The lush farmland around the Rio Grande is the highlight of this drive north—the valley filled with apple orchards is as green as New Mexico gets. The road is at first a bit unpromising, as it passes through the modern town of Española, but it soon winds into an ever-narrower canyon and finally emerges at the dramatic point where the high plains meet the mountains. This dramatic arrival makes it the better route for heading north to Taos; you can then loop back south via the high road. This route is also more direct than the high road and has fewer stopping points.
Embudo and Dixon
The village of Embudo is really just a bend in the river, but it offers a good eating option. Sugar’s (Hwy. 68, 505/852-0604, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Thurs.–Sun., $5), on the east side of the road, is just a small trailer, but it doles out seriously big food: barbecue brisket burritos, or a more traditional BBQ platter with beans and corn on the cob. It’s takeout only, but there are a few plastic picnic tables where you can sit down.
If you’re into wine, keep an eye out for the various wineries just north of here: Vivác is on the main highway (2075 Hwy. 68, 505/579-4441, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–6 p.m. Sun.), and La Chiripada (505/579-4437, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun.) is down Highway 75 a few miles in the pleasant little town of Dixon, known for its dense concentration of artists, organic farmers, and vintners.
There’s a great café down this way as well, Zuly’s (234 Hwy. 275, 505/579-4001, 8:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Tues., 8:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Wed. and Thurs., 8:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri., 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Sat., $8), serving classic New Mexican food with a bit of hippie flair, and strong coffee. Dixon is a worthwhile detour in itself, especially in early November for the long-running Dixon Studio Tour, or on summer and fall Wednesdays (4:30–7 p.m.) for the village farmers market.
Beginning just south of the village of Pilar and stretching several miles north, Orilla Verde Recreation Area ($3/car) is public land along either side of the Rio Grande, used primarily as a put-in or haul-out for rafting, but you can camp on the riverbanks as well—Petaca and Taos Junction have the best sites ($7 per night).
The Vista Verde Trail runs about 1.2 miles one-way along the west rim, an easy walk with great views and a few petroglyphs to spot in a small arroyo about a third of the way out; the trailhead is on the other side of the river, half a mile up the hill from the Taos Junction Bridge, off the dirt road Highway 567 (turn left off the highway in Pilar, then follow signs into Orilla Verde). Stop first on the main highway at the Rio Grande Gorge Visitors Center (Hwy. 68, 575/751-4899, 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily June–Aug., 10 a.m.–2 p.m. daily Sept.–May) for maps and other information.
Across the road, Pilar Yacht Club (Hwy. 68, 575/758-9072, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily Apr.–Nov., 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. Dec.–Mar.) is the center of the action, serving food to hungry river rats and functioning as an office for a couple of outfitters.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque.