Native American pueblos and ruins, a national monument and national park, Los Alamos (the A-bomb capital of the U.S.), and the scenic and fascinating High Road to Taos are all easy day trips from Santa Fe. A longer drive will take you to Chaco Culture National Historic Park (well worth the time) and to Chama, home of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Along the High Road to Taos
Unless you're in a hurry to get from Santa Fe to Taos, the High Road -- also called the Mountain Road or the King's Road -- is by far the most fascinating route between the two cities. It begins in lowlands of mystically formed pink and yellow stone, passing by apple and peach orchards and chile farms in the weaving village of Chimayo. Then it climbs toward the highlands to the village of Cordova, known for its woodcarvers, and higher still to Truchas, a renegade arts town where Hispanic traditions and ways of life continue much as they did a century ago. Though I've described this tour from south to north, the most scenic way to see it is from north to south, when you travel down off the mountains rather than up into them. This way, you see more expansive views.
Cordova -- Just as Chimayo is famous for its weaving, the village of Cordova, about 7 miles east on NM 76, is noted for its woodcarving. It's easy to whiz by this village, nestled below the High Road, but don't. Just a short way through this truly traditional northern New Mexico town is a gem: The Castillo Gallery (tel. 505/351-4067), a mile into the village of Cordova, carries moody and colorful acrylic paintings by Paula Castillo, as well as her metal welded sculptures. It also carries the work of Terry Enseñat Mulert, whose contemporary woodcarvings are treasures of the high country. En route to the Castillo, you may want to stop in at two other local carvers' galleries. The first you'll come to is that of Sabinita Lopez Ortiz; the second belongs to her cousin, Gloria Ortiz. Both are descendants of the well-noted José Dolores Lopez. Carved from cedar wood and aspen, their works range from simple statues of saints (santos) to elaborate scenes of birds.
Truchas -- Robert Redford's 1988 movie The Milagro Beanfield War featured the town of Truchas (which means "trout"). A former Spanish colonial outpost built on top of an 8,000-foot mesa, 4 miles east of Cordova, it was chosen as the site for the film in part because traditional Hispanic culture is still very much in evidence. Subsistence farming is prevalent here. The scenery is spectacular: 13,101-foot Truchas Peak dominates one side of the mesa, and the broad Rio Grande Valley dominates the other.
Look for the High Road Marketplace (tel. 866/343-5381 or 505/351-1078), an artists' co-op gallery with a variety of offerings ranging from jewelry to landscape paintings to a broad range of crosses made from tin, rusted metal, and nails. Be sure to find your way into the Cordovas' Handweaving Workshop (tel. 505/689-1124). In the center of town, this tiny shop is run by Harry Cordova, a fourth-generation weaver with a unique style. His works tend to be simpler than many Rio Grande weavings, utilizing mainly stripes in the designs.
Just down the road from Cordovas' is Hand Artes Gallery (tel. 800/689-2441 or 505/689-2443), a definite surprise in this remote region. Here you'll find an array of contemporary as well as representational art from noted regional artists. Look for Sheila Keeffe's worldly painted panels, and Norbert Voelkel's colorful paintings and monoprints.
About 6 miles east of Truchas on NM 76 is the small town of Las Trampas, noted for its 1780 San José de Gracia Church, which, with its thick walls and elegant lines, might possibly be the most beautiful of all New Mexico churches built during the Spanish colonial period.
Picuris (San Lorenzo) Pueblo -- Not far from the regional education center of Peñasco, about 24 miles from Chimayo, near the intersection of NM 75 and NM 76, is the Picuris (San Lorenzo) Pueblo (tel. 505/587-2519; www.picurispueblo.net). The 375 citizens of this 15,000-acre mountain pueblo, native Tewa speakers, consider themselves a sovereign nation: Their forebears never made a treaty with any foreign country, including the United States. Thus, they observe a traditional form of tribal council government. A few of the original mud-and-stone houses still stand, as does a lovely church. A striking aboveground ceremonial kiva called "the Roundhouse," built at least 700 years ago, and some historic excavated kivas and storerooms are on a hill above the pueblo and are open to visitors. The annual feast days at San Lorenzo Church are August 9 and 10.
The people here are modern enough to have fully computerized their public showcase operations as Picuris Tribal Enterprises. Besides running the Hotel Santa Fe in the state capital, they own the Picuris Pueblo Museum and Visitor's Center, where weaving, beadwork, and distinctive reddish-brown clay cooking pottery are exhibited daily 8am to 5pm. Self-guided tours through the old village ruins begin at the museum and cost $5; the camera fee is $6; sketching and video camera fees are $25. There's also an information center, crafts shop, and restaurant. Fishing permits ($11 for all ages) are available, as are permits to camp ($8) at Tu-Tah Lake, which is regularly stocked with trout.
