“New Mexico is to be felt” is a common refrain on this exploration of north-central New Mexico. Magnificent views, serene valleys, Native culture (and native trout), hidden villages and vibrant celebrations capture one’s heart and soul in a journey around the Enchanted Circle.
For most travelers, this tour will begin and end in Taos, but it can be done from other starting points. It can be done just in part, partially in a single day, all of it over multiple days or as a series of day journeys.
This region showcases a spectacular combination of mountains, valleys and volcanoes. It is nestled in and around the Sangre de Cristo range and the vast Taos Plateau to the west. More than two billion years of complex geology has formed unique and dramatic scenery. The Río Grande Rift, a separation of the earth’s crust that began about 29 million years ago, created the Río Grande Gorge, through which the Río Grande flows. Volcanic eruptions, lava flows and the uplifting of mountains have left a dramatic terrain. Visitors can feel this raw beauty simply by driving through. For a more personal experience, there are many trails into the gorge, and nearby mountains offer hiking, fishing, hunting and camping opportunities. Wildlife abounds in this vast ecosystem of grasslands and forests of piñon, juniper, ponderosa, Douglas fir, spruce and other pines. Elk, mule deer, bears, bighorn sheep, eagles, hawks, coyotes, trout and numerous other species claim this area as their natural home. Much of the high country is within the Carson National Forest, spanning 1.2 million acres.
New Mexico’s rich multicultural tradition also thrives in this northern realm. A Native American heritage reaches back a thousand years or more, with Pueblo, Apache, Comanche and other groups having visited, traded in and lived in the area. Taos Pueblo provides our modern connection to this ancient past. Spanish explorers and settlers also left their indelible mark on our lifeways, cuisine and structures. Artists, writers and other creative persons continue to develop and share their rich expressions of life in a myriad of styles. Activists for ecology, politics and numerous other causes find a home for their passionate expression here. A hallmark of New Mexican tradition is our respectful manner. The ethic is captured in the phrase “It is how you are that matters most” — how you are with your family, friends, community, nature and animals.
To Valle Vidal: The Far Side
Travel north from the Taos Plaza on NM 64, passing immediately through El Prado with its numerous restaurants and craft shops. At the intersection with US 64, continue north on NM 522 toward Arroyo Hondo (Deep Creek). This historic village strings out along a creek and a side road, NM 577, to the John Dunn Bridge, crossing the Río Grande to a small hot spring. White-water enthusiasts put in here, and it’s popular for rock climbing and trout fishing in the Taos Box.
Next optional stop is the D.H. Lawrence Ranch (dhlawrenceranch.unm.edu/, 505-277-1109). About 3 miles north of Arroyo Hondo, turn east off NM 522 onto San Cristobal Road for a climbing drive to the main gate of San Cristobal Ranch, which was home to famed author D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. It is overseen today by the University of New Mexico and is open for tours by reservation.
Back on NM 522 you soon come to Questa (visitquesta.com/, 575-586-2258). The “Gateway to the Río Grande Del Norte National Monument” is another historic village, once on the “Kiowa Trail” that connected Taos Pueblo with Plains Indian cultures. Settled in the early 1800s by Spanish farmers, this is a true frontier community. Visit the San Antonio de Padua Church, the pride of the community, which was recently restored and reconsecrated.
Just west of Questa via NM 378 (Cerro exit) is a paved route to a portion of the newly formed Río Grande del Norte National Monument (blm.gov/visit/wild-rivers-recreation-area, 575-586-1150). Here you can hike, camp, picnic and enjoy the spectacular scenery overlooking the juncture of Red River Canyon and the Río Grande Gorge. You might spot some of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that live here. If you’re willing to hike down some 800 feet to the water itself, there’s excellent fishing.
Returning to NM 522, drive north along the foot of the spiky, impressive Latir Peak and the Sangre de Cristos running into Colorado. This brings you to the small town of Costilla (riocostillaart.com/map/, riocostillapark.com). The well-watered Río Costilla Valley was a winter hunting ground of Utes and Apaches. In the mid-1800s, settlers laid out as many as seven defensive plazas in the area for protection from occasional raids. Several of these are still in use as community centers for the ranchers, farmers and artists who call this quaint area home.
Turn east onto NM 196 and head up the beautiful valley to Amalia (amalianm.com), a small village serving isolated ranches.
About 2 miles southeast of Amalia, veer off NM 196 onto Forest Road 1950 to reach the seldom-visited and transcendent Valle Vidal. The route, partially on a gravel road, should not be attempted in winter! If prepared, enter this area tucked up against the Colorado border among a handful of summits topping 11,000 feet, including Big Costilla at 12,739 feet. Part of the Carson National Forest, the lush mountains and meadows provide extraordinary camping, fishing, hiking, biking, hunting and wildlife viewing — including large elk herds. The trout include the rare native Río Grande cutthroat (fourcornersgeotourism.com/content/valle-vidal-unit-carson-national-forest). The drive to just the center of Valle Vidal, at the Shuree Ponds and Cimarron Campground, is about 20 slow miles, and the full route across the preserve to come out at the town of Cimarron on US 64 is another 30 miles, so give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination before dark. Cell service out here is nonexistent.
The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway (enchantedcircle.org)
Another option for exploring the northern realm, which can be combined with the trip above for a multiple-day tour, is the Enchanted Circle.
Questa is one entry point for this loop trip. From here, head east on NM 38 into the Sangre de Cristo range to enjoy year-around activities for visitors of all ages and interests. The spirit of the Old and New West are alive in this lively mountain village. The town of Red River, with lots of places to eat and lodge, holds many annual festivals and has some great C&W honky-tonks. There are also horseback rides, activities on the ski slopes year-round (including a zipline and summer chairlift rides), golf, disk golf, hiking, fishing and even hot air ballooning (redriverskiarea.com, redriver.org, 575-754-2223).
Continue your journey on NM 38 by driving over Bobcat Pass (elevation 9,820 feet) while stopping to enjoy the high mountain views. Entering the green enclave of the lovely Moreno Valley, passing the gold-mining ghost town of Elizabethtown, you arrive in Eagle Nest (eaglenestchamber.org, 575-377-2420) and US 64. A small community with a lively past, Eagle Nest provides a quiet, peaceful respite. The town is named for the golden eagles that inhabit the surrounding mountains. Flocks of geese, ducks, pelicans, herons and ospreys migrate through the valley. A large elk herd also inhabits the area, and Eagle Nest Lake beckons those fishing for record-size trout, perch and kokanee salmon.
The Moreno Valley also shelters Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park (vietnamveteransmemorial.org, 575-377-6900), just south of Eagle Nest on US 64. Created in 1971, this was the first major memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War. The inspiring site offers free admission and includes a chapel, visitor center and memorial walkway.
Also south of Eagle Nest is Angel Fire (angelfirefun.com, 575-377-6555 or 866-668-7787), on the spur road, NM 434. A year-round resort community with an alpine lifestyle, Angel Fire has a world-class mountain bike course, downhill and cross country skiing, a beautiful golf course, lake and stream fishing, hiking and excellent birding. It is also home to the highly regarded Music from Angel Fire series, held every summer, which marks its 35th year in 2018 (musicfromangelfire.org/, 575-377-3233).
For a good local hike, try Elliot Barker Trail #1 (alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/elliot-barker-trail). Located south of Angel Fire off NM 64, the scenic mountain trail offers a nice opportunity for a short hike or a longer, 7.6-mile moderate hike.
To return to Taos, take US 64 west over Palo Flechado Pass (9,101 feet), descending through
Taos Canyon, filled with golden cottonwoods in the fall. The whole drive can be done leisurely in eight hours or broken into a few days.
Taos visitor information: taos.org/, 800-732-8267
Taos Visitor Center: Paseo del Pueblo Sur; intersection of NM 68 and NM 585
Carson National Forest: 208 Cruz Alta Road, Taos, NM 87571, 575-758-6200, fs.usda.gov/carson/
Tom Gallegos, a native of Taos, provides tours throughout New Mexico. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or truenewmexico.com.
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