Taking the High Road to Taos
Northern New Mexico is a beloved destination. In addition to the high desert landscape, it has a unique cultural history. Unlike much of the United States, the first settlers (after the indigenous peoples) were the Spanish, who came north from Mexico in 1540, 80 years before the English colonists landed at Plymouth Rock. The Spanish continued their occupation of what they called Nuevo Mexico until 1850, when it became a U.S. territory, and the 310-year colonization by Spain left an indelible mark on the area.
The High Road to Taos, a 68-mile-long state scenic byway between Santa Fe and Taos, is one of the most impressive drives in northern New Mexico and makes a perfect day trip in a small motorhome or dinghy vehicle. Along the way, visitors can experience the stunning landscapes and diverse history of this region. It’s especially good to travel in a motorhome, as there are few places to eat along the way and even fewer public restrooms.
Upon leaving Santa Fe and cresting the first rise two miles north, you’ll be rewarded with the expansive vista for which northern New Mexico is known. Rolling red sand hills are dotted with juniper shrubs that seem to go on forever, with layered blue mountains in the distance. Along U.S. 285/84 you’ll pass the Santa Fe Opera House, an outdoor venue partially protected from the elements by a stunning architectural structure.
Continue on 285, the main highway north to Los Alamos, Espanola and Taos, past small settlements with colorful names like Tesuque, Cuyamungue and Pojoaque on your way to the High Road, which officially starts 16 miles north when you turn right on Highway 503 and immediately find yourself in a verdant valley, with green pastures and huge cottonwood trees. A left turn onto Highway 502 would take you west to Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed in the 1940s. Near Los Alamos — and in contrast to the science labs — is Bandelier National Monument, home to native settlers thousands of years earlier.
The valley has both large gated estates and a rambling collection of old adobe structures, some abandoned. Passing the turnoff to Nambé Pueblo, turn left on County Road 98 to Chimayo at the sign reading “The High Road to Taos.”
The High Road is a spiritual experience, with three significant churches along the route. The first treasure is Santuario de Chimayo. This beautiful little chapel was built in 1816 and is a major pilgrimage destination, with more than 300,000 visitors a year walking to the site, many of them during Holy Week. I encountered five pilgrims on my trip to Taos who had walked from Denver, Colo., 340 miles to the north. The soil is said to be sacred.
The original Santuario has grown into a complex of structures and outdoor shrines, many covered with small crosses to honor souls dear to the pilgrims. The Santa Cruz River flows along the north side of the church, adding to the ambience of the setting. You can park your motorhome in a large parking lot within a short walk of the church.
Continuing along CR 98 a short distance is Rancho de Chimayo, a restaurant and hacienda and a popular presence in the area since 1965. The restaurant features northern New Mexico cuisine and the hacienda offers fine rooms with great character for those not traveling in a motorhome.
he byway continues on Highway 76, past the small village of Cordova. The scenery changes to the New Mexico badlands as you leave the lush Santa Cruz Valley and move into the high desert mesa country, en route to the next highlight, Truchas. Truchas remains much like it was hundreds of years ago, a small village perched alongside a deep canyon. Today it is an artists’ community, populated by painters, crafters and other artisans eager to show their work.
Las Trampas (or Trampas) is the site of the next church, San José de Gracia. Built between 1760 and 1776, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and is a fine example of adobe religious architecture and a significant relic of the history of this region. Take in the striking forms of this building, with its clerestory windows and decorative interior. San José de Gracia is still an active parish church, open to visitors on the weekends.
Leaving Las Trampas, notice the ancient hollowed wooden irrigation channel on the right. Turning right on Highway 75, you pass Penasco and Vadito and enter northern New Mexico’s third ecosystem, Carson National Forest. The view is dominated by the Taos Mountains, with Wheeler Peak towering over everything at 13,161 feet.
Three miles east of Vadito, turn left onto Highway 518 and proceed on a winding 16-mile scenic drive through the forest to Rancho de Taos, the northern end of the High Road and the location of the most impressive of the three churches, San Francisco de Asis.
With its twin bell towers, massive adobe walls and arched portal entrance, San Francisco de Asis is one of the most photographed churches in New Mexico. A National Historic Landmark, the mission church has been in continuous use since the late 1700s.
Before returning to Santa Fe by the Low Road, which follows the Rio Grande, take time to visit the Taos Plaza for shopping and dining, and historic Taos Pueblo, a mile north of town. An ancient multi-story adobe condominium, Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. The site is well set up to receive visitors, limiting where tourists can tread but allowing photographs. It is one of the most painted and photographed dwellings in the world.
As you leave Taos on Highway 68, stop at the rest area five miles south of town for a look at the Rio Grande Gorge. Even with a camera, it is difficult to capture the impressiveness of this geological wonder, a giant expanse carved in the earth. (For those wanting an up-close look at the gorge, head north from Taos on Highway 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Rising 650 feet above the river and spanning 1,280 feet across, it is the second highest suspension bridge in the country.)
Leaving the overlook, you descend into the Rio Grande canyon and follow the river a third of the way to Santa Fe. Rafting is popular on the river, and you’ll want to pull over at one of the launch areas to watch the excitement. I shared a picnic site with a group of rafters who had just completed their float, and they were all very enthusiastic about their adventure.
As you exit the canyon and leave the river at Velarde, take in the picturesque view of this fertile valley with its orchards and gardens among the red-roofed adobe homes and churches. Even though the
entire route is only about 140 miles, it is a journey rich in history and changing landscapes, a pleasant day trip in northern New Mexico. And you can say you always take the High Road.