New Mexico North: View Purple Peaks, Meadows, and Flaming Skies at Dusk

Taos PuebloCourtesy New Mexico Department of TourismAt Taos Pueblo, stucco-covered adobe blocks -- straw mixed with clay -- form thick walls, providing excellent insulation.

Route Details

Length: About 220 miles.

When to go: Popular year-round, but
best in winter, spring, and fall.

Nearby attractions: Fisherman’s Wharf
and Alcatraz Island, San Francisco.

Further information: Sonoma County
Tourism Program, 520 Mendocinio Ave,
Ste. 210, Santa Rosa, CA 95401; tel. 800-

Traversed long ago by ancient Indians, Spanish conquistadors, and
traders from the East, the richly varied
journey along Rte. 64 showcases rainbow-hued deserts, pine-cloaked mountains, and windblown plains that ripple toward the horizon. But the trip is especially remarkable because, thanks
to its splendid isolation, the landscape
looks much as it did when the first
Spaniards arrived here more than four centuries ago.

1. Shiprock

A thriving center of Navajo trade,
and the site of the tribe’s annual
fall festival, the town of Shiprock
occupies a land where nearly every
monument has been sacred to this
people for centuries. Southwest
of the town lies Shiprock Peak,
for example, a volcanic core that
soars some 20 stories higher than
the Empire State Building. The
Navajos dubbed it Winged Rock,
and down through the generations
they have told how the hallowed monolith once sprouted enormous wings to rescue their ancestors from enemies. (Early explorers
gave the peak its present name because of its resemblance to a high-masted sailing ship.)

For scenes of a different sort,
head east out of town on Rte. 64,
which slices through verdant fields
nourished by the San Juan River —
a gift of life to civilizations present
and past that tried to make their homes in this high desert. One
not-so-lucky group was the
Anasazis, who lived at Salmon
Ruins (just west of Bloomfield)
nearly eight centuries ago, until
drought forced them to move away. Still standing as testimony
to their fate are the remains of a
C-shaped pueblo, with over 200
apartment-like dwellings overlooking a central plaza, and the
Great Kiva, a religious chamber where urgent prayers for water
evidently went unheeded.

2. Angel Peak
Angel Peak is easy to spot even from afar: hulking above a pastel
painted canyon, this monolith resembles an angel with outstretched
wings. You can drive to the peak,
and the national recreation area
that surrounds it, by turning south
at Bloomfield onto State Rte. 44.
Bear in mind, however, that despite the area’s austere beauty, visitor facilities are limited.

Views of Angel Peak and other
natural features throughout the
region are enhanced by the crystal-clear air of northern New Mexico.
At more than 5,000 feet above sea
level, the air is free of smog and
humidity, making mountains seem
closer, the sky bluer, and the hues
of the landscape more radiant. For
centuries this luminous terrain has
cast a spell on unsuspecting visitors, enchanting everyone from
Spanish explorers to modern artists such as
the celebrated Georgia O’Keeffe.

As the drive continues east on
State Rte. 550, it passes a number
of fanciful buttes, mesas, and hoodoos (mushroom-shaped spires)
that lord above the flat terrain.
These geological marvels — tinted orange, pink, and ocher — are the
sandstone remains of an ancient
seabed that was sculpted over eons
by wind, rain, and frost.

3. Navajo Lake State Park

Swinging north on State Rte. 511,
the drive cruises into Navajo Lake
State Park, a 21,000-acre Eden.
Beckoning boaters to its cool waters, the lake — one of New Mexico’s largest — contrasts intriguingly
with the piñon-pine dotted tableland seared brown by the relentless

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