High Road to Taos Merits Its Scenic Byway Status

Tue December 16, 2003 - West Edition
Pete Sigmund

The High Road to Taos is one of the oldest, and most captivating, roads in the country. This article is part of an occasional series on interesting highways, roads and bridges in the United States.

Early settlers from Spain, sometimes seeking gold, ventured into the high hills above the Spanish colonial capital of Santa Fe, NM, in the early 1600s.

In the years that followed, they began irrigation and farming, and established small towns, each with its own reddish-mud adobe church, which survive today with a unique Spanish flavor.

The trail the colonists followed became a rutted wagon road connecting the towns and commanding views out over the valleys, with snow-capped mountain peaks on the horizon.

Today that road is a two-lane asphalt strip winding up and down hills past green farmlands and pastures.Descendants of those original settlers still irrigate the old way, using acequia ditches, which you see all along the route. The towns, with small, ancient homes slumbering around plaza and church, lie peacefully in the clear mountain sun.

The High Road, recently designed as a state scenic bypass, is a less-traveled route with few cars, and few people, in sight. It’s a 68-mi.-long trip into the past beginning at Nambe, just north of Sante Fe, and ending in Ranchos de Taos, with its distinctive rust-colored church that has become something of an icon of a vanished era.

The high route begins at State Road 503, which goes to the right off 285/84, passing Nambe Pueblo and high sandstone formations —orange, red, and brown —carved by the wind.

In 4 mi., you turn left on State Road 98. Following this for about 7 mi., you go through your first little old Spanish settlement, Chimayo. The Santuario on its plaza is one of the holy places on the route. It’s revered for its holy dirt, which you dig from a small spot on the basement floor. Crutches and testimonials from cures hang on the walls.

The road passes near Santa Cruz Lake, whose blue reflects the usually clear southwestern sky.

Turning right on State Road 76 after the 7 mi., you start to really go uphill, climbing at least 1,000 ft. and passing your second settlement, Truchas (trout).

“The road past Truchas has spectacular mountain views, where you can see 70 miles,” said Karen Fielding, who co-authored (with Dragonfly bed-and-breakfast-owner Pam Dean) the application which resulted in the High Road being declared a state scenic bypass in December 2002.

It’s a very old village built into the side of a mountain, with some adobe homes, including artists’ studios.The original settlers built the church there in the 1700s. Around the village you see a lot of little farms and houses, with sectioned-off lands.The first settlers came over with the conquistadors in the 1500s. When they reached these hills, they built the acequia systems, the technology which was brought over by the Spanish, to farm the land.

“We have people in these hills who say they go back 12 generations.Some of the early Spaniards came up here because they thought they saw gold in the hills, because of the colors, which are pretty incredible,” Fielding said.

Las Trampas

The road to Taos now goes down to the left, passes through the small village of Ojo Sarco, and enters the sleepy little town of Las Trampas, with its famous church dating from the 1700s.

When I came upon this town in 1982, it was siesta time. Not a person in sight, and no sound, in the small sun-baked plaza.

The adobe church was locked but a fairly large bell hung nearby, with a note: “Ring the bell to visit the church.”

The inside of the church in Las Trampas is white, with a large gold reredos (altar screen), painted with Spanish-style pictures of saints and religious scenes, behind the altar.

Hand-carved painted wood statues, called “santos,” also were inside. One wore a white dress, undoubtedly made by the women of the village.

All the churches in the villages have a reredos. Many were painted by the same person in the mid-1800, and some are being restored.

On to Taos

The road continues downhill for a few miles, past fields with horses and cows, to Route 75.

Before turning right on 75 towards Taos, you can drive about a half mile to the left to visit the Picuris Indian pueblo, where another ancient church, San Lorenzo, lifts its cross, and a restored reredos gleams inside. A herd of buffalo munches grass at the edge of town.

Turning back towards Taos, you pass more irrigated farmlands, tiny towns such as Chamisal, the larger town of Penasco, which has, besides its church and post office, several restaurants and a small theater.

Just past the small town of Placita, the High Road turns left on Route 518 and ascends the summit of U.S. Hill, where a scenic overlook offers views out over the green, brown and blue fields of the entire Taos Valley.

On a clear day, you can see to Colorado, said Fielding.

Continuing on 518, the road then goes downhill, passing the Pot Creek Pueblo and Fort Brugwin, built in the 1800s to defend territories against Mexico and now used as a campus for Southern Methodist University, which offers courses on the local archeology digs.

You continue down through evergreen forests to Highway 68. Taking a left you come, after about a half-mile, to the famous, oft-painted adobe church of San Francisco de Assisi at Ranchos de Taos, with another beautiful interior.

You are in Taos, the end of the high road. This town has inns, restaurants, shops, and the large, historic Taos Pueblo, which is located under a sacred mountain which the Native Americans have revered through the ages.

The High Road to Taos is an easy, very pretty, day trip back into time.

“Actually, you can spend three days on this road,” Fielding said. “One day for the churches, one for the artist galleries, and for Santa Cruz Lake, near Chimayo. There are also lots of hiking trails and protected forests.”