It says a lot about the singular beauty of north-central New Mexico that the so-called Low Road, a twisting drive through a deep river gorge and up over a glorious sagebrush-carpeted mesa, is considered the less scenic of the two main driving routes from Santa Fe to Taos. It’s true, though: The slightly longer and slower High Road to Taos deserves its status as the most spectacular route to this ancient, artsy and outdoorsy village at the foot of New Mexico’s highest mountain (13,161-foot/4,011-metre Wheeler Peak), and one of the most rewarding day-trip adventures from Santa Fe.
Embark on the scenic drive over piñon- and aspen-forested mountain passes, through ancient indigenous Pueblo and Spanish Colonial villages, and along rushing Alpine streams during your stay at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe (itself situated in the foothills of the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains). A recommendation of the Adventure Center, the Resort’s outdoor concierge team, the High Road Cultural Pilgrimage will provide a wholly authentic Southwestern experience.
From the Resort, the High Road drive is about 70 miles (113 kilometres) and takes two hours without stops, but allow three to five hours for dining and exploring as you go. Listed in the order you’ll encounter them as you drive north from the Resort, here are the highlights.
Estrella del Norte Vineyard
106 North Shining Sun, Santa Fe
One of the most respected of several wineries north of Santa Fe, Estrella offers tastings of more than 65 wines – some sweet, but mostly well-balanced European varietals, from Cabernet Franc to Viogner – from their own vineyard as well as Santa Fe Vineyards and Black Mesa Winery. Sip your wine on the trellised patio, surrounded by fragrant gardens.
El Santuario de Chimayó
15 Santuario Drive, Chimayó
Photography Photography Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
Year round, but especially during Holy Week, thousands of pilgrims trek to this 1813 chapel, sometimes called the Lourdes of America, notable for its twin adobe belfries and its reputation as a place of miraculous healings. The anteroom is festooned with handwritten testimonials, and even crutches, left by pilgrims who claim to have been cured by visiting. Whatever your faith, El Santuario is a remarkable work of architecture.
Rancho de Chimayó
300 Juan Medina Road, Chimayó
Photography Photography Efrain Padro / Alamy Stock Photo
Stop for a leisurely lunch or late-afternoon margaritas at this stately hacienda, whose dining rooms are warmed by roaring adobe fireplaces. On sunny days, dine on the expansive back terrace beneath a canopy of catalpa trees. Specialties include chile rellenos (peppers stuffed with Jack cheese and served with posole) and carne adovada (marinated pork with a piquant red chile sauce).
Ortega’s Weaving Shop
53 Plaza Del Cerro, Chimayó
Brightly coloured wool vests, pillows, blankets and purses are woven and sold in this rambling adobe shop beside the Chimayó Museum. In a town famous for tricked-out low-rider cars, fiery red chiles and traditional Spanish weaving, Ortega’s – which has prospered for eight generations – ranks among the top draws.
132 County Road 75, Truchas
One of about a dozen notable art galleries in Truchas, the setting for the memorable John Nichols novel and later Robert Redford movie The Milagro Beanfield War, Móntez occupies a historic chapel on the narrow road through town. It specialises in Spanish Colonial and Mexican folk art and religious objects, including straw appliqué crosses, wooden retablos and brightly painted animal carvings – works that reflect the heritage of the Spanish “land grant” villages frozen in time along this route.
During the annual High Road Artisans Art Tour (the last two weekends in September), dozens of galleries and studios open their doors to visitors. As you continue on towards Peñasco, keep an eye out for the San José de Gracia Church in the tiny village of Trampas – it’s a striking 1760s church filled with 18th- and 19th-century religious artwork.
Sugar Nymphs Bistro
15046 State Road 75, Peñasco
Opened by an original founder of San Francisco’s iconic Greens vegetarian restaurant, this funky spot with a colourful mural on the façade serves superb, locally sourced brunch, lunch and dinner, from a hearty green-chile egg scramble to made-from-scratch pizzas.
Carson National Forest
208 Cruz Alta Road, Taos
Photography Photography RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy Stock Photo
From Peñasco, NM 518 climbs high through the rarefied air and pleasingly scented coniferous trees of 1.5 million–acre (6 million–hectare) Carson National Forest. Stop at the signed overlook for a dazzling view of Taos Valley.
Things to do in Taos
Once you have arrived, it is easy to find things to do in Taos. Indigenous Taos-Tiwa people have inhabited the location continuously for more than 1,000 years, and you can visit the ancient Taos Pueblo on the north side of town for a guided tour of this multistorey adobe building that dates back many centuries.
Get a sense of Taos’ rich Spanish Colonial history with a walk through the Hacienda de los Martinez and the much-photographed San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church (depicted, quite famously, in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting). Definitely set aside time to tour at least one of the several first-rate museums that document Taos’ rich arts heritage. Two of the best are the Millicent Rogers Museum and the Harwood Museum.
The Taos Plaza is a bit mired in touristy souvenir shops, but the few blocks north and east, along Kit Carson Road, Bent Street and Paseo del Pueblo Norte, are rife with top-notch galleries specializing in everything from paintings by the town’s turn-of-the-20th-century masters (Ernest Blumenschein, Joseph Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus) to contemporary tinwork, tapestries and handcrafted furniture.
For lunch, drop by Orlando’s for classic New Mexico fare. The famed Adobe Bar, at the historic Taos Inn, is a great place to sip a spicy El Chupacabra margarita (with pepper-infused tequila) and nibble on nachos and guacamole at happy hour.