Unless you live in New Mexico, a trip to Albuquerque is going to take a little time and a little money. Our family makes a 9-hour drive there every year and while the city has great paid attractions, our favorite activities are the ones that cost almost nothing. The kids have no idea they’re making vacation a breeze when they beg to go back to their favorite admission-free destinations.
New Mexico’s natural beauty is only minutes away no matter where you are in Albuquerque. The city has grown to surround Petroglyph National Monument where 4 trail systems wander past more than 800 native petroglyphs and through a volcanic rock field. The visitor center and trails are free with a $1-$2 parking fee at only one of the trailheads.
Hoping to protect the natural areas within the city, the Open Space Visitor Center has viewing areas for sandhill cranes, a garden showing the state’s irrigation history, and local nature artists. The Open Space maintains eight walking trails throughout the city and also offers free events. We first stopped there for a solar astronomy festival and fell in love with the easy outdoor exploration.
As with most large cities, Albuquerque’s zoo, aquarium, and botanical gardens are quite popular. What makes them unique are the outdoor nature spaces nearby that are completely free. Adjacent to the ABQ Biopark that houses the zoo, aquarium, and botanical gardens is Tingley Beach. This is a perfect free place to pack a picnic and spend the day outside. Feed the geese lingering near the ponds, walk or bike a ways on a paved trail and try your luck at fishing. Children under 12 fish free without a fishing license.
Albuquerque is a city full of world-class museums! The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology exhibits include cultures from around the world, and include a special focus on southwestern artifacts. There is no admission fee and a small fee for regularly scheduled demonstrations like Indian Bread Baking. The Geology Museum on the UNM campus is also free to the public.
The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum also offer periodic free days.
Our kids usually only have the patience for one museum before they need to get back to doing something more kid-centric. We’ve discovered that the Bernalillo public libraries provide respite from the heat of mid-day New Mexico sun while still keeping the kids peaceful and engaged. Depending on the day and time, you can find Lego play hours, family craft activities, movies, story times, and concerts. The Special Collections library is a historic landmark the whole family can tour on Thursday afternoons.
In the same way that the kids are unaware their favorite Albuquerque activities are cheap, it also means little to them that Mom’s favorites are the ones that bring relaxation in the middle of a busy vacation. After several days of running from one place to another I always plan an afternoon with no agenda and no schedule to keep. These are the places we go when it’s time for everyone in the family to wind down:
The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive on the backside of the Sandia Mountains. Follow the signs to Sandia Crest for a birds-eye view of the entire valley below. There is a small gift shop and cafe, as well as hiking trails at the top. The parking is $1/vehicle as opposed to spending a chunk of the vacation budget on riding the tram to nearly the same location. Continuing on, the Turquoise Trail passes through some of New Mexico’s trendiest small towns and brings you around to Santa Fe.
Strolling through Historic Old Town is another slow way to experience the culture of the area. You will get a feel for what life has been like in the American southwest for hundreds of years. There are often sidewalk vendors selling handmade items to look at and the gazebo in the central square is a fun place for the kids to run off some energy. Nearby the kids can also run free at Tiquez Park. Located across the street from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Tiguez has a large playground and also an exercise circuit with equipment creatively implemented along the walking path.
Nob Hill is a slightly newer historic district situated along the original Route 66. Renewed as a shopping, art, and restaurant district, watch for the retro neon signs, gaze through some windows, and find a quiet spot to do some interesting people watching.
Visiting Albuquerque is worth the time and money it takes to get there. Adding this list of free (or nearly free) activities to your itinerary will surely guarantee a memorable vacation for the entire family!