A circle tour north of Santa Fe introduces visitors to other cultures, both past and present.
By Lazelle Jones
Tourism folks say that north-central New Mexico is among the most popular regions for visitors, and it’s easy to see why. The views, high in the mountain desert, have become part of Americans’ expectations of what the West is all about, where dramatic sunsets and ancient Indian pueblos have inspired artisans for centuries.
U.S. 84/285 leads north out of Santa Fe and up to this land of enchantment. Turn west on State Route 502, and you’ll find that Bandelier National Monument is right on your way. The remnants of the ancient people who lived there a thousand years ago are permanently cast in stone structures and rock art.
Bandelier’s ruins are well maintained, and some are excavated. A self-guided walking tour leads past kivas (round, ceremonial community gathering places), cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs (pictures carved in rocks). The ruins are alongside a meandering stream that trickles down the mountain, bringing water to the thirsty canyon lands below. It’s a delightful walk.
Next, head westward to Los Alamos. There, we enjoyed lunch (and you may, too) at the Central Avenue Grill downtown. It’s a short walk from the grill to the Bradbury Science Museum, where admission is free and interactive exhibits captivate even non-geeks. The museum was named for scientist Norris Bradbury, and not Ray, the fiction writer. While in town, you can see the outside of the home where J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, lived from 1943 to 1945. Los Alamos is where the world’s first atomic bomb was developed and was part of the huge secret that brought an end to World War II in the Pacific.
Backtrack to U.S. 84/285. An hour’s drive north of Los Alamos is Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived the second half of her life, painting and creating in a style no one else has been able to replicate. Reservations are required to tour her home at Abiquiu. Minutes to the north is Ghost Mountain, where the landscapes were the source of inspiration behind much of O’Keeffe’s art.
From Ghost Mountain, head northward on U.S. 84 to Chama, but include a stop at Tierra Wools in Los Ojos. At this cooperative of local weavers, artisans create tapestries and rugs on giant looms; the work is nothing less than spectacular. They card, spin, and dye raw wool, ultimately creating vests, jackets, blankets, and more. The store is open Monday through Saturday; call (505) 588-7231 for more information.
In downtown Chama, you can catch the Cumbres Toltec Railroad for a trip back in time aboard a coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive. That is, when the season permits. The train schedule ran from May 23 to October 18 in 2009, so if you visit before or after the FMCA convention and want a ride, you’ll need to return later. Different excursions are available; the ride over Cumbres Pass to Antonito, Colorado, takes five hours (and some change), with a stop halfway, where you are served an excellent, home-cooked meal. (Check www.cumbrestoltec.com or call 888-286-2737 for more information.)
From Chama, head back south and then turn east on U.S. 64 toward Taos. You easily can spend a few days here just exploring the renowned Taos Pueblo and the many museums and shops in the area. The Pueblo site is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. Unfortunately for visitors, it closes for a long period in March and April, so a visit there around FMCA convention time may not be available. Phone ahead to be sure (505-758-1028).
If it is closed, don’t despair. Other fascinating places in Taos that are open year-round include the Harwood Museum of Art, the Blumenschein Home and Museum, the Taos Art Museum, the Martinez Hacienda, and the Millicent Rogers Museum. In addition, you’ll want to see the home (with a museum) that belonged to famed Western character Kit Carson.
Shopping in Taos for Indian crafts, jewelry, and fine art (in all sorts of media) is legendary. Just this activity alone can make for fulfilling days. In addition, restaurants in town produce savory fare.
From Taos, continue east on U.S. 64 and travel toward the town of Angel Fire. Along the way is Enchanted Circle Pottery, where husband-and-wife team Kevin and JoAnne DeKeuster (both potters) have their studio. Not only do they make beautiful wood-fired pottery, but they are glad to welcome visitors into their gallery, which is incorporated into their personal living space. They have a huge, walk-in kiln that takes several days to heat up to temperature (2,400 degrees). The DeKeusters’ home and gallery is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; call (505) 737-9640 for more information.
The town of Angel Fire boasts one of the finest ski resorts in the West, which in late March may still be open for your pleasure (the snow season typically ends around the third week of March). Angel Fire also has an art community, found at Angel Fire ArtSpace Gallery, a collective of folks who work in all kinds of media.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire is a must-see. The park owes its existence to the parents of a young man killed in action who wanted to build a tribute to their son and his fallen comrades. It’s the only such state park in the United States, and was opened in 1971. The drama of the architecture and its ethereal qualities are magnified by the mountaintops that surround it. The park includes a chapel, gardens, an amphitheater, a “Hill of Angels” marker, and a memorial walkway. Admission is free.
From Angel Fire, return to Taos and then head south toward Chimayo via State Route 518 and the famous “High Road,” State Route 76. It’s a winding mountain road where red ristras (dried red chili peppers strung together) hang from the eaves of Spanish Colonial-style houses, and pickup trucks from another time sit parked with weeds growing up through their bumpers. The beauty of this drive is as memorable as it is mystical.
Chimayo has its share of local crafters as well. Two stops that showcase weavers are Ortega’s Weaving Shop and Centinela Traditional Arts. The latter sells tapestries and other woven wool items. Ortega’s offers purses, coasters, rugs, and much more.
You may find that the most important stop is the last one suggested here: El Santuario de Chimayo (the Sanctuary of Chimayo). Inside this two-century-old church is a small room to the left of the altar. People come here to take small samples of the earth from a hole in the floor, for it is believed that the dirt possesses healing qualities. Personal testaments left by those miraculously relieved of their afflictions line the walls inside the sanctuary. This is a very spiritual place.
The weather may still be chilly in these mountains while you take your pilgrimage to north-central New Mexico in March. Don’t let it stop you. Bright sunshine is usually the order of the day, and you’ll be more than delighted with what you find. It is advisable to take a towed car “” and not a motorhome “” on these winding thoroughfares, however. And, before you drive, make sure snow won’t get in the way by calling for updated road conditions (toll-free) at (800) 432-4269; or, visit www.newmexicoroads.com.
New Mexico Tourism Department
491 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501
North Central New Mexico Tourism
(no phone number available)
Taos Visitors Center
1139 Paseo del Pueblo Sur
Taos, NM 87571