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History,  Landscape,  Lens-Artists,  New Mexico

Our Land of Enchantment: the scenic byways of New Mexico

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted. What delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants; and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule used in the first US spaceflight missions. We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell.

And there were so many different places to stay. We slept in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. And art: we saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. Some of our favourite drives were on several of the state’s Scenic Byways, so for this week’s Lens Artists Challenge theme of ‘Back country roads’ I want to share some photos of each of the ones we drove.

The Trail of the Mountain Spirits

The Trail of the Mountain Spirits forms a loop on Highways 15, 35 and 152 in the area north of Silver City, with a spur to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. You could do it as a day trip from Silver; however it would be a long day if you planned to spend time exploring the cliff dwellings. We split it in two, driving north on the first day from Silver City on Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and from there retracing our steps and taking Highway 35 to Lake Roberts (where we spent the night in a cosy log cabin). The next morning we took Highway 35 through part of the Mimbres Valley. But we then turned off on the Geronimo Trail rather than do the southern stretch on Highway 152.

This was a lovely drive through varied scenery, but not one to take in a hurry. The stretch between Pinos Altos (six miles north of Silver City) and the junction for the Gila Cliff Dwellings is especially narrow and winding, with no centre stripe for much of its length. You have to take it slowly due to the almost constant bends. Highlights included spotting a deer just north of Silver City; stopping to take photos in the ‘almost ghost town’ of Pinos Altos; and of course visiting the cliff dwellings themselves.

But the whole drive is pretty, although the driver will need to keep more than one eye on the road for much of the time. There are a few places where you can pull over to admire the view; but we found that these weren’t necessarily in the most scenic spots. If you drive the entire loop you will cover 93 miles, cross the Continental Divide twice, and cross six climate zones.

  • My photos show Pinos Altos, Roberts Lake and the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

The Geronimo Trail

Of all the scenic byways we travelled this was arguably the most scenic, although in fact we only travelled half of it! For most drivers the route can be regarded as being split into two sections; north (Highways 59 and 52), and south (Highways 35 and 152). These are linked in the west by Forest Road 150 (but you’ll probably need a 4-wheel drive to tackle that) and in the east by I25, which isn’t exactly scenic.

The section we drove was the southern stretch – Highway 35 through the Mimbres Valley, then east on Highway 152. This road climbs up out of the valley through a dramatic rocky gorge and emerges at the high point (literally and figuratively) of the drive, Emory Pass. Here there is a large parking area, and although it was still quite early in the morning we were nevertheless amazed to have it to ourselves; the few other drivers on the road didn’t seem minded to stop to take in this awesome vista.

Standing here you are 8,228 feet above sea level, and the view extends east for miles. The towns of Kingston and Hillsboro can be seen below; and Caballo Lake and Mountains, over 50 miles to the east, are easily visible. On a clear day you can apparently make out Elephant Butte Dam (approximately 65 miles away) as a distant white spot; but we had quite a bit of haze and could see no further than Caballo.

After Emory Pass, the road descends through a long series of hairpin bends. But although it is slow it is in good condition and not too difficult a drive. Near the bottom, look out for a sign to the former boom town of Kingston, now home to just a handful of residents. Its one remaining building from the glory days, the Percha Bank, was closed for refurbishment when we visited. Still, we got a few photos, and it was worth stopping to see.

Beyond Kingston the road passes through Hillsboro, another former mining town but with more life to it than Kingston, including some nice cafes and a great little gallery.

Soon after leaving Hillsboro Highway 152 reaches the interstate where we turned north for Truth or Consequences and Socorro, where we were to spend that night. Some of the views were still good, but I25 is no scenic byway!

  • As well as some views from the top of the Emory Pass, my photos show the Mimbres Valley; the Percha Bank in Kingston; and Hillsboro’s one street.

The Turquoise Trail

Anyone driving between Albuquerque and Santa Fe has a choice of three possible routes. The quickest is the Interstate (I25), and the slowest the long loop via Jemez and Los Alamos on Highways 550 and 4; but we chose the pretty scenic byway known as the Turquoise Trail. Named for the former turquoise mines in the region, this road (Highway 14) skirts Sandia Peak where we detoured to admire the views over Albuquerque. It then winds through a series of one-time boom mining towns that are for the most part now very small and sleepy.

The exception is Madrid (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, MAD-rid), which in recent years has been discovered and revitalised by many artists and craftspeople. Nearly every one of the old houses lining its main street is now a gallery; and the few that aren’t are restaurants. We spent a very pleasant few hours here, but also really liked sleepy Los Cerillos, a very short detour off the main road, with its ramshackle bar, ‘antique’ shop and attractive church.

  • My photos show the view from Sandia Peak; the church in Golden; a typical old house in Madrid and the town’s main street; and the What Not shop in Los Cerillos (also in my featured photo above).

The High Road to Taos 

There are two possible routes from Santa Fe to Taos, the Low Road and the High Road. The former is quicker and apparently quite scenic in its own right; but with all day in which to make the journey we chose the High Road. This follows Highway 503, with a detour via Chimayo, to Highway 76 and on via Highway 518 to Ranchos de Taos just a few miles south of Taos itself. You could drive it in a couple of hours (it’s only about 80 miles in total); but why not do as we did and spend a day exploring?

I have already posted about the highlights of this fascinating drive, Following the High Road to Taos. They include:

  • The moving Santuario de Chimayó and nearby Santo Niño Chapel
  • The impressive adobe churches of Truchas and Las Trampas (both closed when we passed through but worth a stop nevertheless)
  • A picnic lunch by the pretty lake at Picuris Pueblo
  • The aspen trees turning gold along the road

My photos were taken in Chimayó, Truchas, Trampas and Picuris.

The Enchanted Circle

The Enchanted Circle byway is a popular day-trip from Taos; but we also found that we could use it as a round-about route to our next destination, Cimarron. It consists of Highways 522, 38 and 64; and for the most part driving is fairly easy though you climb pretty high in places; in the winter this is popular skiing country.

By driving the byway in a clockwise direction we were able to take in most of the circle. And by adding a detour before turning off to Cimarron we saw most of the more notable sights along the route. Although we didn’t have the best weather of our trip here, we did get to see the most striking aspen trees. We also enjoyed atmospheric (even in the rain) Elizabethtown. Our detour took us to the moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire before we turned back and headed away from the byway towards Cimarron.

  • My photos show those glorious aspens; the ghost town of Elizabethtown, and the Vietnam memorial.

I hope these photos have inspired you to explore the scenic byways of New Mexico, one of the most beautiful and varied US states in which we’ve road tripped to date.

I visited New Mexico in 2011

26 Comments

  • Tina Schell

    Quite the ode to New Mexico Sarah! We’ve spent some time there but not to the level you have. It is a unique and often very interesting state, well worth a visit. Somehow I always think of the Native Americans roaming through the hills on horseback there. The “old west” still survives there in places. Great post

  • SoyBend

    Lots of interesting architecture and scenery there. I’ve driven through New Mexico, but I was in a hurry. Thanks for showing me some if what I missed!

  • justbluedutch

    Thank you for taking me along to your wonderful road trips Sarah. I love these off the beten highways—looks so deserted and yet surprisingly , you´ve catch the “travel fever” in your photos. I have never been to US; and New Mexico looks pretty inviting.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    You obviously have very fond memories of this trip, Sarah, it comes over very strongly in your text! For some reason we’ve never had the USA very high on our wish list..in fact Michaela has never been and I’ve only been to New York. My daughter has now moved to LA though so I suspect a trip to California is on the cards!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We do really enjoy these US road trips 🙂 I love NYC but when you get out into rural USA it’s totally different. There’s so much space, and their national parks system is absolutely excellent. If you go to California I do highly recommend hiring a car and spending some time on the road!

  • Anonymous

    New Mexico is a seductive place and you captured it perfectly. It certainly makes me want to plan another trip there. There is so much to do. Thank you for this piece. Donna

  • rkrontheroad

    You have found some wonderful, less visited treasures – the churches and old towns. The What Not shop: good thing they had the “open” sign, the sign over the door is almost past readable! Enjoyed this trip with you.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ruth 🙂 That shop was amazing, a completely random hotchpotch of stuff, some of it decidedly weird. They weren’t too keen on us taking photos inside, unfortunately.

      • rkrontheroad

        That’s ok. I don’t usually take pictures inside most places, especially museums, although I know a lot of people do, since you pay to see their collection, and shops. I respect that.

  • Marie

    Must save this – we were just saying recently that we’d love another US roadtrip …. I think you’ve all the work done for us Sarah!!! Was this part of a longer trip? Where did you fly into? We were in NM as part of Route 66 but looks like there’s plenty there to draw us back…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Marie. We did these as part of a longer road trip right around New Mexico. We actually flew into El Paso in Texas, just across the southern border, as the flights suited us. If you message me via the contact form (under About me above) I’d be happy to send you our itinerary if that would be helpful? We had a fabulous time – I highly recommend it!

      Meanwhile we’re considering Rte 66 for next year so I may pick your brains about that in return 🙂

  • Wandering Dawgs

    This should be an advertisement for the state of New Mexico! Your images are stunning! You have really captured the feel of New Mexico. Thank you for taking us on all these back roads with you. My brother lives in Albuquerque and has probably been on all of these scenic drives. My husband and I were camping in Santa Fe in 2006 for a few days. One day we took the High Road to Taos and returned on the Low Road. We loved it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Beth 😊 NM is such a beautiful state and I really loved our too-short time there. I remember thinking what a great place to live Albuquerque must be. I liked how they were making an effort to make the streets more walkable – we had a super afternoon and evening there!

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