage.
If you want to explore the backcountry, consider renting an SUV, which will cost you about $40 to $60 per day and $200 to $400 per week, depending on the size of the SUV and the time of year. You can save money by renting at a nonairport location, as you then are able to avoid the hefty (roughly) 10% in extra taxes charged at airports.
Arroyos (dry washes or gullies) are bridged on major roads, but lesser roads often dip down through them. These can be a hazard during the rainy season, late June to early September. Even if it looks shallow, don't try to cross an arroyo filled with water. Wait a little while, and it will drain off almost as quickly as it filled. If you stall in a flooded arroyo, get out of the car and onto high ground if possible. In the backcountry, never drive (or walk) in a dry arroyo bed if the sky is dark anywhere in the vicinity. A sudden thunderstorm 15 miles away can send a raging flash flood down a wash in a matter of minutes.
Unless they are well graded and graveled, avoid unpaved roads in New Mexico when they are wet. The soil contains a lot of caliche, or clay, which gets slick when mixed with water. During winter storms roads may be shut down entirely; check with the State Highway Department for road conditions.
At certain times in fall, winter, and spring, New Mexico winds can be vicious for large vehicles like RVs. Driving conditions can be particularly treacherous in passages through foothills or mountains where wind gusts and ice are concentrated.
New Mexico has a high incidence of drunk driving and uninsured motorists. Factor in the state's high speed limits, many winding and steep roads, and eye-popping scenery, and you can see how important it is to drive as alertly and defensively as possible.
New Mexico Department of Transportation Road Advisory Hotline (800/432–4269. www.nmroads.com.)
In the event of a roadside emergency, call 911.