There is no image of Taos as characteristic and unmistakable as the summits of Pueblo, Kachina and Wheeler reaching skyward to tower over the Taos mesa. From the south they frame the whole community, crowning it with a silhouette that itself has become an icon used by businesses and civic concerns, artists and entrepreneurs to claim this place as their home. The Zia represents all things New Mexico, but the peaks are strictly Taos. When people first settled here the base of these slopes made a sheltering alcove from the stark brutality of a high desert winter. The overlap between sparse dusty grasslands and the green alpine heights were a perfect mix of resources, remoteness, and protection to those who made it their home. Their beauty alone is enough to draw people here from all over the world, but the peaks are such an ingrained part of life, culture, of recognizing our small part in a much more complex and delicate environment that almost no one sees them and remains unaffected on a much deeper level.
By far one of the most grand features of the region, it also manages to remain fairly hidden. So many angles of approach would give you almost no visual cues that a gaping chasm has sliced its way across over fifty miles of the mesa until you were almost careening into it. The gorge is massive, beautiful and starkly surreal. State road 68 from Santa Fe winds into it from the south, to emerge onto the mesa and a spectacular view of it just 3 miles outside of Pilar. The Taos Gorge Bridge, located about 10 miles northwest of Taos on State Road 64 is probably the most popular place to view it though. A monument, parking and a rest are are available on the western edge, as well as the trailhead for a ten mile multi use hike and bike path called The West Rim Trail. One can drive deeper into the gorge through Pilar from the south or from the west rim to the north on NM 570, but there is a steep section of gravel connecting the two locations that would be best attempted in a vehicle with sufficient clearance and four wheel drive. Inside the gorge you’ll find places for camping, rafting, hiking, fishing and any number of other outdoor activities. For a truly spectacular perspective, several companies offer hot air balloon tours as well.
Nestled in a quiet plaza in Ranchos de Taos, south of Taos proper, stands the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church. Followers of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe will undoubtedly recognize this iconic structure. Dating from the late 18th century, the church is one of very few remaining colonial Spanish mission churches and is of course a historical monument. Its adobe buttresses and twin bell towers make it one of the most distinctive, unique and beautiful structures found in all of the Southwest.
A quaint setting of adobe buildings, cottonwood and willow trees welcomes guests to stroll and relax, to window shop and dine in the heart of downtown. Countless galleries, boutiques and restaurants are within short distance of this verdant town center. During the warmer months hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a musical act, art display, market or other event taking place in the cooling shade of its trees.
There is no doubt when you enter the site and stand in the silent dusty courtyard that you are in a place of deep historic and cultural significance. The Taos Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community in all of the United States. For close to 1000 years people have built, farmed, hunted and and lived their lives as residents of the beautiful and ancient structures nestled at the base of the peaks. These mud and timber dwellings that seem to defy their own gravity as they rise astoundingly four and five stories high are a living testament to the tenacity and perseverance of a culture that extends over the breadth and depth of recorded history, to reach beyond it, into a past deeper than many of us can even fathom. A millennium: the first half of this community’s life has taken place before Francisco Vásquez de Coronado even embarked on his expedition to find those fabled seven cities. Here within the confines of the community traditional methods of living and tribal culture is still upheld as fundamental. The Pueblo retains its own sovereign government and the maintenance of these buildings requires a tremendous conservational effort. One has not seen Taos without seeing the pueblo. One cannot understand the beauty and complexity of its history without feeling its age firsthand.