Long weekends are rare; usually we're just left with two adjacent days. So here are a few trips you can do in two days and one night and still feel like you kinda took a vacation. Plus, we've suggested three locations you probably haven't considered—and they're often thrilled to get tourists coming through. (When's the last time a shopkeep in Aspen actually acted happy to see you?)
And yes, these places are a few hours away—we know. For best results, you should be the kind of person who considers the drive part of the adventure. Bring snacks, bring good tunes, bring a companion if you have one, bring a camera and stop to dawdle if you see something cool along the way.
WEST: GALLUP, NEW MEXICO
The first thing everyone said when I said I was headed to Gallup was, "Go see the El Rancho Hotel! But don't stay there. It's too expensive."
I'm great at following directions, so I visited the historic hotel (1000 E Hwy. 66, 505-863-9311), sat in the cushy leather chairs, admired the autographed pictures of movie stars who have stayed there and pretended I was fancy. When I stopped to chat with the front desk, however, I learned that new management has plunged the prices; rooms (which are named after aforementioned movie stars, from Judy Garland to Errol Flynn to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite) start at just $80 and top out at $175 for a suite. Aforementioned skeptical folks tell me you used to have to shell out at least $200 to sleep there. The hallways are funky and brick-walled, but the rooms are airy and comfortable and you couldn't ask for a friendlier staff, from check-in to housekeeping—plus, they have karaoke in the bar on Saturday nights. Definitely make the El Rancho your home base.
For brunch, it's Earl's (1400 E Hwy. 66, 505-863-4201). Your meal will probably be under $10, but bring plenty of cash to get exquisite Navajo jewelry from artisans who visit table to table. It's like the Palace of the Governors portal, but with scrambled eggs. (The jewelers are super polite, so don't worry about being interrupted.)
Downtown Gallup is infamously home to historic pawn shops, but I really liked Makeshift Gallery (213 W Coal Ave.) for locally made art, candles, soap and trinkets by Native and non-Native artists. Close by are unique gallery exhibits at 123ART (123 W Coal Ave., 505-488-2136), as well as a damn fine cup of coffee at the trendy but friendly Gallup Coffee Company (203 W Coal Ave., 505-410-2505). If you need new boots or a hat, the City Electric Shoe Shop (230 W Coal Ave., 505-863-5252) has every size, shape and color to choose from, and low prices too.
Recommended downtown highlights include the Rex Museum (220 W Hwy. 66, 505-863-1363) and the Gallup Cultural Center (201 E Hwy. 66, 505-863-4131)—but they're only open Monday through Friday, so I was thwarted on my weekend visit.
For day two, I couldn't decide what to recommend, so take your pick: You could climb Mount Taylor north of Grants, accessible via Forest Road 193. Despite being one of the highest peaks in New Mexico, it's a pretty easy hike. You could also head down to El Malpais National Monument south of Grants to hike some cairned trails or go caving in lava tubes.
My favorite option, though, might be heading 45 miles south of Gallup on Highway 602 to Zuni. About 80 percent of Zuni Pueblo's residents are working artisans, and the visitor's center (1239 Hwy. 53, 505-782-7239) can recommend local shops or hook you up with home studio visits. You can also visit the historic sections of the Pueblo with a guide for $20-$85 per person, but be sure to schedule a tour through the visitor's center and don't explore on your own—it's proper etiquette.
EAST: AMARILLO, TEXAS
This city of about 200,000 splatted on some of the flattest land in the world has a gritty reputation—but turns out it's full of adventure.
My first stop was the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, on the campus of West Texas A&M (2401 Fourth Ave., Canyon, 806-651-2244). The institution had the audacity to open in the heart of Dust Bowl country in 1933, and has been punching up ever since.
Exhibits span geology to dinosaurs to Indigenous tribes to farming to oil extraction (I particularly liked the windmill room, which is exactly what it sounds like). There's also a large Pioneer Village with a saloon, newspaper shop, saddlery and more, with ambient sound installations triggered by movement as you walk through. Plan on two to three hours for just the first floor—and there's a whole second floor of art, depending on your stamina. It's the best $12.50 you'll spend in this story.
