New Mexico: The Joys of Taos
Taos, New Mexico- The Land of Enchantment, Sage and Chile Peppers
The high desert of northern New Mexico.
When the Spanish came to the Taos Valley in 1540, they thought they had discovered the City of Gold. When most people think about New Mexico they think of desert- cactus, sand, hot sun, White Sands, Los Alamos. But there is this mystical area that has attracted artists, writers, historians, and ski bums for decades.
Taos is situated just east of the Rio Grande Gorge, and just south of Colorado, at the foot of big, bald Taos Mountain, and the Sangre de Christos (Blood of Christ because they appear red in the sunset) mountains.
The town dates back to August 29, 1540, when Capitan Hernando Alvarado as part of the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado arrived in the Taos Valley for the first time. It’s been the site of bloody massacres, raids, riots, restless souls and countless meditation retreats.
Famous American frontiersman Kit Carson lived here, as did literary genius DH Lawrence and rebellious actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper.
After buying up an Adobe landmark and naming the fantasy castle The Mud Palace, Hopper once said, “Taos was ‘sacred’.
His daughter Marin Hopper said he described it as “the land of American Indians and their mountains, their beautiful Pueblo and their blue lake, which was meant to be so spiritual you could land in Tibet if you bore a hole through the bottom of it.”
After traveling the world, from his native Kansas, to Vietnam, Peru, Marfa, Texas, and Hollywood, Taos was the mystical place he felt most at home and where Hopper was eventually buried.
WHEN TO GO
Tourism is at its peak in the summer, when the flowers are in bloom and rattle snakes are winding through the Taos Mesa, juniper trees are fragrantly adorning fields of sagebrush, and summer rain showers hydrate dry afternoons. The magic lies in the history but also the variety of the land.
Come in the winter to snowboard or ski The Taos Ski Valley, situated at the top of an aspen-lined mountain road, or visit in the summer for the farmers market, historical tours, vineyards, hikes and mountain bike adventures.
If you’re a mountaineer and your partner is a gallery-hopper, you’ll both have plenty to do for days. Hardcore hikers never miss the Wheeler Peak to Williams Lake trail. Artists cannot ignore the Taos Plaza and adjoining streets aligned with art gallery after art gallery of Native American, Contemporary, and Southwestern art. Wilder Nightingale Fine Art is a favorite, as is Crookedman Studio.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTION
The Taos Pueblo– It’s like a living museum. A village of houses that’s been thriving for 1000 years, Taos Pueblo is the only Native American living community that is designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Most of the existing buildings were built between 1000 and 1450 A.D.
The Gorge bridge– Taos is compromised of many little neighborhoods on the map that all equal Taos to locals.
One ‘hood is El Prado, where the road out of Taos, Route 64, takes you in just ten miles to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. This is a large steel bridge 565 feet above the Rio Grande, and the seventh highest bridge in the US.
Mabel Dodge Luhan House- Now an inn and meditation center, this historical Pueblo revival was home to artist and patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who invited famous artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and DH Lawrence to New Mexico for the first time. She’s probably the reason O’Keeffe began painting all her flowers and skulls.
The Taos Plaza– the Taos Plaza is the vortex of all things Taos. If you only have a couple hours to spend in town, be sure to park by the plaza and walk around the galleries and coffee shops, historical sites, boutiques and local crafts that saturate this small central point.
Each Saturday in the summer there’s a farmers market with flowers, pastries, organic produce, herbs, and music. A fortune teller will read your palm while a traveling poet will type it a personalized poem on his typewriter. It’s Vienna via the Southwest.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
Hot springs- Black Rock and Stagecoach Hot Springs are free and naturally formed hot springs on the Rio Grande. Located north of town, off HWY 522 and down dirt roads, they may require a high clearance vehicle but are worth the drive.
