Trip to Taos, New Mexico

Annie Lux | - January 14, 2008

If you're visiting New Mexico for more than a day or two, you'll definitely want to go to Taos, a lovely old small town about 70 miles north of Santa Fe. The drive alone is worth it. Whether you take the High Road or the more direct route, you're in for a treat.

For either route, start in Santa Fe by driving north on St. Francis Drive or Guadalupe Street, either of which will take you to Highway 285 North (St. Francis is, in fact, part of Highway 285). Allow about 1½ hours for the direct route, which is sometimes called the Low Road. In the town of Española, Highway 285 will veer off to the left. But keep going straight! The highway number will now be 68, which will take you all the way into Taos. North of Española you'll be treated to views of the Rio Grande (in the early summer months, rafters will be splashing their way down the river), and magnificent rock canyons. After the big hairpin turn, you'll be about 20 minutes outside Taos. At the top of the hill, roll down your windows and breathe in the scent of the fields of wild sage. Off to your left (to the west), the Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico's answer to the Grand Canyon, cuts through the landscape.

To take the High Road, allow at least 2-2½ hours (longer if you'll be making stops along the way). Drive the same way out of Santa Fe, but after you pass the signs for Los Alamos, you'll turn right at the stoplight onto Highway 503. Drive eleven miles through the lovely village of Nambé. There will be a sign for the Santuario de Chimayó: turn left here (NM 520). If this is your only chance to see the Santuario, be sure to stop, even briefly, to see the lovely old Spanish church in its gorgeous mountain setting. Take a minute to go inside to see the santero-style folk art on the altar screens at the front and sides of the chapel and to collect a bit of Chimayó's famous "holy dirt." From Chimayó, continue a short way on Highway 520, then turn right (away from Española) onto NM 76. This road winds through small villages founded by Spanish settlers in the early eighteenth century. When Highway 76 ends, turn left onto NM 75. Then make a left when you reach NM 518. This road will take you back to NM 68. A right turn here will have you in Taos in a few minutes.

You may want to stop on your way into town to visit one of the most photographed and painted churches in the United States, San Francisco de Asís, just south of Taos. (If you're coming in on Highway 68 North, watch for the sign that says you're in the little village of Ranchos de Taos; San Francisco will be coming up on your right. If you come in on the High Road, turn left onto Highway 68 South: San Francisco will be on your left after a very short drive.) Better yet, if you'll be leaving Taos in the late afternoon, stop then and watch the shadows play on the church's famous rear buttresses. The back of the church faces the main road, with a parking area/plaza in between. Inside you'll find beautiful examples of the santero-style art for which old New Mexico churches are famous.

Highway 68 is called Paseo del Pueblo as it passes through Taos. At the stoplight for Kit Carson Street, turn left to go into the Taos Plaza. There's metered parking around the Plaza (you will get a ticket if your meter runs out, but it's not very expensive). There's more parking behind the plaza on the north side, and a parking lot on the opposite corner of Kit Carson Road.

Taos has a lovely old plaza with a gazebo in the center. Sure, it's surrounded by shops catering to tourists, but many of them are worth a look. For western apparel, try Taos Cowboy (111 North Plaza). Taos Mercantile (106 West Plaza) has a huge selection of moccasins in all sizes (for kids and babies too) in addition to the usual New Mexico gift items. For a walk on the kitschier side, stop in at the Taos Trading Company (115 North Plaza), where you'll find souvenir coffee mugs and tee shirts, lots of western-inspired toys (this is the place for toy tomahawks, bows-and-arrows, and cowboy and Indian outfits for those tykes back home), a host of other curios, and a real old-fashioned soda fountain.

After making the circle around the plaza (be sure to stop in at the lovely La Fonda de Taos, the oldest hotel in New Mexico), walk down Juan Largo Street at the east end of the plaza. There are more shops and restaurants, and you'll soon find yourself in the John Dunn Shops. There's a public restroom here, on the east side of the promenade. For a change of pace from New Mexico curios, stop in at my favorite store in Taos, J. Robinson Old Maps and Prints. They have a wide and wonderful selection of old maps from around the world, as well as beautiful prints and other artwork. Ask to see the hand-colored prints of medieval lords and ladies-fabulous and affordable (I have one called "Ladies' Bedchamber and Toilet" in a frame on my bathroom wall). Next door is a great local bookstore, Moby Dickens, that has a friendly atmosphere and an eclectic collection, from children's books to New Age to books on the American Southwest.

At the opposite end of the John Dunn shops, you'll come out onto Bent Street, named for the first American Governor of New Mexico (who was scalped and killed during the 1847 Taos Uprising). The Apple Tree on this street is a great choice for lunch, especially in summer when their lovely garden is open. Another good idea is Doc Marten's in the Taos Inn across Paseo del Pueblo. Dinners here are pricy, but lunch and weekend brunch prices are very reasonable and the food and atmosphere are lovely. The Taos Inn also has a bar on the other side of their picturesque lobby that serves food and drinks all afternoon (many Taos restaurants are closed between 2:30 and 5:00) in a casual atmosphere. You can sip a margarita and have a snack outside on the patio in warmer months. In the winter, the lobby is a cozy place for an evening cocktail.

There is no shortage of shopping in Taos. In addition to the plaza and John Dunn shops, there more stores along Bent Street, Paseo del Pueblo (knitters will love La Lana Wools at 136-C Paseo del Pueblo Norte) and across the way on Kit Carson Road. History buffs and children will enjoy the Kit Carson Museum, located in the home the famed mountain man shared with his second wife, Josefa Jaramillo. Farther up Kit Carson Road is Morada Lane, which leads to the Mabel Dodge House. This home of the famed hostess (it was she who invited such writers and artists as D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe to New Mexico) is now used for conferences and retreats. Both homes give fascinating looks into different eras of New Mexico history.

Need a break? Stop in for a coffee or an ice cream at Tazza, a wonderful former hippy hangout on the south side of Kit Carson Road. Their summer garden is a lovely place to rest and admire the colorful hollyhocks that grace the edges of many a brown adobe wall.

Ready to expand your horizons? You'll need to get back in your car for the next two adventures. Head north on Paseo del Pueblo for a mile or so and look for the sign for Taos Pueblo on the right. The pueblo is usually open to the public; if not, there will be a sign telling you so as soon as you make the turn. Even if you only have a day to spend in Taos, it's worth at least a quick look at the striking multi-storied adobes set against Taos Mountain and the beautiful New Mexico sky. If you have time, spend an hour exploring the pueblo, or come back and spend an afternoon exploring the pueblo shops as well as its history and beauty. There are fees for parking and fees for camera use.

Next stop: the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Drive a few miles farther north until you come to the traffic light at US 64, NM 522 and NM 150. If you still haven't quenched your shopping jones, stop in at the gift store next to the gas station at the intersection. Actually, Casa Del Sol Gift Shop is worth a peek even if you're all-but-shopped out. Their lovely selection of rugs, blankets, crafts and pottery is an affordable cut above the usual crap, I mean curios (hey, I love this stuff), you find in many gift shops. A left turn on US 64 will take you to the Gorge Bridge in about eight minutes. Seems a long way to drive to look at a hole in the ground? Go anyway if you have time. The view straight down into the gorge, where you'll see the ribbon of the Rio Grande waaay down below) is equaled only by the majesty of Taos Mountain and the Sangre de Cristos and the smell of the sage.

Ready to call it a day? Head back into Taos and have some dinner. You'll pass Outback Pizza (712 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte) on the way back into town. Another budget-friendly choice is the popular Guadalajara Grill (1384 Paseo Del Pueblo Sur) on the way out of town. For a more upscale experience, try Joseph's Table, a beautiful restaurant in La Fonda on the plaza. If you'd like to spend the night, Taos boasts an array of inns, hotels and motels in all price ranges.