High Road to Taos

Annie Lux - February 21, 2008

The High Road to Taos, one of the most celebrated scenic byways in America, takes visitors on a journey through forests, badlands and farming country, as well as through tiny towns first settled in the early days of New Mexico's colonization by Spain and past some of northern New Mexico's most famous small historic churches.

There are so many beautiful byways in New Mexico, it would take a lifetime to experience them all. But if you haven't yet driven the High Road to Taos, that's the place to start. This winding route through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains takes you through forests, badlands and farming country, as well as through tiny towns first settled in the early days of New Mexico's colonization by Spain and past some of northern New Mexico's most famous small historic churches.

If you're starting in Santa Fe, take NM 285/84 (St. Francis Drive) north out of town. After you pass through the town of Pojoaque (pronounce it Poh-WAH-kee), you'll see signs for Los Alamos. Ignore those for now (although it's also a lovely drive that goes past pueblo lands and ancient cliff dwellings) and continue around the curve near the Cities of Gold casino. At the next stoplight, turn right onto NM 503 through the lovely town and pueblo of Nambe. After eleven miles the landscape will change to piñon-dotted hills and you'll turn left onto NM 98 (look for the sign for the Santuario).

If you haven't yet visited the Santuario de Chimayó, by all means do it now! Here you'll see examples of the santero-style artwork (religious paintings and sculpture made by local craftspeople in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) in a lovely old church that is open to the public. You'll want to take away some of the "holy dirt" for which the Santuario is famous, so bring along a plastic bag or purchase a small container at the santuario's gift shop. Chimayó also boasts many small weaving shops selling beautiful handmade wares, and a popular restaurant, Rancho de Chimayó, a great choice for breakfast or lunch.

Continue on NM 98 for a minute or two. At the intersection for NM 76, turn right. A small side trip to Cordóva is possible soon after the turn. Look for the sign for the loop that goes through this tiny old town, home to generations of woodcarvers. There are a few galleries featuring their wares here, but be aware that Cordóva is not a tourist town. There's a beautiful old church (San Antonio) that's hidden in a plaza surrounded by houses. Be respectful if you visit: Cordóva locals are very protective of their church.

You can backtrack or continue on the loop to get back on the High Road (or bypass this stop if you don't have a lot of time). The next stop, several miles up the road, is Truchas. You'll definitely want to stop here, or at least drive through this tiny old village that will look familiar to those who've seen Robert Redford's film The Milagro Beanfield Wars. Though NM 76 veers around to the left, go straight to drive into Truchas (there's a sign). You'll find a parking area on the right past a few stores. You may want to get out of the car to admire the views of the Truchas Peaks and the canyon on top of which the village perches. You can wander the streets and visit the church, Nuestra Señora de la Sagrado Rosario (Our Lady of the Holy Rosary), just off the road on the right side as you come in. This charming little church was built in 1805 by the settlers of Truchas. Before their church was completed, parishioners walked the eight miles to Las Trampas to attend services on Sundays-a perilous journey indeed, as churchgoers were sometimes attacked by nomadic Indians while on the road. Truchas retains its feel of an old New Mexico town whose families have lived here for generations; today the village is also home to artists and craftspeople.

You'll need to backtrack out of Truchas to get back on the High Road. Go back now and make that right turn to head north on NM 76. The road will take you through lovely forests and farms and to your next stop, Las Trampas. You'll see its beautiful church, San José de la Gracia de Las Trampas, up on a small hill on the right. Just a little worse for the wear, with occasional crumbling of the outer mud plaster on its adobe walls, San José de la Gracia remains one of the most beautiful examples of church architecture from the Spanish colonial period. Like the church in Truchas, San José de la Gracia is usually kept locked. If you're lucky enough to be there when the church is open, don't miss the chance to go inside: the gorgeous and colorful retablos (painting on wood) and reredos (altar screens) are a sight you won't want to miss. The church's old wooden floor and ceiling beams (called vigas) and its lack of electricity (it is lit only by candles on an old round candelabra suspended from the ceiling) will take you back to New Mexico's colonial days. This church, completed in 1776 is one of the earliest to be built and decorated entirely by its own village residents.

Continue north on NM 76. The road will curve around through little towns and farms on its way to Peñasco. When you see the sign for Llano, you may want to take another side trip. It's a lovely little road through farms and homes, with cows grazing next to the ruins of adobe barns. Hidden way back is a tiny old wood and adobe church, San Juan Nepomuceno.

At Peñasco, NM 76 meets NM 75. Turn right to continue north toward Taos, or, if you like, turn left to visit Picurís Pueblo if you have time. There's a small museum and a gift shop; tours of the pueblo feature ancient ruins and prehistoric agriculture, as well as visits to both their new and old churches.

NM 75 will end at NM 518. Turn left here (a right turn will take you on yet another lovely drive, through the Mora Valley and eventually to Las Vegas, New Mexico) to head to Taos. If you're a fan of historic churches, keep your eyes peeled to the left when you get to Talpa. It, too, has a very sweet little church, set back from the road. Once past Talpa, you'll soon reach NM 68. A right turn will take you into Taos. Turning south (left) will take you on the River Road (the "Low Road") back to Santa Fe.

If you're planning to spend some time in Taos that day, you'll want to get an early start. The High Road drive takes between two and two-and-a-half hours-and that's without making stops or side trips-so allow plenty of time. There are those who contend that the best way to experience the High Road is to start in Taos and work your way south. There's something to be said for this. After all, taking the River Road north has its own charms, especially once you're north of Española: rock canyon walls, the Rio Grande, and that wonderful moment when you climb up the hill just south of Taos to discover sage-filled fields, the Rio Grande Gorge and that first glimpse of Taos Mountain. Then, when you head south on the High Road, there's a postcard view of rolling farmlands as you head down the hill towards Peñasco. Be aware, though, that navigating the route can be a bit trickier in this direction, so pay close attention to road signs. You should also note that the Santuario de Chimayó closes at 5:00 (4:00 in winter months), so a leisurely trip in this direction is best made if you've spent the night in Taos. But don't worry about which way to start-in either direction, the High Road to Taos is a magical journey through old New Mexico.