New Mexico North

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.

Taos Pueblo
At Taos Pueblo, stucco-covered adobe blocks — straw mixed with clay — form thick walls, providing excellent insulation.

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.

Trip Tips Length: About 410 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round.

Words to the wise: Roads can be icy and snow packed in winter and early spring.

Not to be missed: Northern Navajo Nation Fair (October), Shiprock.

Nearby attractions: Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec. Bisti Wilderness and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, south of Farmington. Heron Lake State Park, near Rutheron. Kit Carson Home and Museum, Taos.

Further information: New Mexico Tourism Depart m e n t, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. 800-545- 2040,

[sale-item img=”” title=”The Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=””]


Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest