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Taos, N.M., is a launching pad for day trips

Decades of popularity have changed Taos, but its allure is still there, pristine in places

San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos is an architectural and historical landmark for its age (1772-1816) and construction of masonry and adobe with timber rafters.SELINA KOK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

TAOS, New Mexico - In my decades-old memories, this was a secluded, magical town tucked away in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and populated by ranchers, Native Americans, artists, and nonconformists.

After a weeklong visit to northern New Mexico this fall, I am happy to report there is still magic in the air, but it has dispersed. While Taos, now long discovered, holds some treasures and a similar cast of characters, the surroundings grabbed more of my attention this time. So where did the old Taos go?

“What happened in Taos is what happens everywhere: America moved in,’’ said Jack Leustig, a photographer and fine-art printer with a gallery in Arroyo Seco, a must-see mountain village 15 miles north of town with an early-Taos vibe. “That means Walmart, Walgreens, and a lot more traffic.’’


An endless stream of traffic, I might add, directed through the heart of town. That said, Taos makes a perfect launching point for an eclectic mix of stops and day trips, some near, others farther.

On the drive to Taos, through scenic countryside, Santuario de Chimayo is in a tiny village about 30 minutes north of Santa Fe.SELINA KOK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

If you drive up from Santa Fe, as my wife, Lina, and I did, take the scenic High Road, which follows NM Highway 76 and climbs to 8,000 feet. The two-hour trip took us through arid countryside that reminded me of northwest Argentina, past sandstone cliffs, fall-yellow cottonwoods, and through pinon-juniper woodlands. We stopped in the postage-stamp village of Chimayo to see the “Lourdes of America,’’ the picturesque 18th-century Santuario de Chimayo. Believers arrive with plastic baggies to scoop up what they consider to be healing dirt from a hole in the floor of a side chapel. We were looking for a cure at the adjacent Leona’s Restaurante de Chimayo, specifically from its trademark posole, a chili, pork, and hominy stew, but sadly the place was closed that day.


Just southwest of Taos is the famed 18th-century San Francisco de Asis Church, its straw-punctuated adobe walls hauntingly depicted by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. Its location is busier than those images suggest, but still peaceful and contemplative, and worth a look inside.

The day we arrived in town, we scurried to the Taos Pueblo before its early closing to prepare for its annual San Geronimo Feast Day, which includes a Mass at the historic San Geronimo Church, a traditional foot race at dawn, pole climbing, and crafts and food. I had shared with Lina my fond memories of the striking church and wonderfully preserved 1,000-year-old multistory adobe structures - but when we got there, we felt conflicted, as if the public was tolerated but not truly welcome (150 people live on the pueblo and close to 2,000 on the adjacent reservation).

Charging admission is, of course, fine, but the cranky ticket taker grilled us on how many cameras and cellphones we had ($6 fee for each), and repeatedly mentioned that we must tip the tour guides (we did, though they weren’t deserving). While the pueblo has a great opportunity to inform visitors about past and current Native American cultures, there are no educational displays, only ragtag shops of mostly low-quality merchandise, not all handmade. Still, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a marvel and should not be skipped.

We had just the opposite experience at the cheerful and welcoming Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a historic inn and conference site near the town center and within close range of the Taos Mountains. Stop by the office and you will be given a self-guided tour map and an invitation to help yourself to snacks. Luhan was an arts patron who enlarged and embellished her adobe home and gardens in the early 1900s. (Fittingly, the center will be a focal point of the town’s “Remarkable Women of Taos’’ special-events series in 2012.) Houseguests have included O’Keeffe and Adams, as well as Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence, who painted colorful swirls over the too-revealing-for-him bathroom windows. The late actor Dennis Hopper owned the home for a few years in the 1970s and invited his own celebrity guests. (Hopper’s funeral last year was at San Francisco de Asis Church and his trinket-cluttered grave is nearby.)


Art still dominates downtown Taos, though residents said the recession had brought down more than two dozen galleries in the past two years. We didn’t spend much time shopping, but a few spots really grabbed me: Weaving Southwest, which displays museum-quality wall hangings and wearable art; Kimosabe, a repository of historical pueblo pottery and vintage cowboy and Indian items; and Red Cat Melissiana, artfully decorated with a focus on ethnographic collectibles found during owner Melissa Serfling’s travels. Make sure to visit her “secret garden.’’ Also stroll the galleries on Ledoux Street, which houses the contemporary-minded Harwood Museum of Art, one of a handful of top-notch Taos museums.

After a day in town, we headed for the hills, driving the Enchanted Circle, a scenic byway that loops north of Taos and goes through twisting mountain roads and high plains. Must-sees are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, a state park that began as one man’s tribute to his fallen son; the teeny western village of Eagle Nest; Taos Ski Valley, a high-altitude resort area (12,000 feet) that makes a nice mountain-gazing spot in the summer and transforms into a national ski mecca from November to April; and the aforementioned Arroyo Seco, where you will want to have a few hours to poke around the dozen shops and have lunch or an ice cream at the Taos Cow.


On the way back to Taos, we took a detour, first to see the steel truss Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, built in 1965 and still an architectural masterpiece. Looking down the gorge, about 1,200 feet wide and 600 feet deep at this spot, is a dizzying thrill. Thrilling in another way is the nearby “subdivision’’ of UFO-looking off-the-grid homes built by Earthship Biotecture using old tires, crushed aluminum cans, and other recycled materials. Skip the overpriced $7 self-guided tour and just drive by, or, even better, stay in an Earthship overnight.

We followed residents’ advice not to leave town without a drink (preferably one of the dozen margarita options) at the laid-back Adobe Bar in the 75-year-old Taos Inn, where ranchers, Native Americans, artists, and nonconformists still meet and mingle.

Leaving Taos behind, we headed west for a night of camping with no running water. What better way to prepare than with a stay at a hot mineral springs, as if we could somehow store up on H{-2}0.


Built in 1868, Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, 45 minutes southwest of Taos, has long been embraced by residents as well as guests. Renovations over the years have kept amenities current while maintaining historical integrity. We loved everything about this non-froufrou oasis, from its spectacular location, remote and nestled against a cliff wall; its hiking and biking trails through a former 500-year-old pueblo site (pottery shards were everywhere, but of course should not be removed); our affordable yet luxurious suite; its varied public pools and the option of romantic private ones; and our outstanding meals at the Artesian Restaurant.

Whatever magic had been left aloft surely landed here.

What to do

Santuario de Chimayo

15 Santuario Drive



Mass celebrated daily. Gift shop, museum, organized pilgrimages.

Taos Pueblo



Adults $10, students $5, children age 10 and under free, $6 per camera. Generally open daily 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., though hours can vary. Closed for 10 weeks around February-March. Special events through the year.

Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Spa & Resort

50 Los Banjos Road

Ojo Caliente


Day rates $18-$28, private pools $40 per hour, spa services available. Lodging (doubles from $139) and meals.

Where to stay

Mabel Dodge Luhan House

240 Morada Lane, Taos


Doubles from $98.

Where to eat

The Love Apple

803 Paseo del Pueblo Norte



Local farms source this Southwest-French fusion restaurant housed in a former 19th-century adobe chapel. Entrees from $13.

El Meze Restaurant

1017 Paseo del Pueblo Norte



Chef Fred Mueller puts a new twist on old-world Spanish and Moorish dishes; countryside hacienda setting perfect at sunset. Entrees from $16.

Diane Daniel can be reached at