Taking the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos

An open wooden gate leads to a small courtyard with a cross in front of an old adobe building with belltowers.

Santuario de Chimayó. Photo © Robert Wilson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Córdova, Truchas, Las Trampas, Peñasco—these are the tiny villages strung, like beads on a necklace, along the winding highway through the mountains to Taos. This is probably the area of New Mexico where Spanish heritage has been least diluted—or at least relatively untouched by Anglo influence, for there has been a long history of exchange between the Spanish towns and the adjacent pueblos. The local dialect is distinctive, and residents can claim ancestors who settled the towns in the 18th century. The first families learned to survive in the harsh climate with a 90-day growing season, and much of the technology that worked then continues to work now; electricity was still scarce even in the 1970s, and adobe construction is common. These communities, closed off by geography, can seem a little insular to visitors, but pop in at the galleries that have sprung up in a couple of the towns, and you’ll get a warm welcome. And during the High Road Art Tour, over two weekends in September, modern artists and more traditional craftspeople famed particularly for their wood-carving skills open their home studios.

The drive straight through takes only about an hour and a half, but leave time to dawdle at churches and galleries, take a hike, or have lunch along the way. Start the driving route by leaving Santa Fe via North St. Francis Road, then continuing on U.S. 84/285 to the junction with Highway 503 (just past the turn for Los Alamos); turn right, following signs for Nambé Pueblo.


Nambé Pueblo

To the right off Highway 503 just a few miles is Nambé Falls Recreation Area (505/455-2304, $10/car), open to the public for swimming and fishing; it also has beautiful camping spots ($25, including day pass). The highlight is the falls themselves, a double cascade through a narrow crevice, marking the break between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Española Basin.

Incidentally, the Nambé line of high-end housewares has nothing to do with this pueblo of 1,700 people—weaving and micaceous pottery are some of the traditional crafts here. The biggest annual event is Fourth of July, celebrated with dances and a crafts market.


Chimayó

Continue on Highway 503 to a T junction, where you make a hard left to follow the main road and begin the descent into the valley of Chimayó, site of the largest mass pilgrimage in the United States. During Holy Week, some 50,000 people arrive in town on foot and often bearing large crosses. They start days in advance to arrive on Good Friday.

The inspiration for the group treks, a tradition begun in 1945 as a commemoration of the Bataan Death March, is the Santuario de Chimayó (9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Sept., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily Oct.–Apr.), a small chapel that has gained a reputation as a healing spot, as it was built in 1814 at the place where a local farmer, Bernardo Abeyta, is said to have dug up a miraculously glowing crucifix. The building fell into disrepair but was bought by architect John Gaw Meem in 1929, restored, and given its sturdy metal roof; Meem then granted it back to the archbishop.

Unlike many of the older churches in this area, which are now open very seldom, Chimayó is an active place of prayer, always busy with tourists as well as visitors seeking solace, with many side chapels and a busy gift shop. (Mass is said weekdays at 11 a.m. and on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and noon year-round.) As you approach from the parking area, you will see that previous visitors have woven twigs into the chain-link fencing to form crosses, each set of sticks representing a prayer. Outdoor pews made of split tree trunks accommodate overflow crowds, and a wheelchair ramp gives easy access to the church.

But the original adobe santuario seems untouched by modernity. The front wall of the dim main chapel is filled with an elaborately painted altar screen from the first half of the 19th century, the work of Molleno (nicknamed “the Chile Painter” because forms, especially robes, in his paintings often resemble red and green chiles). The vibrant colors seem to shimmer in the gloom, forming a sort of stage set for Abeyta’s crucifix, Nuestro Señor de las Esquípulas, as the centerpiece. Painted on the screen above the crucifix is the symbol of the Franciscans: a cross over which the arms of Christ and Saint Francis meet.

Most visitors make their way directly to the small, low-ceiling antechamber that holds el pocito, the little hole where the cross was allegedly first dug up. From this pit they scoop up a small portion of the exposed red earth, to later apply to withered limbs and arthritic joints, or to eat in hopes of curing internal ailments. (The parish refreshes the well each year with new dirt, after it has been blessed by the priests.) The adjacent sacristy, formerly filled with handwritten testimonials, prayers, and abandoned crutches, is now a bit tidier and devoted to a shrine for Santo Niño de Atocha, a figurine that is also said to have been dug out of the holy ground here. (Santo Niño de Atocha has a dedicated chapel just down the road—the artwork here is modern, bordering on cutesy, but the back room, filled with baby shoes, is poignant.)

Chimayó has also been a weaving center for centuries, commercially known since 1900, when Hispano weavers started selling locally crafted “Indian” blankets to tourists. The two main shops are Ortega’s (505/351- 4215, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), at the T intersection of County Road 98 and Highway 76, and Centinela Traditional Arts (505/351- 2180, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.), just west on Highway 76. While both are rigorously traditional in techniques, the work at Centinela shows more creative use of color and pattern. Behind Ortega’s is the tiny Chimayó Museum (505/351-0945, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Tues.– Sat. Apr.–Sept., free), set on the old fortified plaza and housing a neat collection of vintage photographs.

If you want to spend the night in the area, or use it as a base for exploring, you have two good options. Not far from the church, off County Rd. 98, Rancho Manzana (26 Camino de Mision, 505/351-2223, $75 s, $105 d) has a rustic feel, with excellent breakfasts (the owner also runs cooking classes). En route to Española, Casa Escondida (Hwy. 76, 505/351-4805, $105 s, $149 d) is a lovely place, with a big backyard, a hot tub, and a sunny garden.

For lunch, head right across the parking lot from the Santuario de Chimayó to Leona’s (505/351-4569, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Thurs.–Mon., $2), where you can pick up bulk chile and pistachios as well as delicious tamales and crumbly bizcochitos. For a more leisurely sit-down lunch, Rancho de Chimayó (County Rd. 98, 505/351-4444, 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. daily May–Oct., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Nov.–Apr., $12) offers great red chile on a beautiful terrace— or inside the old adobe home by the fireplace in wintertime. The place is also open for breakfast on weekends, 8:30–10:30 a.m., and it’s a popular special-occasion spot for Santa Feans.


Córdova

Turning right (east) on Highway 76 (west takes you back toward Española), you begin the climb back up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Near the crest of the hill, about three miles up, a small sign points right and down to Córdova, a village best known for its austere unpainted santos and bultos done by masters such as George López and José Dolores López. Another family member, Sabinita López Ortiz (9 County Rd. 1317, 505/351-4572, variable hours), sells her work and that of five other generations of wood-carvers. Castillo Gallery (County Rd. 1317, 505/351-4067, variable hours) mixes traditional woodwork with more contemporary sculpture.


Truchas

Highway 76 continues to wind along the peaks, eventually reaching the little village of Truchas (Trout), founded in 1754 and still not much more than a long row of buildings set into the ridgeline. On the corner where the highway makes a hard left to Taos, the village morada, the meeting place of the local Penitente brotherhood, looks onto the expansive valley below.

Head straight down the smaller road to reach Nuestra Señora del Rosario de las Truchas Church, tucked into a small plaza off to the right of the main street. It’s open to visitors only June–August—if you do have a chance to look inside the dim, thick-walled mission, you’ll see precious examples of local wood carving. Though many of the more delicate ones have been moved to a museum for preservation, those remaining display an essential New Mexican style—the sort of “primitive” thing that Bishop Lamy hated. They’re preserved today only because Truchas residents hid them in their houses during the late 19th century. Santa Lucia, with her eyeballs in her hand, graces the altar, and a finely wrought crucifix hangs to the right, clad in a skirt because the legs have broken off.

Just up the road is The Cordovas Handweaving Workshop (32 County Rd. 75, 505/689-1124, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), an unassuming wooden house that echoes with the soft click-clack of a broadloom, as this Hispano family turns out subtly striped rugs in flawless traditional style, for quite reasonable prices. In this part of town, you’ll also find the most established gallery, Hand Artes (505/689-2443, variable hours)—Jack Silverman’s silk-screen prints of American Indian textile patterns are particularly fine.

If you keep going down the road out of town, you’ll eventually reach the beautifully isolated Rancho Arriba Bed & Breakfast (Hwy. 76, 505/689-2374, $90 d), a farmhouse built by hand by its owner. Guests no longer have to use an outhouse, but breakfasts are still cooked on a woodstove.


