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High & Low Roads to Taos

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The High and Low Roads between Santa Fe and Taos offer the perfect excursion for visitors and locals alike. Together the roads make a loop through territory that is spectacularly beautiful and historically and culturally rich. Whether you begin the loop in Santa Fe and go north, or in Taos and go south, traveling these roads is an exhilarating adventure you will long remember.

The roads are very different in character. The High Road is a scenic byway that meanders through stunning mountain landscapes and tiny Land Grant villages. In these isolated communities you can still feel the influence of the early Spanish settlers who arrived four centuries ago. Along this route you can engage personally with artists and artisans in their galleries and studios. By contrast, the Low Road runs straight through valleys along the Rio Grande, with views of orchards, basalt cliffs, the river and its gorge.

Set aside a leisurely day for your excursion. Although these are easy country roads and the distances are not great, there is much to experience. Also, while the routes are simple, it is a good idea to follow along on a map.

To hit the High Road from Santa Fe, take U.S. 285/84 North. Just past Pojoaque, turn right on N.M. 503 East to Namb. (Cundiy. Road). Almost immediately you will see the first of the green signs that mark the High Road to Taos. Initially lined with cottonwoods, the two-lane road winds through the Nambé River Valley past the Nambé Pueblo, then opens to the huge New Mexico sky and rolling high-desert “badlands.”

After 7.5 miles on N.M. 503, look for signs to Chimayó and turn left onto N.M. 98 (Juan Medina Road). From the creased red ridges, the road drops down into the green Chimayó Valley, noted for its fruit orchards and chiles. Another sign directs you to a side road to the Santuario de Chimayó, a 200-year-old pilgrimage church that annually draws tens of thousands of visitors. Because its legendary sacred dirt is said to bring healing and miracles, the Santuario has been called the “Lourdes of the Southwest.” The village of Chimayó itself was founded near the end of the 17th century and is built around one of the oldest surviving plazas of Spanish Colonial origin.

Farther along N.M. 98 is Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante. Set in a century-old adobe hacienda, this restaurant serves delicious, authentic New Mexican cuisine. Sip a margarita in the sunroom bar or on the patio, or opt for fi reside dining in cold weather. Save room for fl an or one of the Rancho’s famous sopaipillas.

Beyond the restaurant the road ends at the junction with N.M. 76. If you turn left on N.M. 76 and go a mile to Chimayó Trading & Mercantile, you may meet owner John Abrums in his gallery. Located in the 100-year-old, beautifully restored former Martinez mercantile building, the gallery offers an outstanding collection of pottery, textiles, jewelry and paintings.

Resume your journey on the High Road by doubling back to the 503/76 junction. Drive straight ahead on N.M. 76 and watch for Centinela Traditional Arts on your left. A short distance down the road on the right is Oviedo Carvings and Bronze, showing traditional woodcarvings and unique Southwestern and contemporary bronzes.

N.M. 76 now begins its 3,000-foot ascent of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, up slopes dotted with small farms and forests. If you like, you can turn off the road to visit the craft village of Cord.va, known for its carvers and woodcarving school and the sophisticated Castillo Gallery.

Beyond Cordova, the road continues to climb and offer breathtaking views of the snow-capped Truchas Peaks. At 13,000 feet, these four peaks are among the highest in the Sangre de Cristo range. Backed by the peaks and perched atop a high mesa stands the village of Truchas. Founded in 1754 by the Spanish to serve as a buffer against Apache and Comanche raids, the village is now home to an eclectic community of artists.

As you approach the village, look for a sign with a large crow in silhouette that directs you down Bill Loyd’s narrow driveway on the left. His specialties are deep-toned chimes, bells and gongs. Also located here is the Anna Karin Gallery. The gallery presents her refined oil paintings and a wide-ranging collection of pieces by other artists who live in or near Truchas.

Proceed into Truchas, passing for now the left turn to Taos and driving straight ahead on N.M. 75. Just a bit farther is artist and author Judith Hert’s Iola Studio & Gallery, showing her colorful geometric abstracts. Next door, the Cardona-Hine Gallery features imaginative contemporary paintings by two internationally known New Mexico painters, Barbara McCauley and the late Alvaro Cardona-Hine, as well as sculpture and ceramics by other local artists.

Down the street toward the mountains is the Sally Delap-John Studio/Gallery with her plein air paintings of Northern New Mexico architecture and landscape. Next on the right is the Hand Artes Gallery & Sculpture Garden, where fine art and nature meet. Hand Artes offers an exciting collection of paintings, ceramics and photography, as well as local folk art and handmade furniture.

Return now to the High Road by doubling back to the 76/75 intersection and turning right on N.M. 76 North. Directly on your left you will see the High Road Art Gallery. This nonprofit (no-tax) co-operative gallery presents the work of nearly 80 artists and artisans from Northern New Mexico — traditional and contemporary arts and crafts of all sorts.

As you leave the co-op, continue north until you see the Truchas General Mercantile on your left. It’s a great place to stop for a bite to eat, and it also happens to have one of the most gorgeous views on the High Road drive. The food is eclectic and excellent. Try their amazing enchiladas, but leave room for a piece of homemade blackberry pie. And you might want to take a piece of their cherry pie to enjoy later along the way!

From Truchas the High Road runs into the Carson National Forest and through a series of small villages. The first of these is Ojo Sarco. Here you will find Ojo Sarco Pottery, the studio and showroom of Kathy Riggs and Jake Willson, which features their functional pottery and distinctive pit-fired porcelain pieces.

Continue on to the village of Las Trampas and stop to admire the Spanish Colonial church of San José de Gracia. Built in the 1770s and still in use today, this National Historic Landmark is considered one of New Mexico’s most beautiful structures from that era.

From Las Trampas, drive through Chamisal to the end of N.M. 76 and its junction with N.M. 75. A short drive down the road to the left would take you to the Picuris Pueblo, once one of the largest and most powerful of the northern Native American pueblos. Known for its micaceous pottery (flecked with shiny mica), Picuris also has a thriving buffalo herd. But the High Road turns right on N.M. 75 and leads you through the town of Peñasco.

A short diversion up Rt. 73 takes you to the Santa Barbara Campgrounds where fall aspens’ quaking yellow leaves reflect their images in the streams making their way to the Rio Grande. There are trails for hiking, places to fish and open fields in which to stroll. The air is clean and the sky intensely blue.

Among the most beautiful sights in Northern New Mexico are the mud-and-straw adobe buildings nestled along the roads and in the mountain villages. The unique architecture sets the area apart from other rural areas in the U.S.

As you continue into Peñasco on Rt. 75, you enter the heart of the village. Gaucho Blue Gallery will be the first gallery you see. Housed in a charming, refurbished adobe building, it features original artwork by local artists and artisans, including Nick Beason’s monotype prints, Lise Poulsen’s wearable and decorative fiber art and Jim Stoner’s forged metal furniture. Beason and Poulson first fell in love with the area in 1990 and relocated there in 2008. “We are very fortunate to live where we do,” says Beason, “in a small and still essentially agrarian community with deep, deep roots to the earth, rich in tradition, and a vast history and cultural legacy.” Be sure to savor the contemporary American cuisine and mouth-watering baked goods of the Sugar Nymphs Bistro, featured in Gourmet magazine.

Peñasco serves the surrounding villages of Llano San Juan, Llano Largo and Santa Barbara, which were settled by Spanish colonists in 1796. Beyond Peñasco the road passes through the small village of Vadito and the lovely valley of Placita. At the “stone wall” intersection, the High Road turns left on N.M. 518 and continues on toward Taos through the vistas of the Carson National Forest. The High Road ends officially in Ranchos de Taos, where N.M. 518 intersects with N.M. 68, the Low Road.

Turn right at this intersection to extend your excursion with a visit to Taos. There you can see the historic Taos Pueblo, galleries, museums, restaurants and other unforgettable places described elsewhere in The Essential Guide.

To start down the other side of the main loop immediately, turn left at the 518/68 intersection and head south toward Española and Santa Fe. After only two blocks you can turn left onto Ranchos Plaza Road to see the famed San Francisco de As.s Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos.

Beyond Ranchos de Taos, the Low Road carries you past a number of small farming towns that are also arts communities. In Rinconada, stop at the Rift Gallery to select from stone carvings and fountains, as well as ceramics, sculpture and more.

If you want to see the red hills that O’Keeffe painted and explored, you can detour slightly north from the Low Road. After entering Espa.ola on N.M. 68, look for a right turn for U.S. 84/285 North at Fairview Lane. Make the turn and head towards the village of Abiqui.. North of the Abiqui. Inn, turn left at the sign for Old Abiqui. and drive past the post office. At the top of hill stands the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio, the permanent residence of the artist after 1949, with views out over the Chama River Valley and the rim of the “White Place.” (Tours are limited and available only by reservation, mid-March through November; okeeffemuseum.org) Follow U.S. 84 South to return to Santa Fe and complete your loop.

An excursion on the High and Low Roads is interesting at any time of year, but autumn, when the trees turn golden and the sky cobalt, offers special experiences. This is the season for annual art tours that attract visitors from near and far. While many galleries and studios are open year round, some studios welcome visitors only during the tours. The High Road Art Tour is held the last two weekends in September. The Abiqui. Studio Tour follows in October on Columbus Day weekend. Finally, the Dixon Studio Tour — a major art event since 1982 — is held the first full weekend of November.

Hours for the galleries, studios and attractions along the roads vary widely by season — and some hours are even designated “by chance.” So call ahead to confirm hours, particularly during the winter months.

Whether you are interested in history, architecture, nature, fine art or craft, and whether you crave an outing in the spectacular backcountry of the Southwest or a shopping expedition beyond the ordinary, an excursion on the High and Low Roads will more than satisfy. Indeed, if you are like most people, your first trip along these routes will not be your last.

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Leah Pinkus