Western New Mexico is among the most beautiful places on the planet. South of I-40 and Route 66, one of the best drives through it, Hwy-53, loops between Gallup and Grants across the Zuni and Navajo Nation Indian Reservations. Hwy-53 skirts the southern foothills of the more than 9,000-foot Zuni Mountains, along the edge of the massive El Malpais lava flow—thousands of acres of pitch-black, concrete-hard, glassy sharp rock sliced and diced by lava tubes and collapsing craters. Formed between 10,000 and 115,000 years ago, most of the Malpais is wild and undeveloped, but on the slopes of Bandera Volcano, you can tour the privately run Ice Cave (888/423-2283, daily, $12), where the cool temperatures are very welcome on a hot summer’s day.
West from El Malpais, the route follows ancient Native American trails that Coronado used on his ill-fated 1540 explorations, winding past piñon-covered hills, open grasslands, and the fascinating graffiti collection of El Morro National Monument. Better known as Inscription Rock, the 200-foot-high sandstone cliffs of El Morro have been inscribed by travelers like Juan de Oñate, who wrote his name with a flourish in 1605, after he “discovered” the Gulf of California.
Atop the cliffs are the partially excavated remains of a small pueblo dating from around AD 1200. A two-mile loop trail to the inscriptions and the ruins starts from a small visitors center (505/783-4226, ext. 801, daily, free), where exhibits outline the history of the site. The trails are closed an hour before sunset, so get here early enough in the day to enjoy the beautiful scenery. There is also a small campground (no showers, pit toilets) amid the junipers.
Southwest of Inscription Rock, animal lovers may want to visit the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (505/775-3304, Tues.-Sun., $10), where over three dozen wolves and wolf-dogs live on a 100-year-old moonshiner’s ranch.