Las Trampas

Back on Highway 76, the village of Las Trampas was settled in 1751, and its showpiece, San José de Gracia Church (10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat. and Sun. June–Aug.), was built nine years later. It remains one of the finest examples of New Mexican village church architecture. Its thick adobe walls, which are covered with a fresh coat of mud every year or two, are balanced by vertical bell towers; inside, the clerestory at the front of the church—a very typical design—lets light in to shine down on the altar, which was carved and painted in the late 1700s. Other paradigmatic elements include the atrio, or small plaza between the low adobe boundary wall and the church itself, utilized as a cemetery, and the dark narthex where you enter, confined by the choir loft above, but serving only to emphasize the sense of light and space created in the rest of the church by the clerestory and the small windows near the viga ceiling.

As you leave the town heading north, look to the right—you’ll see a centuries-old acequia that has been channeled through a log flume to cross a small arroyo. Less than a mile north of the village, you pass the turn for El Valle and Forest Road 207, which leads to the Trampas Lakes trailhead. This 6.1-mile hike goes through gorgeous alpine scenery—steep rock walls jutting from dense forest, myriad wildflowers, and the two lakes themselves, which are clear and frigid. A spur trail at the last junction leads to Hidden Lake (2 miles round-trip). This route makes a very pleasant overnight trek, giving you time to fish and relax at the end, but with an early start, you could also do the trail as an intense all-day outing.


Picurís Pueblo

For all the signs that point to Picurís, from every possible surrounding highway, you would imagine it’s a glittery tourist extravaganza. In fact, as one of the few Rio Grande pueblos that has not built a casino, Picurís Pueblo, the smallest in New Mexico, instead capitalizes on its beautiful natural setting, a lush valley where bison roam and aspen leaves rustle. You can picnic here and fish in small but well-stocked Tu-Tah Lake. After the San Lorenzo de Picurís Church collapsed due to water damage in 1989, pueblo members rebuilt it by hand, following exactly the form of the original 1776 design—a process that took eight years. As at Nambé, local traditions have melded with those of the surrounding villages; the Hispano-Indian Matachines dances are well attended on Christmas Eve. Start at the visitors center (575/587-1099 or 575/587-1071, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) to pick up maps. The pueblo is a short detour from the high road proper: At the junction with Highway 75, turn left, then follow signs off the main road.


Peñasco

The next community along the road is Peñasco, best known to tourists as the home of Sugar Nymphs Bistro (15046 Hwy. 76, 575/587- 0311, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Wed., 11:30 a.m.– 2:30 p.m. and 5:30–7:35 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sun., $12), a place with “country atmosphere and city cuisine,” where you can get treats like grilled lamb, fresh-pressed cider, piñon couscous, and staggering wedges of layer cake. An adjoining small theater hosts quirky music and theatrical performances from June to September. Restaurant hours can be more limited in the winter, so it’s best to call ahead. This is also the northern gateway to the Pecos Wilderness Area—turn on Forest Road 116 to reach Santa Barbara Campground and the Santa Barbara Trail to Truchas Peak, a 23-mile round-trip that requires advance planning. Contact the Española ranger district office (1710 N. Riverside Dr., 505/753-7331, 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) or the one in the town of Pecos for conditions before you hike.


Sipapu

Detouring right (east) along Highway 518, you reach Sipapu (Hwy. 518, 800/587-2240), an unassuming, inexpensive ski resort—really, just a handful of cabins (from $49) at the base of a 9,255-foot mountain. Cheap lift tickets ($39 full-day) and utter quiet make this a bargain getaway.

Returning to the junction, continue on to Taos via Highway 518, which soon descends into a valley and passes Pot Creek Cultural Site (575/587-2255, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Wed.–Sun. July–Aug.), a mildly interesting diversion for its one-mile loop trail through ancestral Puebloan ruins from around 1100.

You arrive in Taos at its very southern end—really, in Ranchos de Taos, just north of the San Francisco de Asis Church on Highway 68. Turn left to see the church, or turn right to head up to the town plaza and to Taos Pueblo.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque.

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