From Exit 323 off I-25, Highway 3 is a beautiful drive south. The two-lane road runs through a narrow valley that’s a beautiful change of scenery from the mountains, with rich red earth cut into small farm plots. Villages such as Ribera and El Pueblo were founded in the late 18th century, after the establishment of the San Miguel del Vado land grant in this valley. Named for a ford (vado) on the Pecos River, this area later became the official customs point for caravans entering Mexican territory via theSanta Fe Trail.
You’ll also pass La Risa Café (Hwy. 3, 575/421-3883, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.), where the sunny patio is a popular stop for locals and day trippers to enjoy spicy New Mexican food, and the tiny, family-run Madison Winery (Hwy. 3, 575/421-8028, noon–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun. in summer), between El Pueblo and Sena.
Villanueva, centered on its own historic church, is the largest settlement along the road; it has a small general store that stocks supplies for people using the nearby campground.
The small but beautiful Villanueva State Park (575/421-2957, $5/car) occupies a bend in the Pecos River against 400-foot-tall sandstone cliffs. Because the parkland is small, it doesn’t draw big crowds—even in the summer, it’s busy only on the weekends. During the week, you’ll probably have the 2.5-mile Canyon Trail to yourself, and the choice of camping ($8) either on the cottonwood-shaded river bottom or up on the canyon rim amid juniper and piñon; the riverside sites are near flush toilets and a shower. The river is stocked with trout and can be deep enough for canoeing. Spring comes early in the river valley, making for flower-filled paths by late April; fall is a burst of red scrub oak and yellow cottonwood leaves, in sharp contrast to the evergreens.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition