Wheeler Peak, located in the southern reaches of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is the highest point in New Mexico. Pat and I summited it over Labor Day weekend 2021, which I wrote all about last week. Encircling Wheeler Peak is the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, connecting the towns of Taos, Red River, and Angel Fire, and passing by a few other notable attractions along the way. During our time in the Wheeler Peak/Taos area, we drove the entirety of the Byway.
Our first stop was the town of Taos, our home base for the weekend. We camped at Taos Valley RV Park, which has numerous tent sites. The sites are spacious, with lovely views of the sunset and the surrounding mountains. We fell asleep listening to the yipping of coyotes and woke to the crisp high desert air. The only thing I disliked about the campground was the many little thorns all over the ground. I’m not sure what plant they fell off of, but they completely trashed the soles of my sandals. Definitely wear shoes you aren’t super attached to, as they will end up with numerous tiny holes in them. But aside from that, we really liked this campground!
The Taos Valley has been the home of the Taos Pueblo Native Americans for hundreds of years. The Taos Pueblo was built somewhere between 600-1000 years ago and is still occupied today, making it one of the oldest continuously-occupied communities in the US. It’s typically open for tours, and I would enjoy visiting and learning more about their traditions and way of life… but was closed in 2021 due to COVID.
Beginning in the early 1600s, control of the Taos Valley fluctuated between the Natives, Spain, and Mexico, before ultimately being claimed by the US and the New Mexico territory after the Mexican-American War. The town itself was officially established in 1796 as part of the Don Fernando de Taos land grant. Land grants were issued by the Spanish and Mexican governments to encourage settlement of the region (and not-so-sneakily steal the land from the local Native Americans).
This multicultural history is very evident throughout the town. Everything is built in adobe style architecture – McDonalds, the post office… you name it, it’s made of adobe. It’s very unusual (and cool). There are also many historical adobe buildings, including the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church that was built in the late 1700s.
The Taos Plaza is the central town square and another example of this historic architecture. The plaza is essentially a fortress of houses built in a square around a central open area, which was used for meeting, trading, and grazing livestock. Today, it is occupied by businesses and a hotel. We actually began our explorations here, reading the signs (which are in both English and Spanish… I was rather proud of myself for reading the Spanish half of one of the signs and understanding almost all of it), walking around the plaza, and poking our heads into the hotel and a gallery displaying the work of a local Native artist. Her work was lovely, and I wish I was in a position where I could afford to spend large sums of money on art, because I would have purchased something.
Also in Taos, and part of the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, is Kit Carson Park and Cemetery. Kit Carson was a trapper, unofficial leader of the mountain men, explorer, Indian agent, and lieutenant for the Union during the Civil War. It was interesting to learn about him, as there are multiple things named after him in Colorado and I never knew who he was. He is buried in the cemetery in the park, along with his family, many other prominent locals from back in the day, and individuals killed during the 1847 Taos Rebellion.
Heading north out of Taos, we drove the byway in a clockwise direction, following Highway 522 toward Questa. Along the way, we took a short detour out to the D.H. Lawrence Memorial. Lawrence was an English author who spent a few years here on his ranch in the Hondo Valley. After his death, his widow built a shrine here in his honor.
Our next stop was the Red River Fish Hatchery… not because either of us are particularly into fish or fishing, but because Pat had never seen a fish hatchery before. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of fish to see at this point in the season. But at least he got to learn a little bit about how hatcheries work.
We stopped next in the town of Questa. The recommendation on the pamphlet we were using as a guide was to visit the artisan market, but it was closed by the time we arrived late in the afternoon. Instead, we stumbled upon another beautiful old adobe church.
Headed east now, we looped around Wheeler Peak toward Red River, entering somewhat of a canyon. The rocks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are apparently some of the oldest in the southwestern US, dating at nearly 2 billion years; I’m not sure which ones they were, but the byway information says they’re visible from the road so presumably we saw them.
Red River is a ski resort town. It was nearing dinner time and the town was crowded with tourists, so we drove through without stopping.
Beyond Red River, we climbed up and over Bobcat Pass before dropping down to Eagle Nest Lake. The lake is encompassed by a state park. We wanted to walk out to the lake but didn’t want to pay the entrance fee when we only planned to spend 10 minutes there. Luckily, there’s one day-use entrance that doesn’t seem to charge a usage fee so we were able to park and walk out to the lakeshore.
Heading south now on Highway 64, we reached the resort town of Angel Fire which is home to a well-known (and beautifully-constructed) Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. We stopped to pay our respects and read some of the signs.
From here, we followed Highway 64 as it curved around to the west and wound its way through Taos Canyon and back to Taos.
I’ve driven numerous scenic byways in my life and, in my opinion, this one isn’t the most scenic. It seems more appropriate to call it a historical or cultural byway. Nonetheless, it was a good way for us to tour the Taos Valley and Wheeler Peak areas and learn a lot about the geology and history of the region.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway follows Highway 64 north out of Taos, New Mexico. Continue on Highway 522, turn east on Highway 38, and loop back around to Highway 64 traveling west back into Taos; a byway map can be found here
- Fees and passes: everything we did was free
- Where to stay: Taos is the largest town along the byway and offers camping, hotels, and other lodging opportunities. Questa, Red River, and Angel Fire also have lodging. There are a few campgrounds along the way too, including at Eagle Nest State Park
- Other: plan at least 3 hours to drive the entire byway and stop at all the attractions; much of the road is narrow and winding, particularly the stretch between Angel Fire and Taos
- This is the guide we used for our walking tour of Taos