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Fall foliage road trips in northern NM

U.S. 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Tres Piedras provides some spectacular views, with fall colors ready to explode. (Courtesy of Karl Moffatt)

U.S. 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Tres Piedras provides some spectacular views, with fall colors ready to explode. (Courtesy of Karl Moffatt)

There’s no better time than autumn to see some of the best scenery in northern New Mexico and, with the leaves changing, there’s no better excuse for a road trip.

One of the easiest and best day drives up north to see the fall colors is the 50-mile jaunt from Tierra Amarilla (TA for short) over the mountains and through the Carson National Forest to Tres Piedras (also known as TP).

Those traveling from Santa Fe will see more than 90 miles of spectacular scenery just getting to the outskirts of the historic village of TA and the turnoff to TP on U.S. 64.

Then, after crossing the mountains, it’s a mere 80 miles back from TP, passing through even more rural, sparsely settled and very scenic countryside.

Travelers from Santa Fe heading north on U.S. 84/285 can choose either route just north of Española at the turnoff to Ojo Caliente to make the roundtrip drive.

Those staying on U.S. 84 will pass through the tiny village of Abiquiu where the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe once lived and worked.

This is a great place to stop for gas, coffee and breakfast burritos at Bode’s general store.

Continuing on northward along the Chama River, motorists will climb atop a mesa where those who stop will be rewarded with great views of the river below, especially if the cottonwood trees are turning.

Continuing on this drive, travelers will find themselves passing through a canyon fringed by towering red rock cliffs before coming upon the entrances to Ghost Ranch, the Piedra Lumber Visitor Center and Echo Amphitheater.

All three spots are worthy of stopping for and can produce lasting memories, especially for those who are armed with cameras.

This may be one of New Mexico’s finest drives for those seeking magnificent, eye-popping views of northern New Mexico’s high desert scenery.

The drive then takes visitors further north for many miles through rugged countryside before coming to the U.S. 64 turnoff just shy of the Rio Arriba county seat at Tierra Amarilla.

The highway over the mountains to Tres Piedras first passes through a wide valley marked by farms and ranches before climbing toward the looming Brazos Cliffs.

Several pull-offs on this side of the mountains provide spectacular views of the countryside, including bright yellow aspen groves and brilliant red oak trees during the fall.

Upon topping out, motorists will find two pull-offs where they can view the Brazos Cliffs and see even more striking views of the valley below. Continuing down the road, there are several opportunities to further explore the woods and fields of this vast tract of public land by way of forest roads.

Those who like to fish will come across beautiful Hopewell Lake just off the highway where brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout can be hooked. There’s also a nice little campground here and it’s a great place for a picnic or hike.

More adventuresome types armed with a keen sense of direction or a Carson National Forest map could follow the forest road past the campground and end up, hours later, coming out by the hot springs at Ojo Caliente.

Those who stay on the highway instead will end up at the roadside settlement of Tres Piedras on U.S. 285.

From the road, travelers can see the preserved U.S. Forest Service home that renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold built while serving as district ranger there in 1911. Leopold is considered by many to be the father of the nation’s wilderness conservation movement and he helped New Mexico become home to the nation’s very first designated wilderness area.

Tres Piedras sits at a crossroads where, until just a few years ago, a busy gas station, convenience store and diner could be found. Now they stand unused and closed, like so many other roadside businesses in New Mexico these days.

But just within spitting distance sits a new business that’s recently opened to fill the void. The Chili Line Depot brews up some good coffee and serves great home cooking for those travelling through this remote area along the rim of the Rio Grande.

Heading back to Santa Fe on U.S. 285 is a breeze along the newly improved highway that rolls south for mile after mile through lonely, desolate rangeland until reaching Ojo Caliente.

A recent drive along this route on the weekend of Sept. 20-21 revealed trees just about ready to explode with color up in the high country.

Another great fall scenic drive in northern New Mexico includes the High Road to Taos above Española and back along the Rio Grande.

From Santa Fe, take U.S. 84/285 north to the Nambé Pueblo turnoff on N.M. 503 and follow it over to the Chimayó turnoff. On reaching N.M. 76, head up the mountain to Truchas and over to Penasco, and then to Ranchos de Taos for the return trip along the river.

Those with less time on their hands can always make a run up into the mountains just above Santa Fe on Hyde Park Road. Try taking Bishops Lodge Rd. out through Tesuque to the Pacheco Canyon Road turnoff, and then up into the mountains and over to Hyde Park Road by way of Forest Road 102.

For more detailed views of these routes, just check online at Google Maps.

Karl Moffatt is a longtime New Mexico journalist and avid outdoorsman whose many articles and photographs can be seen at