Since the 1500s, northern New Mexico has attracted visitors from around the world. It's a place you can return to after an absence and feel as though you are discovering it for the first time. It could be because of the way the light plays off the pastel blue sky and the fluffy white cumulus clouds, or the diverse topography that blankets the horizon in every direction, or the rich history that dates back several thousand years, or the blending of multiple cultural influences. Or it could be that this vast and beautiful landscape offers so many ways to have a great time. It's actually all the above, as well as the native folk and fine arts, the cuisine, the theater, and shopping that make up northern New Mexico's fascinating fabric.
On a recent visit, we observed that New Mexicans have a love affair with their utility vehicles, especially old pickup trucks. Here, the restoration of vintage pickups seems embedded in the locals' DNA. On the streets of Santa Fe, the country roads that lead to and from the pueblos, or on the blue-line roads that wind through the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains, this passion for old trucks is evident everywhere.
The area encompasses Santa Fe north to the Colorado border and west from Chama to Red River and Taos in the east. We began our odyssey in Santa Fe. Stroll up Canyon Road, and you'll find a huge art colony. You can spend hours in the historic central plaza where, every morning, local vendors spread their handcrafted jewelry of silver, turquoise, and other precious metals and gems on blankets in front of the Palace of the Governors. You'll quickly understand why all levels of art aficionados gravitate to Santa Fe.
The gastronomic possibilities in Santa Fe seem endless. La Plazuela, for example, at the La Fonda inn on the southeast corner of the Plaza, specializes in fusion-style New Mexican cuisine. After a leisurely lunch, from the Plaza take a guided walking tour of the highlights of downtown, including the Palace of the Governors and St. Francis Basilica, a block away from the Plaza. In the summer, classic truck owners meet on the Plaza to show off their vehicles at Santa Fe Vintage Car Club gatherings. The capital city's past and present are as colorful as its landscape.
A short drive northwest of Santa Fe is Bandelier National Monument, home to a collection of ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial structures known as kivas, panels of rock art, and picturesque, easy trails. From here, it's just a short car ride to Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic age, where the first atomic bomb was secretly developed. During the early 1940s, thousands of scientists, their families, and support personnel lived here below the radar of the rest of the world while working on the project. The Bradbury Science Museum in downtown Los Alamos chronicles this chapter in our country's history.
Head north on Highway 84 to the sleepy village of Abiquiu, where artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked until her death in the early 1980s. The old Spanish colonial church in the center of the plaza is one of those mystic places that has made the area famous.
We arrived for the night in Chama, immersed in the rustic luxury of the lodge at the Chama Land and Cattle Company. The next day, we boarded the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad for an excursion up and over Cumbres Pass and down into the small Colorado town of Antonito, just across the state line. The rail cars are pulled by a vintage coal-fired 1920s steam locomotive. During the early 20th century, this same locomotive made the 400-mile run from Denver down to Farmington, New Mexico. At the top of the pass, you get off the train and enjoy a full home-cooked turkey dinner, with all the trimmings. The romance of riding these rails is equaled only by the majesty of the scenery, with aspen trees blanketing the craggy slopes and canyons that drop down out of the San Juan Mountains.
Our next stop was Red River, an old mining town on the other side of the San Luis Valley that nestles up to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. During the summer, Red River is adventure central. In the winter, it offers skiing that equals that of Taos Valley, on the other side of the mountain.
We'd heard of the excellent four-wheeling opportunities up to the high mountain lakes above Red River, so we rented a Jeep from New Mexico Adventure Company and enlisted the services of a guide named Montana. This adventure company's Jeeps are equipped to take the rugged abuse dished out by these boulder-strewn, primitive 4WD trails. If you want to tackle such trails on your own, make sure your truck or SUV is up to the task.
For a great breakfast, we recommend Old Tymer's Cafe in downtown Red River. A good place to eat dinner is at Moreno Valley Cowboy Evening located on Highway 38. You'll enjoy a Western-style chuck-wagon steak feast and the talents of a trio called the Highway 38 Hound Dogs. They write, record, and perform music that's a mix of Michael Martin Murphy, the Sons of the Pioneers, Merle Haggard, and Drive-By Truckers.
No trip to Northern New Mexico is complete without a visit to the village of Angel Fire, where the ski lifts run even during the summer. Guests can ride mountain bikes to the top and then down, before or after a great lunch at the outdoor grill that sits at 10,000-plus-feet above sea level. In the area is a thriving artists' community that showcases its work at a gallery called Angel Fire Art Space.
Minutes west of Angel Fire is Enchanted Circle Pottery and the studio, home, and gallery of potters Kevin and JoAnne DeKeuster, who have taken this art form in a unique direction. You must see their walk-in, wood-fired, high-tech kiln, where several times a year they fire hundreds of pieces of clay art simultaneously, using firewood they've split themselves.
Along the High Road to Taos, near the hamlet of Chimayo, stop at the workplaces of weavers like Centinela Traditional Arts, which not only spins and dyes its own wool, but weaves elegant creations. You can go inside and watch the weavers work on giant looms, and browse through the stack of rugs and tapestries that cover the floors and line the walls. Nearby is El Santuario de Chimayo, where for the last 200 years, pilgrims with afflictions have come and, after touching the holy earth inside the sanctuary, have claimed to be cured.
A great way to complete this grand circle tour is to spend a night at the Buffalo Thunder Resort near the Pojoaque pueblo, located on Highway 285, about 15 minutes north of Santa Fe. The huge amount of Southwestern art within this pueblo-style structure could easily qualify it as a fine arts destination.
The hotel there is magnificent, and the number of eateries can satisfy any palate. And, of course, for those who like to play the odds, the casino equals any you will find in Las Vegas.