On the Road Trip

For Land Art and Design Obsessives: A Southwest U.S. Road Trip

by Team Fathom
John Chamberlain Building, 1983. Permanent collection, the Chianti Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chianti Foundation.

From our book, Travel North America (And Avoid Being a Tourist): An eccentric and illuminating desert mission.

THE SOUTHWEST, U.S. – The wide, wide open spaces, stark desert, and blue sky of the American Southwest made the perfect blank canvas for the land art movement of the 1970s. Far-out artists with madcap ambitions began producing site-specific earthworks on a monumental scale – using earth (and light, air, and water) as their medium. The remoteness equaled freedom for the artists, permanence for their work, and pilgrimages for art lovers everywhere.

Paranormal Beginnings and Concrete en Plein Air

A Southwestern art tour starts or ends in the Far West Texas town of Marfa, a unique community with a ghostly appeal and a thriving contemporary arts community. At dawn, head to the massive Chinati Foundation, the ambitious contemporary art center founded by the late artist Donald Judd, whose concrete cubes are set against a painted sky. Reserve a tour indoors or take a self-guided one outdoors. Drop into 1920s Mexican dance hall Ballroom Marfa, now a nonprofit space for contemporary art and culture and cultural events. Take a drive over to the large-scale outdoor Stone Circle by Haroon Mirza. Inspired by ancient megaliths, the solar-powered sculpture is set in the high desert grasslands east of Marfa. Marfa may be tiny, but the cool quotient is high. Visit Marfa is a solid resource with a nicely made directory of mobile kitchens, cafes, coffeeshops, food trucks, saloons, galleries, and boutiques.

Funky lodging befitting of a funky town include El Cosmico, which consists of teepees, safari tents, seasonal yurts, and beautifully restored 1950s-era trailers. You may want to stay put with a beer and a hot tub soak under the stars, but if you're up for a spook, head over to the Marfa Lights Viewing Station (9 miles/14 kilometers east of Marfa on Highway 90; lookout for the sign directing you to the official observation area) to catch the mysterious light show that has fascinated people for over a hundred years. Paranormal phenomenon or atmospheric reflections? You decide. For cushier accommodations, head to Cibolo Creek Ranch, one of the oldest ranches in Texas, with secluded forts and haciendas and fresh-squeezed lime-juice margaritas. The next morning, pile into the hotel's Humvee and head to the Chinati Mountains to find abandoned Texas Ranger houses at Fort Davis, Native American rock art, and panoramic vistas perched high above the ranch. It's back on the road. Drive north-west of Marfa, through Van Horn, to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Make a pit stop at the iconicPrada Marfa in the tiny settlement of Valentine. Head toVan Horn for the historic Hotel El Capitan, designed by acclaimed architect Henry Trost in 1930. Hike to Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Come autumn, McKittrick Canyon has the best fall foliage. If the stars align, attend a Star Party at McDonald Observatory.

Photo by Lizette Kabré / courtesy of Ballroom Marfa.
Artisan details around every corner (literally). Photo courtesy of Inn at Five Graces.

An Adobe, Onsen, and Art Collective

Wake up and drive through El Paso into New Mexico and stop at Old Mesilla, a cool little village of Southwestern hopes and dreams, five minutes from the city of Las Cruces. Rent an adobe. Find inspiration at a little bookstore called Mesilla Book Center, which specializes in the Southwest. Spend some time exploring Double Eagle, a former mansion-turned-bar-and-restaurant with checkerboard floors, oil paintings, and chandeliers. Fun fact: Billy the Kid was jailed here in 1881. Spend a day and camp overnight in the awe-inspiring gypsum dune fields of White Sands National Monument. Create some artwork of your own – it's a photographer's paradise. Vintage shop your way through Tularosa before heading to Japanese-inspired onsen Ten Thousand Waves for a relaxing soak, or The Inn of the Five Graces in Santa Fe for a colorful spa treatment and stay in a luxurious jewel-box-like guest room. The cool El Rey Court is an updated Pueblo Revival motel along the original Route 66, with a mezcal bar and great recommendations for the area. It's close to the galleries and antique shops in the Santa Fe Railyard Baca District and the interactive art collective Meow Wolf. Santa Fe Vintage Outpost, Shiprock Gallery, and Double Take are the best spots for vintage wares.

The art of home cooking. Photo courtesy of Rancho de Chimayo.

Outdoor Opera and a Desert Artist's Retreat

Spend a summer evening at the Santa Fe Opera, a state-of-the-art outdoor amphitheater with views of the Tesuque Valley. When you've had your fill of Santa Fe, take the mountainous, winding High Road to Taos. En route, make your way to the tiny, powerful shrine El Santuariode Chimayo, which was a sacred healing site of the Native Pueblo Indians long before the initial Spanish conquest of New Mexico. Stop by Rancho De Chimayo for comforting posole with shredded, slow-cooked pork. Feel like you're driving through a painting as you stop at small villages like Cordova (noted for its woodcarving), Truchas (the summit town), Las Trampas, and Peñasco. In Taos, pick up a hand-loomed rug at Starr Interiors; trinkets and decorative items at Taos General Store; and pottery, jewelry, and talismans from Taos Pueblo, a multi-storied adobe compound continually in use by the Red Willow Native American community for 1000 years. Book tickets in advance for a private tour of Abiquiú, the 18th-century, cliff-top adobe house that Georgia O'Keeffe lived in from 1949 until her death in 1986. Walk in her footsteps at Ghost Ranch retreat and education center and horseback ride some of the 21,000 acres (8498 hectares) of landscape inspiration.

Spend the night at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. In the early 1900s, this fascinating arts patron and connector flexed her esthetic and social impulses in Florence and New York City before falling in love with a Puebloan and settling in Taos, where she entertained famous photographers, writers, dancers, and artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Martha Graham. Rooms are quaint and charming with quilted bedspreads and kiva fireplaces. Spend the next morning with works from renowned Navajo painter and sculptor R.C. Gorman's namesake gallery. It's just a few minutes from painter (and Taos Society of Artists member) Ernest Blumenschein's home and museum.

Then drive down to Albuquerque to wander Old Town and Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. Spend an extremely relaxing evening at Los Poblanos, an inn and organic farm with lavender fields. It was designed in the early 1930s by the "Father of Santa Fe Style," New Mexico visionary architect and preservationist John Gaw Meem, who championed Regionalism over Modernism. Something like ten-percent of all hot air balloons in the U.S. are registered in Albuquerque, which has generally windless mornings. A soar would be an epic way to get your fill of fresh air before the flight home or to clear your head for the next leg of the trip.

A '70s experimental vision of what an ecologically minded town could be. Photo courtesy of Arcosanti.

Where Art and Architecture Obsessives Should Go From Here: Arizona

Make your way from Albuquerque, stopping in Gallup, gateway to the Navajo and Zuni trading posts, galleries, and historic districts. Flagstaff is a neat little mountain town with high altitude and a laidback attitude. Go forest bathing among the ponderosa pines, use it as a base to explore theGrand Canyon (choose Route 180 and be sure to pit stop at the Chapel of the Holy Dove), or work whatever connections you have to James Turrell, whose impossibly large Roden Crater installation has yet to open to the public.

The ambitious and radical urban development is where architecture meets environmentalism. It's one of the modern world's first attempts at creating a densely integrated, environmentally conscious, vertical urban living experience. Join an architecture tour or lecture and stop for lunch in the distinctive cafe.

Head down to the Valley of the Sun, , for a full-throttle dose of Frank Lloyd Wright (franklloydwright.org). Start with his remarkable home and avant-garde architecture school, Taliesin West. Then tour the Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Gammage Auditorium before sneaking peeks at a number of private homes.Absolutely carve out time for the Heard Museum, which has been advancing the wide-ranging work of Native American artists and tribal communities for ninety years.

Stop at the Center for Creative Photography, where the walls are lined with work from Adams to Zuzunaga. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a botanical garden, art gallery, natural history installation, and all-around ecological marvel.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.