A 15-20 dirt and rock trail down to the river leads to the ruins of an old stagecoach stop and two hot pools right off the river, encompassed by rock and sand. They’re traversed enough to feel safe and familiar but hidden enough to keep a mood of mystery and tranquility. This is a welcome retreat from the fast-paced bustle of downtown in the summer.
Waterfalls- There are many breathtaking waterfalls in New Mexico, but the best in Taos is on El Salto Mountain. Doug Scott says in his book, “Taos Waterfalls,” that “Only the hearty can manage the steep trail-less journey to visit all nine El Salto Falls.”
This may be true but even the first one is memorable and breathtaking. From the first fall, you cross El Salto creek and head up the side of the hill a half mile to a series of caves.
This is a short and moderate trail easily doable for the average hiker. The El Salto Falls has been identified as a possible source of the “Taos Hum”, due to the caves behind the falls that cause the water to echo through the valley.
Enchanted Circle– Bikers and Texans love this popular circle around Taos, Angel Fire, and Eagle’s Nest. Each town has a diverse flavor, with small ski resorts, restaurants, hiking, fishing, and camping available along the road throughout the 2-hour loop.
Ghost Ranch– I first visited Ghost Ranch a week after I moved to Taos, and I knew Georgia O’Keeffe had lived there and had painted the natural landscape around there, and that “City Slickers” had been filmed there, so I drove around the red rocks and had a relaxing but quick afternoon taking in the colors and fresh sage-filled air.
The next visit I hiked in the hills, dodged a rattle snake, walked through the ranch’s Anthropology and Paleontology museums, and read about the ancient geography and old locals. The next visit I toured O’Keeffe’s house and Echo Amphitheater. So what I’m saying is there is always something to do here and around here. Santa Fe is a popular tourist destination but it’s Taos and the surrounding mystical charms that bring people back for more.
Bandelier National Monument- Walk among 700-year old Anasazi ruins, climb ladders into rock dens and find refuge during summer monsoons. This place is otherworldly and surreal. If you like meditation and the prospect of spiritual experience in a nature wonderland, this is a place to do it.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument– About 2 1/2 hours south of Taos and 40 miles south of Santa Fe, Kasha-Katuwe is BLM land established as a national monument by President Bill Clinton in January 2001 shortly before leaving office. Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the local Pueblo language.
Hike through slot canyons, with towering pale rock and pines. The volcanic rock and ash were deposited from a volcanic explosion’s pyroclastic flow 6 to 7 million years in the Jemez mountains. If this isn’t daunting enough, a hike up one of the trails overlooking the rocks feels like a trip to the moon or a Star Trek planet.
El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa– Only three blocks from the Taos Plaza, this feels more like an island sanctuary than a high desert hotel. There’s a spa, bar and lounge, conference room and dining. Animals are allowed and the faint sound of waterfalls will lull you to sleep. There are many unique and pleasant hotels in Taos, but this is for many considered the finest of the fine.
Lamberts– next door to the historical Governor Bent house and Taos Plaza is Lambert’s of Taos, this contemporary American cuisine has a variety of sauces and bread made in-house, the juiciest steak in town and a top selection of wines.
Executive chef James Crowther III has four favorite secret ingredients- four: olive oil, sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper and fresh lemon, which are staples in his fine dining experience.
Guadalajara Grill- Taoseno favorite, with unforgettable chicken tacos and a casual, laid-back atmosphere overflowing every day with happy locals.
Antonios– Antonio’s “taste of Mexico” also is influenced by his many years traveling and perfecting the culinary arts, from the Bahamas to Austen, Texas. Antonio Matus bridges the gap between traditional Mexican cuisine and exemplary internationally renowned culinary arts.
Honorable mentions include the Love Apple, El Meze, and La Cueva Cafe.
Claudia Turner is a writer and artist from Jackson, Wyoming, currently living in Taos, New Mexico with her husband, three dogs, and baby daughter. She has an MFA, a column in DADDY Mag-Berlin, a new book, “Notes on a Hospitalized Pregnant Woman”, and is back in school to study medical massage and healing arts.