In your face views of the spiny Truchas Peaks – among the state’s tallest at more than 13,000 feet and nestled deep within the Pecos Wilderness – provide an incomparable skyline to the east of the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway.
This winding road that stretches from just outside Santa Fe to Taos curls in and out of the Sangre de Cristo foothills for about 52 miles, taking visitors through ranchero towns founded hundreds of years ago by Spanish settlers, and past Native American grounds that have been occupied for far longer.
It is a cultural escape through piney woods and jaw-dropping scenery and small settlements and religious architecture.
That scenery starts almost at the onset with a short detour to Nambé Falls. The double falls cascade through a craggy split, falling about 175 feet from the high dam that forms Nambé Lake.
The lake is a haven for anglers who pull cutthroat and rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike and perch from its waters.
Rolling across the tops of some barren but Painted Desert-like hills, the route rolls into Chimayó, where the statuesque El Santuario de Chimayó and its side chapel, El Posito stand. The dirt is said to have healing properties.
The most-visited church in the state, with 300,000 visitors annually, some 30,000 of whom use Easter weekend as a time to make a pilgrimage to the church’s hallowed grounds.
While in town, a stop at Rancho de Chimayó is a must. The ancestral home of the Jaramillo family is known as the place to visit to get a taste of the sun-burnished chile delicately aged on the vine until it is a smoky-sweet-hot ruby, sporting a taste unlike any other.
The Plaza del Cerro in Chimayó also bears note as the last surviving Spanish fortified plaza in the southwest.
Woodcarvers for generations have called Cordova home and much of their work can be seen at the San Antonio de Padua Church, which is only open for services. Be sure to see the large altar screen painted by Rafael Aragon.
Along this route, Robert Redford brought to life John Nichols’ classic northern New Mexico tale. “The Milagro Beanfield War.” The town of Truchas was the star in a struggle involving land, freedom and money.
Perched on the side of steep hill and founded in 1754 with a population well south of 1,000, Truchas pretty much marks the midway point in the drive. The town has evolved into something of an art enclave, with galleries taking over ancient adobe structures, as well as spurring new construction.
The town’s church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in the early 1800s, contains many well-preserved old santos.
The stately San José de Gracia, a church more than two centuries old that is still in use in Las Trampas, was built in the traditional cruciform style with two towers.
More artists’ studios are prevalent in Ojo Sarco.
Fort Burgwin, built at the confluence of the Little Rio Grande and Rito de la Olla, was originally the home of the Pot Creek Pueblo, dating back to about 1000 AD. Now a Southern Methodist University campus where budding archeologists study, the garrison was established in 1852 shortly after the Pueblo Revolt.
Ending up in Ranchos de Taos, just south of Taos, the traditional agricultural community features the picturesque San Francisco de Asis Church, complete with mighty adobe buttresses, soaring ceilings, hand-carved vigas and hand-carved corbels. Noted early 19th century santero Molleno created the retablos and bultos on the northeast screen and the church claims the state’s largest altar screen.