Though New Mexico is known as desert country – and rightfully so – there are also multiple opportunities to enjoy the colors that mark the change of seasons from summer to fall – provided one knows where to look.
Case in point: Karina Armijo has noticed more positive feedback for images of fall colors in Taos than virtually anything else on the northern New Mexico city’s social media accounts in recent times.
“Through the years, we check how much engagement we get when we post certain things on our social media pages, and the No. 1 is always the fall foliage,” said Armijo, who is the director of marketing and tourism in Taos. “Just the colors, and I don’t know if it’s just because so many people don’t live in the mountains, so it’s spectacular to them.”
The views are even better in the flesh, particularly in the area around the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, an approximately three-hour drive that takes one from the Taos Plaza north to Questa, east to Red River and south to Eagle Nest and Angel Fire before heading back west to Taos again. In mid-September the leaves are beginning to change, and by October the fall scenery can be spectacular in that area.
“It’s 84 miles around the circle. It’s really nice in the mountain country,” Armijo said. “It really surrounds the Sangre de Cristo mountains, so the highest peak is Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet) that’s right kind of in the middle of the Enchanted Circle. You get different views from the different areas, which makes it really special and nice.”
That trip, and the accompanying fall scenery, has attracted more people to Taos than virtually any summer activity, according to Armijo. It’s also an endeavour that limits interaction with large groups, which has been a plus during the ongoing pandemic.
“We get a lot of traffic here – probably more so in the last five years. Then of course with COVID, it’s safe to get in your car and drive around and see the beautiful colors,” Armijo said. “October and September have been two big months for us, and that has really shifted away from the summer, more towards the fall for tourism because of the fall foliage.”
Fall foliage viewing opportunities abound in Northern New Mexico, including the Santa Fe National Forest area, which offers a scenic byway of its own that starts in downtown Santa Fe and travels approximately 15 miles through an aspen forest to the Santa Fe Ski basin.
“I think the coolest thing about it is that the state highway just drives literally through the thick of it,” Julie Anne Overton, who is a public affairs officer for the Santa Fe National Forest. “So you have moments where you’re surrounded by the aspen and all of their golden glory. And then you have spots where you have sort of the vista, where you get the wide shot view and you can see the mountainside in all its glory – all of those trees massed into this glorious, golden hue.”
The best time for viewing can vary depending on the weather. A warmer season – such as this past September – can mean that the leaves change a little bit later, which appears to be the recent trend.
“This is not our scientific opinion, this is strictly anecdotal, but it seems to us that it’s happening later every year. Call it climate change, maybe, who knows? I’m sure that plays a part in it,” Overton said.
Other noteworthy fall views include the Sandia Crest byway, which according to NewMexico.org, boasts the highest scenic drive in the southwest at two miles above sea level. That’s just one of several spots for viewing in the Cibola National Forest area.
“It all depends with fall colors on the visitors’ location, the elevation and what activity they want to do, how they will enjoy the fall colors,” said Patricia Johnson, public affairs officer for the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands. “There’s some great areas throughout the Sandias, on the Mountainair, even out on Mount Taylor.”
Meanwhile, at the Gila National Forest, it takes it little bit longer for the leaves to shift, but the seasonal change is not nearly as pronounced as it is in the northern part of the state.
“We normally do not see fall colors in southwestern New Mexico until the end of October to the middle of November,” said Marta Call, public affairs officer for the Gila National Forest. “Anywhere along U.S. Highway 60, N.M. Highway 12, and U.S. Highway 180 you may see the trees changing. Also, if you were to go hiking in the wilderness areas along the river, in Turkey Creek or Mogollon Creek (where there is water) you will also see some fall colors. Unlike northern New Mexico, we do not have an abundance of the type of trees that change colors.”