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

Route Details Length: About 220 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in winter, spring, and fall. Nearby attractions:

Taos Pueblo
At 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-
576-6662, www.sonomacounty.com

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
sun.

4. Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation

Continuing east, Rte. 64 twists through a rolling countryside of
pine-clad mountains and alpine
lakes, of sandstone bluffs and sagebrush prairie. These mixed lands
belong to the Jicarilla Apaches,
whose ages-old nomadic way of life ended abruptly when they were
forced onto this reservation in
1887. Known for their intricately
woven baskets, the Jicarillas (meaning “little basketmakers”) reside
for the most part in and around Dulce, the hub of the tribal community. The reservation land, rich with a variety of game, is a mecca
for fishermen angling for trout
and for hunters seeking deer, elk,
mountain lions, ducks, geese, and
wild turkeys.

For a closer look at the lovely Jicarilla landscape, follow State
Rtes. J-8, J-15, and 537 on a scenic
loop south from Dulce that takes
in five lakes sparkling among
piñon-flecked hills. The route is
alluring in fall, when Gambel oaks blaze with scarlet and migrating geese honk from the sky.

5. Cumbres Pass

Soon after crossing the Continental Divide, Rte. 64 enters the little
town of Chama. From here, the
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Rail-road has huffed and puffed its
way up and over Cumbres Pass
and along precarious Toltec Gorge
since the 1880s. The narrow-gauge

railway was built to transport miners to Colorado’s bountiful lodes,
but today it carries tourists who
come to ogle such sights as the
aspens that shimmer on mountain
slopes in autumn.

If you prefer to drive, State
Rte. 17 more or less parallels the part of the train’s route that
stretches between Chama and
Cumbres Pass.

6. Brazos Cliffs

From the little town of Tierra
Amarilla, tucked in a valley beside
the slopes of the San Juan Mountains, Rte. 64 curls upward past
aspen-fringed lakes, fields of buttercups, and grazing cattle. The
road crests at an elevation of over
10,500 feet, where turnouts and
picnic spots along the ridge afford
splendid views of the Brazos Cliffs.
A part-time waterfall, the product
of melting snow in spring and
thunderstorms in summer, spills
gracefully down the face of the
cliffs. From here the drive breezes
east through Carson National
Forest. Its 1.5 million acres of
aspen, fir, and spruce — punctuated
by sunny fields and murmuring streams — are a paradise for backpackers and anglers. Among the superb recreational areas that
entice motorists to the forest is
Hopewell Lake, set in a lovely
mountain meadow.

7. Rio Grande Gorge

The high sagebrush plain east of
Tres Piedras is broad and flat, offering no hint of the invasive gash in the earth that lies ahead. Then suddenly, on one of the
highest suspension bridges in
America, the road soars across the
chasm of the Rio Grande Gorge.
From this 650-foot perch, which quakes under the weight of passing trucks, you can see the raging Rio Grande far below, its green
waters encased by walls so steep
and narrow that the sun’s rays
manage to illuminate them only in summer — and even then only
at midday. Golden eagles, which
nest on the cliffs, glide gracefully
over the gorge.

8. Taos
This picture-perfect town, with
its tan adobe architecture, sits in a
charmed landscape of snowy peaks
and turquoise-blue skies. No wonder
it has lured artists for well over
a century — and continues to do so
today. Saturated
with painters and
writers, the town sports
such cultural trappings as
galleries, craft shops, bookstores,
and museums.

At the heart of town, Taos Plaza
is lined with an eclectic mix of
eateries and boutiques. The plaza
itself is a legacy of the Spaniards,
who came in the 1600s searching
for gold and stayed to colonize
the valley and convert the Pueblo
Indians to Christianity. Their
strategy did not altogether succeed;
though they left behind such imposing
structures as the Church of
St. Francis of Assisi, located in a
nearby village, they did not thoroughly
convert the Indians, whose
descendants still reside north of
town at Taos Pueblo. Today, you
can wander among the pueblo’s
twin multitiered adobe dwellings,
nestled at the base of Pueblo Peak,
and watch shawl-covered women
prepare bread in large hornos
(outdoor beehive ovens), just as
they have for generations.

