Taos, New Mexico Shamrock Tour®

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

The Sangre de Christo Mountains tower like a wall above the Taos 
Plateau. This will be my playground for the next few days. The scene
is particularly impressive when approaching the range in the late 
afternoon, when it is lit by the sun from the west—a beautiful sunset 
is almost guaranteed.

Day 1 Northeast (142 miles)
Around New Mexico’s Highest Mountain

In the morning, I just have to turn right out of the campground and I’m on my way up Palo Flechado Pass. It’s not a challenging ride, just a steady climb up to 9,100 feet. Once at the top I turn left, and Eagle Nest Lake soon comes into sight. A small dam toward the Cimarron Valley catches the water. In the village of Eagle Nest, I spontaneously opt for a detour and take the turnoff toward Cimarron Canyon. This route looks promising on the map—and the paper does not exaggerate. After a ridge with a fine view over the entire lake, the road dips into the canyon and accompanies the Cimarron River. Protected as a state park, there are some day-use areas and a couple of campgrounds along the river but no other signs of civilization. It gets really spectacular when the road leads along the vertical cliffs of Palisades Sill. Soon though, I turn around, because as I crest the horizon it becomes obvious that the road soon leaves the canyon for the plains toward the east. I’m right at the southeastern corner of the Rocky Mountains.

Back up at Eagle Nest, I enjoy the cool mountain air again, which stays with me for a while as Highway 38 takes me through high ranch land further north up to Bobcat Pass. Behind the summit, it gets exciting as the road drops quite steeply toward Red River. The town generates its main income from skiing, but it also offers some lively outdoor activities in the summer. Some of the cafés and small restaurants look inviting, but I decide not to stop. I reach the town of Questa, a completely different world, and I already start regretting that I didn’t have something to eat in Red River. Apart from the rather rough looking Wildcats Den, there doesn’t appear to be any place for food. But sometimes facades deceive. Inside, I get one of the nicest meals in New Mexico, with perhaps some of the best tacos the state has to offer.

I head south again, going as far as Arroyo Hondo. A road to the left grabs my attention. I follow it up a green valley to Arroyo Seco, a very small but pretty village. I opt to save a stop here on the way back. For now, I’m keen on riding this lonely road into Taos Ski Valley. Perfect corners take me up while a lively creek runs down the mountain. Towering rocks above the road look as if they would tilt down the slopes any minute, but thankfully, they don’t. Finally I end up in the famous ski area at Wheeler Peak. At 13,161 feet, it’s the highest mountain in New Mexico.

Day 2 Southwest (166 Miles)
Two Roads, One Direction

Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos is the goal for today. Little did I know that the saying “the journey is more important than the destination” would end up proving true on this loop. My course is supposed to go along two parallel routes. On the map they look quite similar, but I will soon find out how different they really are during the course of this long and exciting day.

To go south I decide for the more westerly way following Highway 68. For the first minutes it takes me along the foot of the Sangre de Christo range, but not much happens until the road drops dramatically into the Rio Grande Gorge. In Pilar, I’m finally at the bottom and reach the riverbank. Not only has the scenery changed, but also the temperature. It’s about 12 degrees higher than on the plateau. A little later the surroundings change once more. To my surprise I’m suddenly riding through the finest wine country around Dixon and Velarde. After I have crossed the Rio Grande in Espanola, an inquiry at the tourist office in White Rock reveals that my initial goal, Bandelier National Monument, is off limits. The massive wildfires a couple of months ago are to blame. The park’s staff is afraid of flash floods occurring due to the missing coverage of the burnt trees. My visit to the office is not completely without success. A friendly employee directs me to a point in town where I can get a great view over the valley of the Rio Grande.

The failed visit to Bandelier gives me one advantage: more time for the way back. I will need it. After the densely populated corridor of Highway 285 north of Santa Fe, I follow the sign, “High Road to Taos.” This is a simple and magnificent ride that automatically takes me to places along the route well worth a visit. El Santuario de Chimayo is the first one. Thousands of people make a pilgrimage on Good Friday to this lovely little adobe church between the green meadows of the valley. Today only a couple of visitors dot the countryside.

Afterward, the road climbs further, offering plenty of corners and views. I wonder where the village of Truchas (Spanish for trout) got its name, because it’s situated right on top of a ridge. I continue along the fun road until I hit the next village. Maybe it was this sunbaked, dusty, and lonely appearance that inspired Robert Redford to film The Milagro Beanfield War right here in Las Trampas. The unique local church itself is definitely worth a visit. The beautiful adobe building was made famous by a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. It unmistakably catches the eye while riding along the empty street.

The endless corners of the High Road take their toll. The sun is getting very low and bathes the mountains in high-contrast shadows. The last few miles become almost surreal. Just before dusk, I’m back in Taos.

