Downtown Santa Fe is enough New Mexico for some people. But in between gallery crawling, jewelry browsing and pepper tasting, you might like some elbow room. Some open country. If so, head north on U.S. 84. The tab: $160 for a night at the Old Santa Fe Inn, $22 for lunch at the Flying Star Cafe and $40 for a tank of gas.
The Old Santa Fe Inn (320 Galisteo St.;  745-9910, www.oldsantafeinn.com; rooms for two usually $160-$260) must have been a cheap motel once. But now it’s about as upscale as a motel-shaped property can go, with stylish bedrooms, thoughtful service, a generous free breakfast (free Wi-Fi and parking too) and a location just four blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza. Many of the 43 rooms have kiva-style fireplaces. All this and the convenience of motel-style courtyard parking too.
Eat like a local
The Flying Star Café (500 Market St.,  216-3939, www.flyingstarcafe.com. Main dishes typically $8-$13) is a great lunch refuge. It’s not fancy, not dripping in Southwestern style and not on the plaza. But this café, part of a New Mexico chain, is big and family-friendly, serves breakfast all day and stands in the emergent Railyard District, where it attracts a lot of locals. Also, my chicken pot pie was perfect.
On with the journey
U.S. 84 is a great drive that covers 151 miles between Santa Fe and its western terminus, Pagosa Springs, Colo. (It also goes east to Georgia, but I stuck with its western end.)
About 50 miles north of Santa Fe, you reach Abiquiu, where the late Georgia O’Keeffe’s home studio can be toured by appointment ($35-$100 per adult; www.okeeffemuseum.org).
Then comes a startling amount of water: Lake Abiquiu, a reservoir surrounded by red-rock aridity, maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, open to boaters, kayakers and anglers. When I walked down by the boat ramp, I found a lone fisherman — a FedEx guy at water’s edge, rod in hand, his delivery truck parked in the lot. It looked as if he were in absolutely, positively no hurry. Good for him.
After the lake, you spend a few miles alongside the Chama River, its banks lined by cottonwoods, and pass the gate of Ghost Ranch, another O’Keeffe haunt, now a 21,000-acre retreat center (www.ghostranch.org). Day hikers are welcome.
About 100 miles north of Santa Fe, you reach the town of Chama, home to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (www.cumbrestoltec.com), a coal-powered, narrow-gauge train born in the 1880s. It runs May through September on day trips to Osier, Colo., and other nearby sites.
From Chama, it’s a short hop to the Colorado line and then to Pagosa Springs (population: about 1,700), where I would have tried a soak at the Springs Resort if I’d had more time.
If you catch this highway on the right day, it could put you into a road-trip trance. You won’t want to pull off the highway, and you’ll begin to think everything is beautiful — red barns, green barns, roofless barns, livestock, cotton-candy clouds, even a crow nibbling at road kill.