New Mexico calls itself the Land of Enchantment.
Driving due west through the endless, scrubby flatlands of western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the name seems apt. Crossing into New Mexico, the mesas gradually gain elevation, winding ever closer to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a southern branch of the Rockies.
Taos, long a Native American settlement and now an artist's haven, is nestled into a broad valley surrounded by these soaring, 10,000-foot peaks. At a solid 10 hours from Oklahoma City, visiting this enchanting town can be done on a four-day weekend.
Around townWhether hiking, visiting galleries, shopping or river rafting, the feel of Taos is decidedly earthy, with a strong sense of both Native American history and religious iconography running throughout.
Much of the shopping is based around Taos Plaza and Bent Street. Look for Southwestern-style jewelry in the small, locally owned boutiques, along with chile-infused products, retablos featuring Saints and the Virgin de Guadalupe, pottery, textiles and art. The options run the gamut from affordable, wonderfully kitsch Dia de los Muertos figurines at Coyote Moon to gorgeous tapestries, blankets and rugs at Weaving Southwest.
Galleries and museums line Ledoux Street, which is just off the Taos Plaza, including the fantastic Harwood Museum of Art. Or, get a feel for the Old West at the Kit Carson Home & Museum, also just off the Plaza.
The true nature of Taos, however, is in the outdoors. At nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, the wide valley of Taos is a mixture of tough scrubland and stands of hardy trees bisected by the massive, deep gash of the Rio Grande gorge. Into the foothills of the surrounding mountains, the terrain fills with pines.
There's hiking, river rafting, hot air ballooning and more just minutes away from the compact center of Taos. And with the blend of flatland and mountains, there's a good representation of activities for all skill levels.
The Rio Grande gorge and the bridge that spans it is not to be missed. The road stretches straight and flat out of Taos, meaning the gorge sneaks up on you. It's a real "whoa" moment as you drive over the bridge, a cantilever truss structure that, at 650 feet above the rushing river below, is the second highest in the country.
An easy hike along the rim of the gorge affords amazing views, and the one-way path is a quick, "turn-around-when-you-want" type.
For a tougher adventure, head into the nearby Carson National Forest. The Devisadero Loop trail gains more than 1,000 feet of elevation as you climb up and around Devisadero Peak. The name, which means "lookout" and was apparently used by local Taos Pueblo Indians, is a perfect name for this 8,304-foot peak. And, luckily, there are two roughly hewn stone chairs to collapse into at the top.
Eat and sleepTraditional, adobe-style B&Bs are a true treat in Taos. Most are locally owned and family run, like Tim and Leslie Reeves' Old Taos Guesthouse.
The traditional rooms and suites " some are nearly 200 years old " have a unique touch, from the gas fireplaces to the art. The grounds surrounding the house include a hot tub, chairs to lounge in, a chicken coop and just beautiful views. Tim and Leslie make breakfast every morning (cross your fingers for the peach muffins " they are amazing) and talk to each of their guests about planning the day. The hard but rewarding hike up to Devisadero? That little gem came straight from Tim.
The Reeves also have recommendations for food. They can lead you to off-the-beaten-path spots like Out Back Pizza (for creative slices piled high with fresh ingredients) and Byzantium (for a memorable, eclectic night of dining) to town favorites like Doc Martin's Restaurant, serving traditional New Mexican fare.
The road homeMost visitors to Taos will take Highway 518 straight back to the interstate " and it's a lovely drive " but consider heading east out of Taos toward the ski town of Angel Fire for a slight detour.
Highway 64 winds through the mountains in the Carson National Forest, skirting a river for much of the trip. In one section, the road actually becomes a narrow, paved track that twists through the trees growing right up to the road. It's a really great drive.
South of Angel Fire but before you meet back up with the highway, stop at Victory Ranch, home to alpacas and llamas, just outside of Mora. There are scheduled feeding times you can participate in (11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. daily) and there's a great store on-site that sells yarn from the alpacas you can see right out the window " the yarn even comes with a picture and name of which alpaca gave its fur.
Another good stopping point is the Cadillac Ranch art instillation just outside of Amarillo. The spray-painted vintage Caddys, their noses stuck deep into the ground of a Texas field, are one of those great, Route 66-style oddities that shouldn't be missed. Add on a stop at the super-kitsch Big Texan just a few exits down the highway for massive portions of food and Texas drawl, and the long trip back is anything but boring.
But Taos remains at the heart of the trip. Whether you've stayed for a long weekend or a full week, Taos sticks with you. It won't be long before the Land of Enchantment is pulling you in for another visit. "Jenny Coon Peterson
photo Dried chiles hang outside the Old Taos Guesthouse.