With five days of kid-free time on my hands while my teens were at sports camps in southern Colorado, I had a choice: Hang out in Colorado Springs, fly somewhere for a few nights, or head out on a road trip. I opted for the freedom of driving solo (no-one telling me my choice of music stinks!) across the state border to a city I’d never visited before: Albuquerque. My agenda was pretty simple: Exercise outdoors every day and overnight somewhere affordable, but nice.

In the end, I was glad I had a car to enjoy sights outside the city limits. The public-transportation system in Albuquerque isn’t terribly robust, so I think it’s key to have a car in this big city known worldwide for its October Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and its filming locale for the hit television series, “Breaking Bad.”

Home base during my stay in Albuquerque was the Hotel Parq Central. The hotel occupies a 1924 building that formerly housed the Santa Fe Hospital. Nods to the facility’s former life are everywhere, including window-box displays in the hallways that feature old elixir bottles, wallpaper in the Apothecary rooftop lounge showcasing pharmacy-bottle labels, and a doctor’s ledger dating to the 1920s that is used as a current-day guestbook (it was found in the wall during the multimillion-dollar renovation). Still more historic objects, including vintage hats, clocks, keys, and eyeglasses, plus train schedules and maps, can be found on display throughout the hotel. During my stay I was able to envision patients in the 1950s convalescing in the sunny atrium that now is used as a relaxation area.

  • Sandia Peak Tramway

  • Outdoor courtyard at Hotel Parq Central

  • Rooftop lounge at Hotel Parq Central

  • Living area in a one-bedroom suite at Hotel Parq Central

  • Doctor’s ledger turned guestbook at Hotel Parq Central

  • An enlarged historic postcard from the Santa Fe Hospital at Hotel Parq Central

  • Petroglyph Natinonal Monument

  • Petroglyph National Monument

That said, the vibe of the hotel isn’t sterile, but instead modern and comfortable. Rooms feature crisp and clean décor, with plenty of white accents. Hotel Parq Central is surprisingly moderately priced (under $200/night) for the amenities and inclusions such as an outdoor hot tub and complimentary WiFi. All guests also receive breakfast featuring homemade quiches, a wonderful array of pastries (including yummy sweet empanadas that are ubiquitous in the city), yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, and fruit.

From my downtown hotel it was a 20-minute drive northeast to the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which, between May and November, offers visitors access to 25 miles of hiking and biking trails. The 15-minute ride to the top of 10,378-foot Sandia Peak is entertaining in itself, as the tram carries you 2.7 miles from the desert floor through vast canyons to lush forests at the top. Trail signs are posted at the top, and you can ask for a paper map, though some of the loop options get a bit tricky. If you’re a first-time visitor, I’d suggest going out and back on the Crest Trail along the edge of a cliff; the hike is easy to follow and serves up great views of Albuquerque and the surrounding mountains.

Viewfinder Tip: If you’re biking on the weekend, ride the Paseo del Bosque Trail to Bike-In Coffee to fuel up on coffee, smoothies, soups, and salads, and to rest in a pretty garden.

Also during my stay in Albuquerque I drove to Old Town to meet up with the friendly folks at Routes Bicycle Tours & Rentals for a two-hour bike tour that covered part of the Paseo del Bosque Recreation Trail along the Rio Grande River. Our knowledgeable guide gave us an excellent overview of Albuquerque’s history and pointed out key sights as we cycled through parks, a couple of different neighborhoods, and by the zoo. This is a fantastic activity to do at the onset of your stay in Albuquerque to get the lay of the land. The company also offers more strenuous guided tours, as well as wine- and brewery-themed excursions and a “Biking Bad” tour that focuses on sights from the cult TV series.

Petroglyh National Monument is a 20-minute drive northwest of downtown Albuquerque. Here you’ll find a plethora of ancient rock art carved by Ancestral Puebloans between 400 and 700 years ago. There are no hiking trails that begin at the national monument’s main visitor center, so a car is imperative. Rangers stationed at the visitor center will recommend petroglyph viewing trails based on your hiking ability level and how much time you have. I opted for an out-and-back, fairly flat, and sandy trail in Piedras Marcadas Canyon, which means “canyon of marked rocks.” Surprisingly, the trail began behind a car wash and residential development, but after a short walk I found myself amidst a very high concentration of symbols carved into dark basalt rocks. The petroglyphs ranged from handprints to birds and horses to spirals and human figures—certainly more than I’ve ever seen in one place!

Finally, I took advantage of having wheels and took my time at Kashua-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque. Here, I opted to combine two trails—the 1.2-mile Cave Loop Trail, and the must-see-if-you-are-even-remotely-fit Slot Canyon Trail which covers two miles round-trip. I negotiated narrow passageways through curvy standstone and climbed a steep 630-foot stretch that involved some on-all-fours scrambling, but the effort was well worth the views of marvelous cone-shaped, tent-like rock formations (pictured at top) that were believed to have formed by volcanic eruptions 6 or 7 million years ago. I think this little-known national monument needs to be on the radar of anyone road-tripping through northern New Mexico because of its truly striking natural formations. After completing this moderate-to-difficult trail it’s impossible not to be wowed by these treasures of nature.

Thanks to Howard Johnson Hotels for sponsoring this post. Consider a Howard Johnson property when planning your next road trip.

What’s your favorite road-trip destination?