Day 3 Northwest (202 miles)
Following the Steam Train

Today’s ride begins strangely. I know there must be, somewhere, a deep canyon in the plains and a fantastic piece of engineering that leads across it, but until I’m right on top of it I see nothing but sagebrush. This makes the moment when I cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the fifth-highest bridge in the country, all the better. The Rio Grande carves its way into the rock 650 feet below me, a fantastic sight that calls for a stop at the park on the western side of the bridge. But this is only the introduction of a great day. After the few houses that compose Tres Piedras, the road becomes deserted and beautiful. It passes picturesque farms before climbing up to Hopewell Lake. Up here there is only nature, the road, and me. The road hugs the edge of the tree line before suddenly opening up on a great view toward the west. It doesn’t take long before nearly addictive switchbacks lead me down to Tierra Amarilla. After 80 miles without facilities, this is the place to replenish resources for bike and body.

After the break, the road leads me for half an hour along the foothills of the range until I have to accept an invitation. With a population of 1,250, Chama welcomes travelers with free coffee at the visitor center. Of course, they want you to stay and enjoy the town’s attractions—most importantly, the historic train depot. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad was built in 1880 to support mining in the San Juan Mountains and still runs today from Antonito to Chama. I’m lucky enough to catch the coal-fired steel colossus arriving in town from its journey across the mountains—quite a spectacle. Along Highway 17, I get to appreciate this engineering achievement as I follow the tracks across the 10,000-foot passes of Cumbres and La Manga down to Antonito.

Day 4 Southeast (142 miles)
A Dramatic End

I remember the first miles of Highway 518 from the second day. Today, they feel very different, because I’m riding into the Sangre de Christo Mountains and not out of them. I turn left at the Rio Pueblo and follow the green valley of the river, which cuts its narrow way through the mountains. Shortly before the summit of the pass, the valley broadens and opens the view over lush pastures flanked by forests. The highway takes a sharp left, and suddenly the route and landscape transform completely. The road becomes very curvy and rushes down the mountain. The urge to follow it is great, but I stop at the next turnout, which offers a splendid, expansive vista toward the east over some mountain ranges. In the distance I glimpse the plains of eastern New Mexico. But I can’t stay long. I’m excited to go down this road—so excited, in fact, that I almost miss the turnoff for Highway 434 at the bottom in Mora. (The sign wasn’t very large.)

This road is probably not the most important one in the New Mexican highway system (for the next 27 miles exactly two cars come my way), but it is surely one of the most diverse. First I pass farms with hundreds of alpacas feeding on yellow-flowered meadows. Then the road becomes even more deserted. After the few houses of Guadalupita, it reminds me more of a roller coaster ride. Sierra Bonita marks the point where the road is just about wide enough for two cars to pass each other. Very tight corners are the consequence. Signs recommend a speed of 10 mph. It’s best to obey them. Shortly before Black Lakes, the road catapults me out of the canyon into a high and wide valley. In between are all shades of green meadows, and several small lakes shimmer silver in the backlight, a beautiful moment I savor with a short break and some time to look around. It’s the beginning of September, so plenty of wildflowers are still blossoming. In spring, this area must be a real treat for the eyes.

As good as the name Angel Fire might sound, the ski resort is uninspiring in the summer. At least it’s a good chance to fill up the tank. As soon as I’m past the last signs of civilization, the scenery gets pretty again. Over the Palo Flechado Pass, I’m finishing my circle today and finally have enough time to visit the Pueblo de Taos. The UNESCO World Heritage Site (see sidebar) lies there in shimmering late afternoon light. But it gets better and even more dramatic. To make my visit to this extraordinary place even more memorable, a 10-minute thunderstorm hits the adobe buildings (and me), and leaves the most stunning, almost unreal rainbow over the settlement. My journey into this part of the country could not have ended in a more unforgettable way.

 

Destination: Taos, New Mexico

The town of about 5,500 inhabitants is beautifully located right where the high plains of the Taos Plateau and chain of the Sangre de Christo Mountains meet. Supposedly the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, the Pueblo de Taos is situated in this area. With its five-story buildings, the Pueblo was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 as one of the most significant historical cultural landmarks in the world. The construction of the houses consists entirely of adobe, a mixture of earth, straw, and water that is formed into bricks. When the bricks dry, they are bonded together with the same mixture. Walls are several feet thick and make for a perfect insulation in cold and hot conditions. The roofs are supported by large timbers and then packed with earth. This beauty takes a toll. The exteriors have to be plastered annually with adobe because of  the four seasons. Almost 2,000 Native Americans live in the pueblo community, 150 in the pueblo itself. Neither electricity nor running water are allowed within the sacred village. It can be visited daily between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.; with the backdrop of Taos Mountain, it’s a beautiful sight, especially in late afternoon when the low sun offers perfect light for photographs of the main building.

Adobe architecture, which is responsible for the quaint appeal of the place, is reflected also in the town of Taos itself. No modern buildings disturb the pretty center. An altitude of 7,000 feet and surrounding mountains up to 13,000 feet make north central New Mexico a perfect summer destination. Cool nights and moderate day temperatures are almost guaranteed. Learn more at www.taoschamber.com/visitor-info