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 tourist destinations for its combination of beauty, cultural interest, music, art, and dining.
The term "North Central (New Mexico)" broadly applies to the region bounded on the:
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. 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.
The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque. Santa Fe has very limited air service connecting to Denver. 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.
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. Bus service in the region is nearly nonexistent, with one line between Taos and Santa Fe and that's about it. 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.
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:
Native American life
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.
- 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
- Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the most famous of the pueblos. Near Taos and described further in the article for the town.
- Picuris Pueblo south of Taos
- Zia Pueblo near Jemez Springs; generally not open to the public
- Jemez Pueblo near Jemez Springs
- Santa Clara Pueblo between Los Alamos and Española; excellent for American Indian arts and crafts
- San Juan Pueblo north of Española; gaudy casino
- San Ildefonso Pueblo south of Española, another excellent folk art center
- Pojoaque Indian Reservation and Pueblo near the town of Pojoaque; gaudy casino that overshadows an otherwise minor pueblo
- Nambe Pueblo southeast of Española
- Tesuque Pueblo north of Santa Fe; casino
Pueblo territory continues into the central part of the state, with Laguna, Santa Ana, Sandia, San Felipe, Acoma and Isleta Indian Reservations.
- The High Road to Taos, between Taos and Santa Fe, is perhaps the best-known scenic byway in this area. Directions from Santa Fe:
- Follow US Highway 285 (and 84) north through Miocene lake bed formations to Pojoaque. Nice views of the southern Sangre de Cristos as you go.
- At Pojoaque, turn east on NM SR 503. (Another attractive drive, covered below, heads west at this same point.) This winding country road leads through the villages of Nambe and Cundiyo to Chimayo and SR 76.
- Turn right on SR 76. This road passes through Cordova and Truchas en route to Chamisal, with more good mountain views. SR 76 meets SR 75 at Picuris Pueblo; turn right.
- After a short distance, SR 518 intersects SR 75 on the left. Take 518 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, do not retrace your steps exactly, but rather continue south on SR 68 at its intersection with SR 518, descending along the Rio Grande through a number of picturesque little towns with nice views of the Rio. SR 68 enters Española and there intersects US 285, which you can follow south through Pojoaque to Santa Fe.
- 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 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 Colfax, Cimarron and Ute Park. (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 little 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.