You might want to plan your High Road trip to include a visit to Sugar Nymphs Bistro, 15046 NM 75 (tel. 505/587-0311) for some inventive food. Inside a vintage theater in the little farming village of Peñasco, Kai Harper, former executive chef at Greens in San Francisco, prepares contemporary bistro cuisine, using local and seasonal ingredients. Lunch brings imaginative pizza, salads, and burgers, while dinner includes a full range of entrees. Yaki Udon is a favorite at lunch and dinner: Grilled chicken is combined with red bell peppers, poblano chiles, carrots, and snap peas in a soy-ginger sauce. Kai bakes her own bread here, well worth sampling, and her own desserts too. The Bistro also sponsors family-oriented events in the theater. On a recent visit they were screening The Milagro Beanfield War, but they also have trapeze and puppet shows. Call ahead to find out how you can partake in these, which usually occur on and around weekends. In summer, the cafe is open Tuesday to Saturday 11:30am to 3pm and Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 7:30 or 8pm, with Sunday brunch 11am to 2pm. In winter, spring, and fall, the schedule is abbreviated. Call ahead to be sure it's open.
About a mile east of Peñasco on NM 75 is Vadito, the former center for a conservative Catholic brotherhood, the Penitentes, early in the 20th century. You'll see a small adobe chapel on the left. Also watch for Penitente crosses scattered about the area, often on hilltops.
Dixon & Embudo -- Taos is about 24 miles north of Peñasco via NM 518, but day-trippers from Santa Fe can loop back to the capital by taking NM 75 west from Picuris Pueblo. Dixon, approximately 12 miles west of Picuris, and its twin village Embudo, a mile farther on NM 68 at the Rio Grande, are home to many artists and craftspeople who exhibit their works during the annual autumn show sponsored by the Dixon Arts Association. If you get to Embudo at mealtime, stop in at Embudo Station (tel. 800/852-4707 or 505/852-4707; www.embudostation.com), a restaurant right on the banks of the Rio Grande. From mid-April to October -- the only time it's open -- you can sit on the patio under giant cottonwoods and sip the restaurant's own microbrewed beer (try the green-chile ale, its most celebrated) and signature wines while watching the peaceful Rio flow by. The specialty here is Southwestern food, but you'll find other tantalizing tastes as well. Try the rainbow trout roasted on a cedar plank. The restaurant is generally open Tuesday to Sunday noon to 9pm, but call before making plans. It's especially known for its jazz on Sunday, an affair that PBS once featured.
To taste more of the local grape, follow signs to La Chiripada Winery (tel. 505/579-4437; www.lachiripada.com), whose product is surprisingly good, especially to those who don't know that New Mexico has a long winemaking history. Local pottery is also sold in the tasting room. The winery is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday noon to 6pm.
Two more small villages lie in the Rio Grande Valley at 6-mile intervals south of Embudo on NM 68. Velarde is a fruit-growing center; in season, the road here is lined with stands selling fresh fruit or crimson chile ristras and wreaths of native plants. Alcalde is the site of Los Luceros, an early-17th-century home that has been refurbished as an arts and history center. Also in the area and worth checking out is Los Luceros Winery (tel. 505-852-1085; www.nmwine.com), which makes wine in a straw-bale winery. The unique Dance of the Matachines, a Moorish-style ritual brought from Spain, is performed here on holidays and feast days.
Ojo Caliente -- Many locals from the area like to rejuvenate at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, Ojo Caliente, NM 87549 (tel. 800/222-9162 or 505/583-2233; http://ojocalientesprings.com); it's on US 285, 50 miles (a 1-hr. drive) northwest of Santa Fe and 50 miles southwest of Taos. This National Historic Site was considered sacred by prehistoric tribes. When Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca discovered and named the springs in the 16th century, he called them "the greatest treasure that I found these strange people to possess." No other hot spring in the world has Ojo Caliente's combination of iron, soda, lithium, sodium, and arsenic. If the weather is warm enough, the outdoor mud bath is a treat. The dressing rooms are in fairly good shape; however, the whole place has an earthy feel. If you're a fastidious type, you won't be comfortable here. The resort offers herbal wraps and massages, lodging, and meals. It's open daily 8am to 10pm. A fun side trip while in the area is the village of El Rito. One of the state's best chile spots is there, at the family-owned restaurant El Farolito at 1212 Main St. (tel. 505/581-9509). The remote place has been written about in Gourmet and Travel + Leisure, and it's no wonder -- their enchiladas are some of the best in the state. The hours vary, so call ahead.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.