Though adobe houses cluster around a plaza, and art galleries, organic bakeries, and yoga studios proliferate, the town of Taos is much more than a miniature Santa Fe .
It’s more isolated, reached by curving two-lane roads along either the winding mountain-ridge route or the fertile Rio Grande river valley, and it has a rougher, muddier feel.
The glory of the landscape, from looming Taos Mountain to the staggered blue mesas dissolving into the flat western horizon, can be truly breathtaking. Add to that the intense mysticism surrounding Taos Pueblo  and the often wild creativity of the artists who have lived here, and the lure is irresistible.
People flock here on pilgrimages—to the ranch where D. H. Lawrence lived , to the hip-deep powder on the slopes at Taos Ski Valley , to the San Francisco de Asis Church  that Georgia O’Keeffe painted—then simply wind up staying. The waitress pouring your coffee probably has a variation on this same story.
Celebrity residents such as Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld have lent the place a certain reputation of wealth and exclusivity, but this is hardly the case. Farmers in Valle Valdez  scrape by on their acequia-fed farm plots just as they have for centuries; the same goes for residents of old Taos Pueblo , the living World Heritage Site that still uses no electricity or running water.
Add to that a strong subculture of ski bums, artists, off-the-grid eco-homesteaders, and spiritual seekers, and you have a community that, while not typically prosperous, is more loyal and dedicated to preserving its unique way of life than perhaps any other small town in the western United States.
North and east from Taos, the grandly named Enchanted Circle  scenic byway loops around Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at 13,161 feet. The area was settled primarily by miners and ranchers in the late 19th century, so it has a different atmosphere from Spanish-and-Indian Taos.
Along the way, you can stop at a mining ghost town, a moving Vietnam veterans’ memorial, or a rowdy Old West–style steakhouse.