North Central New Mexico
is Georgia O'Keeffe country -- the high desert with amazing colors. However, it is also home to two gorgeous mountain ranges and fascinating cultural nuances. Santa Fe, at the southern tip of the region, is one of the world's great travel destinations for its combination of beauty, cultural interest, music, art, and dining.
English, of course, but a considerable number of other languages are spoken in the area. Many residents speak Spanish at home and sometimes at school and work, and dialects of Tewa, Tiwa and Keresan are spoken at the American Indian pueblos of the region, and Jicarilla Apache is spoken in the area of Dulce. Visitors for whom English is a second language may have problems with the indigenous version of English, which is often spoken with a rapid, "machine gun" accent, particularly in some of the rural communities where Spanish is dominant. It doesn't take long to get used to the accent, however. Visitors who speak no English or Spanish at all face some challenges, but a surprising number of residents of Los Alamos and, to a lesser extent, Taos and Santa Fe are fluent in the major European and Asian languages.
One recommendation: If you encounter a place name that appears to be Spanish in origin, it's a good idea to pronounce it as Spanish. A majority of place names in this region are Spanish, some of them with diacriticals to prove it ( Española, Peñasco, etc.), and persistently avoiding Spanish pronunciations will be interpreted by some residents, many of whom speak Spanish at home, as rude. Pronunciation tips in the WikiTravel Spanish phrasebook are useful here; the most common things to watch for are words with "ñ" as in the Española example, double "l" (e.g. the very common Gallegos surname), and double "r" (e.g. Rio Arriba County, which incidentally is a particularly good place in which to have your Spanish pronunciations in shape).
The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque. Santa Fe has very limited air service connecting to Denver that, so to speak, comes and goes; check the Santa Fe article for current status. No Interstate highways pass through the region, but I-25 skirts it on the southeast as it passes from the Colorado state line on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos, around Santa Fe, and on to Albuquerque. There is limited bus service to Santa Fe and Taos. A commuter train, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, connects the Albuquerque metro area to Santa Fe, with limited service daily. Fares are based on how far you ride, and a day pass will usually be in the range of $5-$9. Tickets can be purchased online  or from ticket agents at the station and on the train. Amtrak's daily Los Angeles - Chicago Southwest Chief route serves North Central New Mexico with a stop in Lamy, about 15 miles south of Santa Fe on US Highway 285, and a shuttle that transports passengers between Lamy and Santa Fe.
Drive; the area is too big and hilly for there to be viable alternatives. This part of the state has severe problems with DUI, so keep your eye out for erratic motorists. Another, possibly related problem is the astounding fraction of vehicles that are seriously decrepit. You probably won't have to log many hours of driving in northern New Mexico before you see something unexpected and hazardous fall off a car or (particularly) truck, maybe in your path. Defensive driving is a good idea, even though the traffic density is low except in and near Santa Fe.
Relying on others for your transportation doesn't work well here. Hitchhiking in this area is an iffy proposition. Traffic density in the rural areas is low, so you may have to wait a long time for a ride, and the DUI issue makes it downright dangerous to be at the roadside at night.
The North Central Regional Transit District "Blue Buses" provides free bus service Monday through Friday with routes that connect the counties and communities of Santa Fe, Taos, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba.
There are a number of interesting sights in this photogenic area, most of them covered in the separate pages for places named in Cities and Other destinations. A few that don't fall conveniently into one of these headings:
Much of the territory of this region is controlled by one of the several American Indian tribes with ancestral homes in the region. (Incidentally, a poll of these tribes a few years ago indicated some preference for the descriptor "American Indian" compared to the neologism "Native American," although either is acceptable usage.) Some, but not all, of the pueblos and reservations are open to the public for visits; those listed below in bold face are relatively tourist-friendly. They are listed in geographical order (west to east and north to south). Española is a good jumping-off place for visits to most of the pueblos. For more detailed information on each of the pueblos, see New Mexico Pueblos.
Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation on the northwest side of the region, near Dulce on the Continental Divide and extending far to the south; some tourist amenities near Dulce
The High Road to Taos, between Taos and Santa Fe, is perhaps the best-known scenic byway in this area. Directions from south to north:
From Santa Fe, follow US Highway 84/285 north through Miocene lake bed formations to Pojoaque and turn east on NM SR 503. This winding country road leads through the villages of Nambe and Cundiyo to Chimayó and SR 76, with nice views of the southern Sangre de Cristos as you go. From Española, just head east on SR 76 to Chimayó. This is a nice winding road through a scenic wooded valley past farms. In Chimayó you can visit the locally famous Santuario de Chimayó chapel and local weaving shops.
Take SR 76 east from Chimayó. This road winds through a number of small, historic farming settlements populated mainly by the Hispanic families who have lived here for generations. Leaving Chimayó, you'll wind past the village of Cordova and climb a steep route to the village of Truchas, perched on a ridge overlooking the Española Valley and with spectacular views of several nearby peaks. After Truchas, the road winds through the mountains, cutting through several small valleys along the way, each with its own village. Trampas, one such village, is notable for its large and historic church in the town plaza. Eventually, SR 76 meets SR 75 at Picuris Pueblo; you can turn left and follow the signs about a mile west to the small pueblo, which has a fishing lake and some shops selling micaceous clay pottery. To continue to Taos, turn right on SR 75 instead.
After passing through the villages of Peñasco and Vadito, SR 75 intersects with SR 518; turn left. Take 518 down the winding road out of the mountains to SR 68 at Ranchos de Taos, with the extraordinarily beautiful San Francisco de Asis Mission Church near the intersection. Turn right on SR 68 and continue into Taos, a worthy destination by itself. If you're returning to Santa Fe for the night, it's best not to retrace your steps exactly, but rather continue south on SR 68 at its intersection with SR 518 - the "Low Road to Taos" (covered below), descending along the Rio Grande back to Española where you can then get on US 84/285, which you can follow south through Pojoaque to Santa Fe.
The Low Road to Taos, also known as the main route, is another scenic drive between Santa Fe and Taos, and while it is much faster than the High Road, also offers some scenic attractions in its own right.
Starting in Española, take SR 68 north. You'll pass by the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (formerly the San Juan Pueblo) on your left, which has an arts cooperative and makes for a pleasant diversion. Continuing along SR 68, you'll pass through the villages of Alcalde and Velarde, both farming towns on the banks of the Rio Grande where there are plenty of roadside fruit stands selling locally grown fruit. There are also a couple of wineries in the area.
After Velarde, the road enters the Rio Grande Gorge and hugs the banks of the Rio for many miles to come. The scenery here is spectacular, with sheers cliffs rising above the road. Along the way, you'll pass by Embudo, most well known for the Embudo Station, an old train station (the tracks are long gone) with a collection of old buildings nearby, such as a lovely old wooden water tower. There's also an on-again, off-again restaurant operating out of Embudo Station. A couple of miles later you'll intersect with SR 75, which passes through the village of Dixon just up the road and makes for a wonderful diversion, with a great number of orchards and vineyards in town as well as several art galleries.
Continue north along SR 68 to the town of Pilar, the center for whitewater rafting in the region. If you travel this route in the spring or summer, you'll likely see rafts and kayaks making their way down the river before you get to Pilar, and the town itself has a ranger station and some camping/picnic facilities along the river nearby. After Pilar, SR 68 climbs out of the gorge with some spectacular views of the gorge northward and the surrounding mountain ranges. SR 68 continues on through Ranchos de Taos on to the destination of Taos.
The "Enchanted Circle", is a circuit around the mountains of North Central NM. Directions from Taos (although can be done from any circle community):
North from Taos on US 64 to the turn off of US 64 West, continue on NM 522 towards Questa. May detour to Rio Grande Gorge bridge on US 64, might add Millicent Rogers Museum, stop at Red River fish hatchery for more visit variety, another good addition is the "Wild & Scenic Rivers" area near Questa.
From Questa, drive East on NM 38, into the Sangre de Christos to the town of Red River along the Red River. Goes by Molycorp mine. Red River is an old mining town with many intersting sights and side trips, a winter ski area, offers numerous year round activities, and hosts a large motorsycle rally Memorial Day Weekend. One interesting access point to hiking Wheeler Peak is South of Red River on NM 578. Get detailed directions from someone before attempting this route.
From Red River continue East on NM 38 past ghost town Elizabethtown to Eagle Nest. Note many hiking almost offroad trails along the way. You'll connect with US 64 again in Eagle Nest. Eagle Nest is the Northern most point of Eagle Nest Lake. If you are continuing East on US 64 towards Raton, you go East.
We're going West on US 64 towards Angel Fire. May stop at lake for fishing or State Park site with new energy efficient headquarters. Great area information.
In Aqua Fria (cold water in spanish) is the turn off to Angel Fire Resort with golf and skiing. Also the site of Angel Fire airport for private pilots who like 8,000 foot elevation landings. The MUST see here is the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. The first such site in the USA. Undergoing renovations 2009-2010 and remains partially open.
Continue on US 64 Westward to Taos. Circle takes from 2.5 hours with no stops to all day if you're a real explorer.
To enjoy the Jemez Mountains rather than the Sangre de Cristos, turn west on NM SR 502 at Pojoaque and proceed toward Los Alamos. There are fine views of the canyon-and-mesa country from about five miles along this road on to its intersection with NM SR 4. You can either continue on 502 to Los Alamos and beyond, or take 4 instead, passing White Rock and the turnoff for Bandelier National Monument. 502 (re-signed as SR 501 recently; route to Camp May Road and Pajarito Mountain ski area, anyway) and 4 rejoin west of Los Alamos; you can either head back to Santa Fe here, or better, continue west on 4 into the Jemez Mountains via a spectacular, winding road that is not for the acrophobic. After passing through Valles Caldera National Preserve, this road heads down the west side of the mountains through Jemez Springs and a brilliantly colored red-rock canyon to San Ysidro. Unfortunately, from here your shortest route back to Santa Fe is much less scenic: turn left on US 550 to Interstate 25 and either north to Santa Fe or south to Albuquerque and out of this region.
If traveling through the region, rather than within it, US 64 is a scenic option. Westbound, it leaves Interstate 25 near Raton in the northeastern region of the state and makes a beeline for the Sangre de Cristos, passing the towns of Cimarron, Ute Park and Eagle Nest. (If you have a few minutes, pause at Cimarron for the Philmont Ranch Road Auto Tour south of town, familiar to generations of Boy Scouts bound for the Scout camp at Philmont.) US 64 crosses the range crest at Palo Flechado Pass, itself not terribly scenic but with some pretty country nearby, and continues to Taos. After negotiating the aggravating traffic of downtown Taos, continue north and then west on 64 across the dizzying Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, through a number of small towns and scruffy mountains to Tierra Amarilla on the western edge of the region (distant views of the startling Brazos Cliffs near here).
As under "See," check the listings for the towns, etc., for more things to do; this is a tremendous area for the active visitor, particularly if your interests run toward the outdoors. Some things not fitting into a separate article:
Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, was Georgia O'Keeffe's New Mexico home, and contains a number of features of interest to the visitor. The ranch is now a retreat under the auspices of the Presbyterian church, which maintains two small museums on site (small fee) and also several hiking trails into the red-rock country that O'Keeffe's paintings made famous. Tours of O'Keeffe's home and studio are also available but require significant advance planning. Call 877-804-4678 for information.
Outdoor recreation in the mountains is covered under the articles for the respective monuments, forests, towns and ranges, but there are also outdoor recreational opportunities in the valley.
The Rio Grande is a well-known destination for river runners, and the Rio Chama, which flows into the Rio Grande near Española, has one short but spectacular white-water stretch above artificial Abiquiu Lake. There are outfitters in Santa Fe, Taos, and some of the small towns between Taos and Española that run raft trips when conditions are satisfactory (water flow in the rivers varies seasonally).
