If you're in the mood to explore, take this 90-mile loop north of Taos, through the old Hispanic villages of Arroyo Hondo and Questa, into a pass that the Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches once used to cross the mountains to trade with the Taos Indians. You'll come to the Wild West mining town of Red River, pass through the expansive Moreno Valley, and travel along the base of some of New Mexico's tallest peaks. Then, you'll skim the shores of a high mountain lake at Eagle Nest, pass through the resort village of Angel Fire, and head back to Taos along the meandering Rio Fernando de Taos. Although one can drive the entire loop in 2 hours from Taos, most folks prefer to take a full day, and many take several days.
Traveling north from Taos via NM 522, it's a 9-mile drive to this village, the remains of an 1815 land grant along the Rio Hondo. Along the dirt roads that lead off NM 522, you may find a windowless morada or two, marked by plain crosses in front -- places of worship for the still-active Penitentes, a religious order known for self-flagellation. This is also the turnoff point for trips to the Rio Grande Box, an awesome 1-day, 17-mile white-water run for which you can book trips in Santa Fe, Taos, Red River, and Angel Fire.
Arroyo Hondo was also the site of the New Buffalo commune in the 1960s. Hippies flocked here, looking to escape the mores of modern society. Over the years, the commune members have dispersed throughout northern New Mexico, bringing an interesting creative element to the food, architecture, and philosophy of the state. En route north, the highway passes near San Cristobal, where a side road turns off to the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and Lama, site of an isolated spiritual retreat.
Next, NM 522 passes through Questa, most of whose residents are employed at a molybdenum mine about 5 miles east of town. Mining molybdenum (an ingredient in lightbulbs, television tubes, and missile systems) in the area has not been without controversy. The process has raked across hillsides along the Red River, and though Molycorp, the mine's owner, treats the water it uses before returning it to the river, studies show that it has adversely affected the fish life. Still, the mine is a major employer in the area, and locals are grateful for the income it generates. Stop in at Paloma Blanca Coffee House, a new bright spot at 2322 NM 522 (tel. 575/586-2261). You'll find a variety of coffees and teas as well as homemade pies, cookies, and ice cream. Also for sale are weavings, earrings, and paintings.
If you turn west off NM 522 onto NM 378 about 3 miles north of Questa, you'll travel 8 miles on a paved road to the Bureau of Land Management-administered Wild Rivers Recreation Area (tel. 575/770-1600). Here, where the Red River enters the gorge, you'll find 22 miles of trails, some suited for biking and some for hiking, a few trails traveling 800 feet down into the gorge to the banks of the Rio Grande. Forty-eight miles of the Rio Grande, which extend south from the Colorado border, are protected under the national Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968. Information on geology and wildlife, as well as hikers' trail maps, can be obtained at the visitor center here.
The village of Costilla, near the Colorado border, is 20 miles north of Questa. This is the turnoff point for four-wheel-drive jaunts and hiking trips into Valle Vidal, a huge U.S. Forest Service-administered reserve with 42 miles of roads and many hiking trails. A day hike in this area can bring you sightings of hundreds of elk.
To continue on the Enchanted Circle loop, turn east at Questa onto NM 38 for a 12-mile climb to Red River, a rough-and-ready 1890s gold-mining town that has parlayed its Wild West ambience into a pleasant resort village that's especially popular with families from Texas and Oklahoma.
This community, at 8,750 feet, is a center for skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, hiking, off-road driving, horseback riding, mountain biking, river rafting, and other outdoor pursuits. Frontier-style celebrations, honky-tonk entertainment, and even staged shootouts on Main Street are held throughout the year.
Though it can be a charming and fun town, Red River's food and accommodations are mediocre at best. Its patrons are down-home folks, happy with a bed and a diner-style meal. If you decide to stay, try the Lodge at Red River, P.O. Box 189, Red River, NM 87558 (tel. 800/91-LODGE [915-6343] or 575/754-6280; www.lodgeatredriver.com), in the center of town. It offers hotel rooms ranging in price from $84 to $225. Knotty pine throughout, the accommodations are clean and comfortable. Downstairs, the restaurant serves three home-style meals daily.
If you're passing through and want a quick meal, Mountain Treasures (212 W. Main St., Red River, NM 87558, tel. 575/754-2700), a gallery, bistro, and espresso coffee bar, offers excellent sandwiches. Go straight for the muffulettas or "muffys," Italian sandwiches made popular in New Orleans. Salami, turkey, provolone, cheddar, and olive spread are set within homemade Sicilian round bread and heated until the outside is crusty, the inside gooey rich. For dessert try the Czech pastry kolache in a variety of fruits ranging from peach to cherry. Summer and winter ski season the cafe is open daily 6am to 6pm. Other times Monday to Saturday 7am to 2pm. A good bet for dinner is Texas Reds Steak House 111 E. Main St. (tel. 575/754-2964), where you can order steaks, burgers, and chicken dishes in a rustic Old West atmosphere. It's open in summer and winter daily from 4:30 to 10pm. During the shoulder seasons in spring and fall, it's open on weekends only.