Another must-see is Palo Duro Canyon State Park (11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, 806-488-2227). It's the second-largest canyon in the United States, and considerably more accessible than its Grand cousin. In addition to being a mountain biker's dream, there is lots of Indigenous and New Deal history to learn, winter camping, easy hikes to red rock formations and one-room stone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the '30s that you can rent by the night. I think winter is the best time to visit; the heat and crowds of summer would be too intense. Adult admission is only $5, and stop by the gift shop for a massive selection of regional history books.
Don't laugh: Eat at the Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 I-40 Access Road, 806-372-6000). Yes, the place with the "Free 72-Ounce Steak" billboards. While the tourist trap-arcade-sideshow-gift-shop-rest stop-restaurant-motel could easily rely on its kitsch alone to get by, the steaks are actually amazing, servers are friendly and there are wandering troubadours that go table-to-table to sing your requests (preferably Hank Williams or Johnny Cash).
The 806 coffee shop (2812 SW Sixth Ave., 806-322-1806), a punk-rock mainstay with tattoo flash for wall art, will take care of you from morning 'til night. Just don't ask for sweet tea. Get lunch at Calico County (2410 Paramount Blvd., 806-358-7664), where the homestyle servings are as big as your head (the catfish is clutch)—but if it's Sunday, go later to avoid the post-church rush. Coyote Bluff Café (2417 S Grand St., 806-373-4640; closed Sunday and Monday) is known for its burgers, kind of Amarillo's answer to Bobcat Bite (RIP).
Important considerations: Texas is one hour ahead, in Central Time, so you'll lose an hour on your way there. Many Amarillo businesses are closed on Sundays, so always check first (everything mentioned here is open seven days, except Coyote Bluff). And someone, somewhere, will definitely tell you to have a blessed day.
NORTH: PUEBLO, COLORADO
We've all sped through that roller-coaster section of I-25 that curves back and forth on the way north. This time, take an exit.
Leave early enough and you'll hit Pueblo just in time for a pre-lunch stroll along the winter-sleepy Arkansas Riverwalk. Pueblo's only at about 4,500 feet, so if it's sunny, a January day could be warm enough for a T-shirt. Perpendicular Union Avenue has local shops and towering antique stores in fantastic old turn-of-the-century buildings. Check out the historic district around the absolutely massive Pueblo County Courthouse (215 W 10th St.) for more historic edifices. There are a ton of multi-use trails and open spaces all around Pueblo; the interactive map at the city's website makes planning easy.
You can find some of Colorado's best Italian food in Pueblo: La Forchetta da Massi (126 S Union Ave., 719-253-0126) has earned fans all over the country. They're only open for dinner, but most dishes are less than $20 so it won't break the bank. After you eat, if you're a dive bar fan, Smitty's Greenlight Tavern (227 N Santa Fe Ave., 719-543-2747) is about as charmingly divey as it gets and often has live music. It's nextdoor to Shamrock Brewing (108 W Third St., 719-542-9974) and its reliable pub fare.
On day two, head to Bishop Castle (12705 Hwy. 165, Rye, 719-564-4366). Don't let the slick website fool you—this is like if your childhood playground was suddenly 16 stories tall, made of concrete, had exposed rebar jutting out all over the place, and asked you to sign a wrinkled notebook as a waiver before you went in to play.
Apparently, in the '70s, an eccentric dude named Jim Bishop started building a castle—and just didn't stop. Today, it's full of tiny passageways, a grand ballroom, an iron sphere in the sky that you can climb up into, and tattered caution tape around areas in need of repair (like an elevator shaft with no elevator). On a beautiful weekend day, it may be teeming, but there are enough crannies to explore that it doesn't really matter.
The road to Rye is gorgeous but mountainous, so take heed if it's snowed recently. If all looks clear, Bishop Castle is only about 50 miles and 50 minutes (and 4,500 vertical feet) from downtown Pueblo. Just bundle up and wear sturdy shoes.
Coming or going, hit the Raton Pass Motor Inn (308 Canyon Drive, Raton, 575-445-3641). Even if you don't stay the night, visit with the fantastically friendly owners Laurie Bunker and Jason Bennett, tour the weird vintage-style themed rooms (we like the Matador and the Man Cave), and get recommendations for local stuff to do—but budget some time. Before I knew it, two hours had passed in the kitschy lobby, chatting and planning my next one-night stand.