If you like water sports of a less dramatic nature, there are several small, man-made lakes along the Rio Chama that are suitable for small boating and fishing: Heron Lake and El Vado Lake near Tierra Amarilla, and Abiquiu Lake near Abiquiu on the north side of the Jemez Mountains. The Rio Grande has Cochiti Lake south of Bandelier National Monument at the extreme southern end of the region.
Bandelier National Monument contains the best canyon-and-mesa hiking in the region outside Ghost Ranch, and there are similarly pleasant trails near Los Alamos.
Birdwatchers can have an interesting time along the Rio Grande, particularly in October and February-March. One of the major North American migratory routes follows the Rio, so that all manner of southbound birds are visible in October and again in late February as they make their way back north. Vast flocks of sandhill cranes and geese fly overhead and can be heard a long distance away. Their wintering grounds are at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the central part of the state, which is open to the public (fee).
At the end of a day out and about, go for a soak in a hot spring. The villages of Ojo Caliente and Jemez Springs contain "developed" hot springs with tourist facilities (and of course a fee). If you prefer "wild" hot springs, several are along SR 4 through the Jemez Mountains. Warning: dangerously pathogenic amoebas have been isolated from some of the wild springs. Don't let water from the wild springs get into your eyes, ears or nasal passages.
Restaurants and grocery stores are few and far between in this region, except in the more significant towns with separate articles (notably Santa Fe, one of the country's great centers for dining); see also the article on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for a few other options. Two restaurants that don't fit neatly into a major town but are worth a stop are:
Embudo Station, off NM SR 68 north of Española, phone 505-852-4707. New Mexican fare with a brew pub, in a beautiful setting along the Rio Grande; lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, April through October. This well-regarded property is reportedly for sale, so stay tuned for updates.
Cafe Abiquiu, outside the tiny town of Abiquiu on US 84; phone 505-685-4378. An entertainingly eclectic menu with Southwestern and Mediterranean(!) dishes featured. Open three meals a day. At the rustic little Abiquiu Inn, a good place to spend a quiet night far out in the boonies near Georgia O'Keeffe's "Ghost Ranch" ranch-estate; both restaurant and motel are much more comfortable than you'd expect.
The casinos associated with Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation and several of the American Indian pueblos provide night life of a sort. Small-town bars in this area are not recommended, although Santa Fe and Taos have some acceptable ones and the few watering holes in Los Alamos are OK. In too many of the small towns, however, a bar is a place to find a fight or worse, not a drink and some relaxation. The casinos are safer, if you like that sort of thing.
If you're a wine lover, there are several interesting wineries along the Rio Grande between Taos and Española that include tasting rooms open to the public, with some reasonable table wines. None will rival the products of French wine country, but you could do worse.
The high mountains pose the usual mountain hazards (altitude sickness and avalanche danger for the hiker/skier, snowpacked roads in the winter for the motorist). Roads here are also plagued by drunk drivers; drive suspiciously, particularly after dark.
There are few significant public-health issues in this region of concern to the traveler, but curiously enough, bubonic plague (the real thing, not the DUI "plague") is endemic, and claims a few victims each year (most recover with prompt and aggressive medical care). Plague is carried by the small animals of the region, so if you see one in distress, leave it alone and let nature take its course; buzzards are immune to plague, you are not. Drinking untreated water from regional streams is not a good idea owing to Giardia parasites, but tap water is generally not a problem.
One other note: avoid small-town bars here unless you're with someone well known in the bar. Some have clienteles that don't take kindly to strangers.
See the articles on Central New Mexico, Northeast New Mexico and Northwest New Mexico for the contiguous regions of the state. North of the Colorado state line, the territory retains much of the flavor of this region, although there is less of the red-rock country that is seen around Ghost Ranch. The northward extension of the Sangre de Cristos is considerably higher and more rugged than the New Mexico Sangres and provides challenges for the "peak bagger" and technical climber. The high country of the Colorado Plateau bearing Chama, Tierra Amarilla, etc., turns into a full-fledged, major mountain range (the San Juans) north of the state line.
This is a usable article. It gives a good overview of the region, its sights, and how to get in, as well as links to the main destinations, whose articles are similarly well developed. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!