The Red River Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 870, Red River, NM 87558 (tel. 800/348-6444 or 575/754-2366; www.redrivernewmexico.com), lists more than 40 accommodations, including lodges and condominiums. Some are open winters or summers only.
About 16 miles southeast of Red River, on the other side of 9,850-foot Bobcat Pass, is the village of Eagle Nest, resting on the shore of Eagle Nest Lake in the Moreno Valley. Gold was mined in this area as early as 1866, starting in what is now the ghost town of Elizabethtown about 5 miles north; Eagle Nest itself (pop. 200) wasn't incorporated until 1976. The 4-square-mile Eagle Nest Lake State Park (tel. 888/NM-PARKS [667-2757] or 575/377-1594; www.nmparks.com) stretches out below the village. Currently facilities include restrooms, a boat ramp, and visitor center. The lake is considered one of the top trout producers in the United States and attracts ice fishermen in winter as well as summer anglers. It's too cold for swimming, but sailboaters and windsurfers ply the waters.
One of New Mexico's more atmospheric country bars, the Laguna Vista Saloon, resides here, with an attached Texas Reds Steakhouse, on US 64 at the center of Eagle Nest (tel. 505/377-6522 or 505/377-2755; www.lagunavistalodge.com).
If you're heading to Cimarron or Denver, proceed east on US 64 from Eagle Nest. But if you're circling back to Taos, continue southwest on NM 38 and US 64 to Agua Fría and Angel Fire.
Shortly before the Agua Fría junction, you'll see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park (County Rd., B-4, Angel Fire, tel. 575/377-6900). It's a stunning structure with curved white walls soaring high against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Consisting of a chapel and an underground visitor center, it was built by Dr. Victor Westphall in memory of his son, David, a marine lieutenant killed in Vietnam in 1968. The 6,000-square-foot memorial houses exhibits, videos, and memorabilia. It also has a changing gallery of photographs of Vietnam veterans who lost their lives in the Southeast Asian war, but no photo is as poignant as this inscription written by young David Westphall, a promising poet:
Greed plowed cities desolate. Lusts ran snorting through the streets. Pride reared up to desecrate Shrines, and there were no retreats. So man learned to shed the tears With which he measures out his years.
Ghosts of Elizabethtown
Although only a few trodden clues remain, the gold-mining town Elizabethtown once boasted 7,000 residents and was the first seat of Colfax County. It was called Virginia City when founded in 1865, but the name was changed to honor Elizabeth Moore, daughter of a leading citizen. What has become known as E-town had plenty of gold-town perks: five stores, two hotels, seven saloons, and three dance halls. By the early 1900s, much of the gold had run out, and in 1903 fire blazed through the town, leveling much of it. Today, visitors can still see a few foundations and remnants of a cemetery. It's on the west side of NM 38, about 10 miles east of Red River.
If you like the clean efficiency of a resort complex, you may want to plan a night or two here -- at any time of year. Angel Fire is approximately 150 miles north of Albuquerque and 21 miles east of Taos. Opened in the late 1960s, this resort offers a hotel, condominiums, and cabins. Winter is the biggest season. This medium-size beginner and intermediate mountain is an excellent place for families to roam about. Two high-speed quad lifts zip skiers to the top quickly while allowing them a long ski down. The views of the Moreno Valley are awe inspiring. Fourteen miles of Nordic trail have been added at the top of the mountain; visitors can also snowmobile and take sleigh rides, including one out to a sheepherder's tent with a plank floor and a wood stove where you can eat dinner cooked over an open fire. Contact Roadrunner Tours (tel. 575/377-6416 or 575/377-1811).
During spring, summer, and fall, Angel Fire Resort offers golf, tennis, hiking, mountain biking (you can take your bike up on the quad lift), fly-fishing, river rafting, and horseback riding. There are other fun family activities, such as video arcade, a miniature golf course, theater performances, and, throughout the year, a variety of festivals, including a hot-air balloon festival, Winterfest, and concerts of both classical and popular music.
The unofficial community center is the Angel Fire Resort, 10 Miller Lane (P.O. Box 130), Angel Fire, NM 87710 (tel. 800/633-7463 or 575/377-6401; www.angelfireresort.com), a 155-unit hotel with spacious, comfortable rooms, some with fireplaces and some with balconies. Rates range from $90 to $200.
For more information on the Moreno Valley, including full accommodations listings, contact the Angel Fire Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 547, Angel Fire, NM 87710 (tel. 800/446-8117 or 575/377-6661; fax 575/377-3034; www.angelfirechamber.org).
A fascinating adventure you may want to try here is a 1-hour, 1-day, or overnight horseback trip with Roadrunner Tours, P.O. Box 274, Angel Fire, NM 87710 (tel. 575/377-6416; www.rtours.com). One-and-a-half-hour rides run year-round for $70, but if you'd like a little more adventure, try an overnight. From Angel Fire, Nancy Burch guides adventurers on horseback through private ranchland of ponderosa forests and meadows of asters and sunflowers, often including wildlife sightings. Once at camp, riders bed down in an authentic mountain cowboy cabin. Call for prices.