Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merto
At an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, a vast sea of desert sagebrush flows for miles, all the way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A humble greenbelt of riparian vegetation and irrigated valleys is fed by mountain streams and acequias, centuries-old traditional irrigation ditches. The Rio Grande, the state’s largest river, has carved a deep slice through the landscape, creating a scenic gorge that visitors flock to. This is Taos.
Affectionately known as the “Soul of the Southwest,” the greater Taos region epitomizes the sharp juxtaposition of high desert and high-mountain landscapes. Here are some activities you can take advantage of when you have a day or less in the area.
There is no shortage of activities that you can accomplish easily, enjoyably and comfortably with just a half-day in Taos. Hikers can choose from several trails that hug the outskirts of town in the lower elevations. The Devisadero Trail is a five-mile loop that takes you through a piñon-juniper environment. The trail isn’t too steep, and affords beautiful views of Taos, but be aware: at its highest point the elevation reaches just shy of 8,300 ft. What’s also great about this hike is that it’s close to town: you can get your nature fix and still have enough time to check out other area attractions.
Half an hour northwest of Taos is the Greater World Earthship Community. It’s well worth your time to visit these passive-solar, sustainably designed dwellings made of both natural and upcycled materials. They were conceived in the 1970s by architect Michael Reynolds, who founded Earthship Biotecture. The Visitor Center offers private, self-guided and group tours.
Families visiting Taos who need to get the kids out of the car for a break can enjoy active, affordable family fun at the Taos Youth & Family Center. Check out the indoor ice-skating rink and pool, or the outdoor skate park. The ice-skating rink is open from early November through early March.
A visit to the Millicent Rogers Museum is a treat for anyone who loves Native American, Spanish Colonial and Anglo arts in the Southwest. Rogers was a wealthy New York socialite who, like so many Easterners after her, was drawn to the region’s exotic natural and cultural environment. The museum’s 7,000-item collection includes pottery, textiles, Spanish devotional artwork, jewelry and other items that document Southwest arts and cultures. In a picturesque rural setting surrounded by sagebrush, the museum offers splendid views of the mountains.
Even if you have only a half-day in Taos, pack a picnic and spend a few hours at the Dunn Bridge. Accessed from the community of Arroyo Hondo, you’ll arrive at the bridge near the confluence of the Rio Hondo and Rio Grande. Built in the nineteenth century by a local legend, John Dunn, this bridge was once a hub for lodgings, merchants, regional freight deliveries and transportation. Nowadays it’s a prime spot for rafting, fishing, hiking and soaking in nearby Black Rock Hot Springs.
The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is a charming route with outlooks that vary from narrow, windy mountain views to ones of wide-open valleys and mesas. You’ll need a full day to enjoy this 84-mile scenic gem. Starting from the south end of Taos on Highway 64, you’ll come to Angel Fire, known for its family-friendly ski resort. Farther up the road is Eagle Nest Lake State Park. Eagle Nest Lake is regularly stocked with salmon and trout, and anglers can ice fish in the winter.
Next on the byway is the Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, which offers affordable day passes for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. You can rent gear on-site or bring your own. For dog lovers, there’s a section of the forest with designated dog-friendly snowshoeing trails. Other than candy bar snacks and microwaveable foods, there isn’t much offered in the way of dining, so either bring your own food or save your appetite for a restaurant meal in nearby Red River.
An historic mining town, Red River is now a tourist destination that offers skiing, lodging and dining. You can see remnants of mining activity along the canyon walls as you drive between Red River and Questa. Eventually you’ll wind around the mountains to head back down toward Taos, bringing your enchanted day trip to a close. If you time your journey just right, you’ll get to enjoy a beautiful sunset.
Of course, for a full-day adventure there’s the famed Taos Ski Valley. With its world-class terrain, it offers some of the steepest and most rugged skiing in the country. Because of the pandemic, though, it’s essential that you plan your visit (see “Plan My Trip” at taosskivalley.com).
From the ski valley you can access Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,161 feet, and nearby Williams Lake. Although less a concern in mild winters, there is always avalanche risk when hiking Wheeler Peak in the winter, so exercise caution. With plenty of dining options when you get back to Taos Ski Valley, this is also a great day trip for non-skiers/snowboarders.
If you prefer to spend your day doing some gentle hiking, sightseeing and restorative soaking, a hike-and-hot-springs combo is in order. Start with the Vista Verde Trail, near Carson, in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Just a short distance into the hike, you can see the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Pueblo de Taos. It’s just 2.5 miles round trip, so you’ll be done in no time. Hop back in the car and make your way to the Manby Hot Springs trailhead, also within the Monument. The pools are just a half-mile-or-so hike from the parking area. Soak away the stress and sore muscles in these primitive hot spring pools that are cozily tucked away at the bottom of the gorge, next to the Rio Grande. Attire is optional.
With Taos, anything goes. You can be a rugged winter explorer or daytime sightseer, or you can relax by the river with a fishing pole. All are right choices at this charming place with its grand natural beauty, deep and complex history, and relaxed, modern-day vibe.
Quita Ortiz is a native New Mexican who resides in the Pojoaque Valley. She’s a writer, photographer, maker, herbalist and avid hiker. Follow her on Instagram to see more Northern New Mexico scenery and learn more about the region’s culture.