9. Enchanted Circle
A stunning patchwork of pine — covered peaks, picturesque valleys,
and deep-blue lakes accounts for
the poetic name of this scenic
80-mile detour north of Taos on
State Rtes. 522 and 38. The centerpiece
is lofty Wheeler Peak, a popular
ski center that, at 13,161 feet,
is New Mexico’s highest mountain.
Near San Cristobal lies the
D. H. Lawrence Ranch where, in
the 1920s, the British author wrote
some of his most celebrated works.
As the route swings around the
mountain, you can pause at Red
River, a ski resort with Texan flair;
Elizabethtown, a gold-mining
ghost town; and Eagle Nest Lake,
where windsurfers fueled by fierce
gusts from the mountains skitter
across the whitecapped expanse
of blue.

10. Cimarron Canyon State Park
Zigzagging down from the Sangre
de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”)
Mountains — at sunset they have a
scarlet glow — Rte. 64 winds between
the red granite palisades of
narrow Cimarron Canyon. Blue
spruce and the rushing Cimarron
River complete the idyllic scene,
considered by many to be the
route’s prettiest stretch.

11. Cimarron
The 25,000 Boy Scouts who visit
Philmont Scout Ranch near
Cimarron each year know quite well to
“Be Prepared.” But in the days
when the West was still wild and
Cimarron was overflowing with
the likes of Doc Holliday and
Wyatt Earp, that motto would
have meant: be
prepared for a quick draw. Boasting
15 saloons, the town was so
raucous that on one occasion a
journalist noted, “Everything is
quiet in Cimarron. Nobody has
been killed for three days.” The
St. James Hotel, where Buffalo
Bill organized his Wild West extravaganza,
was a nefarious hangout
and didn’t escape injury. No
fewer than 400 bullet holes were
found in the ceilings of the hotel’s
saloon, hallways, and rooms during
a 1901 renovation, and you
can still see some today. The St. James was
built in 1872 by a chef who had
once served Abraham Lincoln.

12. Sugarite Canyon State Park
In the 1800s thousands of eager
traders and their loaded freight
wagons rumbled across the land
between Raton and Cimarron —
part of the 850-mile Santa Fe
Trail. After negotiating Raton
Pass, an axle-breaking route over
the mountains, they may well have
stopped for a breather at Sugarite
Canyon, a quiet niche (now a state
park) that seems to epitomize New
Mexico: flower-strewn meadows
meet high palisades, and a serene
mountain lake reflects aspen-clad
slopes and the wide blue sky.

13. Capulin Volcano National Monument
Capulin Mountain — a nearly
symmetrical, extinct volcano — exploded
many thousands of years
ago, spewing ash and steam high
into the atmosphere.
For a present-day view of the
volcano, the surrounding plains,
and — on a clear day — Colorado
and Oklahoma, take the narrow
road that ends just below the summit,
then walk the rim trail. Another
trail descends a quarter mile
into the crater.

14. Clayton Lake State Park
At Kiowa
National Grasslands, a 136,505-acre preserve east of Clayton, it is
still possible to imagine straight-horned bison and prehistoric hunters
watching an endless sea of grass
as it swayed to the distant horizon.
Eons before the first Indians
arrived in North American and
the prairie took root, dinosaurs
roamed the muddy banks of an
ancient sea, one whose shores
stretched from the Gulf of Mexico
to Canada. The enormous beasts
left their mark at Clayton Lake
State Park, northwest of Clayton,
where 500 elephantine footprints
(discovered after a scouring rain storm in 1982) are embedded in
a two-acre swath of sandstone: a
fitting finale for visitors taking a
journey imbued with images from
the recent and distant past.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest