The best introduction to Socorro is a walking tour of the historic district. A brochure with a map and guidebook, available at the chamber of commerce on the plaza, where the tour begins, points out several historic buildings, many on the National Register of Historic Places.
You'll definitely want to check out the old Val Verde Hotel. The horseshoe-shaped Val Verde, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1919 in California Mission style. It's been converted to apartments. Another interesting spot is the Fullingim-Isenhour-Leard Gallery, 113-C W. Abeyta St., just off the plaza, (tel. 575/835-4487; www.figalleries.com). In a historic building, four artists share their bronze-work, paintings, and etchings. If you're craving a cappuccino or latte while in Socorro, head to the Manzanares Coffee House, 110 Manzanares St. (tel. 575/838-0809). As well as coffee drinks, the shop offers good sandwiches on foccacia bread, salads, and house-made gelato and sorbet. It's also a wireless Internet zone.
Cruising the Royal Road -- As you skim across the open desert on Interstate 25, take heart in knowing that you're following an ancient route: El Camino Real, or the Royal Road that ran from Mexico to San Juan Pueblo north of Santa Fe. It's older than recorded history, traveled first by indigenous people. Later the Spaniards, beginning with Juan de Oñate in 1598, made their way north on it, seeking adventure and prosperity. They brought herds of horses and cattle, flocks of sheep and goats, and, most transformative, Catholicism. In subsequent centuries it continued to be the main road for travelers and traders carrying goods and ideas. Eventually it connected up with the Santa Fe Trail, which was the east-west route from Missouri. To find out more about this route, visit the El Camino Real International Heritage Center. See below for details.
South of Socorro -- The village of San Antonio, the boyhood home of Conrad Hilton, is 10 miles from Socorro via I-25. During the financial panic of 1907, his merchant father, Augustus Hilton, converted part of his store into a rooming house. This gave Conrad his first exposure to the hospitality industry, and he went on to worldwide fame as a hotelier. Only ruins of the store/boardinghouse remain.
West of Socorro -- US 60, running west to Arizona, is the avenue to several points of interest. Magdalena, 27 miles from Socorro, is a mining and ranching town that preserves an 1880s Old West spirit. In mid-November, this little town holds its Fall Festival, which includes a variety of studio tours, artist demonstrations, and a silent auction. If you want to stay in Magdalena, I recommend the Western Bed and Breakfast & RV Park, 404 First St. (tel. 575/854-2417 or 575/854-2412; www.thewesternmotel.com), a rustic and quaint motel, with pine walls decorating most rooms. Be sure to stop in at Evett's Cafe on US 60 (tel. 575/854-2449) for one of the best milkshakes in New Mexico; order yours made from hand-packed ice cream.
Three miles south, the ghost town of Kelly produced more than $40 million worth of lead, zinc, copper, silver, and gold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, unfortunately, the ghost town is closed to visitors.
Fifty-four miles west of Socorro via US 60 is the Very Large Array National Radio Astronomy Observatory (VLA). (The Socorro office is at 1003 Lopezville Rd. NW; tel. 575/835-7000; www.nrao.edu.) Here, 27 dish-shaped antennas, each 82 feet in diameter, are spread across the plains of San Agustin, forming a single gigantic radio telescope. Many recognize the site from the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster. Photographs taken with this apparatus are similar to those taken with the largest optical telescopes, except that radio telescopes are sensitive to low-frequency radio waves. All types of celestial objects are photographed, including the sun and its planets, stars, quasars, galaxies, and even the faint remains of the "big bang" that scientists believe occurred some 10 billion years ago. On the outdoor, self-guided walking tour, you'll have a chance to get a closer look at the massive antennas. Admission is free, and visitors are welcomed daily from 8:30am to sunset.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.