The High Road to Taos Scenic Byway is part of a spectacular loop drive that passes Native American pueblos, several small and remote villages built by early Spanish colonists, high alpine forests, and, on the return route, chasms carved into the rock by the seasonal rapids of the Rio Grande river. Chimayó, blessed with the holy shrines of ElSantuario and the Santo Niño Chapel, represents the spiritual and cultural center of northern New Mexico and is the crowning jewel in the precious masterpiece of this route of history, culture, and scenery.
You may access the loop route beginning at El Santuario and the nearby galleries, art & weavingstudios, restaurants, inns, and B&Bs (see Chimayó map for details). Then, as you exit Chimayó, turn east on Highway 76 and begin the ascent of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Sangre de Cristo means "Blood of Christ," and according to some, the mountains are so named because they often take on a strong red hue during sunset. You will continue a winding ascent past the Spanish colonial settlement of Córdova to Truchas, also an old Spanish settlement. The settlement of Truchas is at an elevation of 8400 feet. Towering above it is Truchas Peak at a height of over 13,000 feet. The peak is often a stunning view, particularly in the late afternoon.
The road winds at this high elevation through Carson National Forest into the town of Las Trampas, home of another famous Spanish colonial church,San José de Gracia. This church, completed in 1776, is among the best preserved churches of the Spanish colonial adobe style.
Past Las Trampas is the lovely community of Picurís Pueblo, the most remote of the eight northern New Mexico Indian pueblos. It is home to a Spanish colonial church as well as a thriving buffalo herd. From here the road descends only slightly as you pass the turnoff to Sipapu Ski Basin, then leads up again into the pines before descending into the community of Ranchosde Taos. It is home to another famous Spanish colonial church, San Francisco de Asís, said to be the most photographed church in the United States. From here it is only a short jaunt to Taos proper.
Taos is a celebration of three cultures and a great deal of history. The famous Taos pueblo is the largest multi-storied pueblo still in existence and has been occupied for about 1000 years. Also in Taos are remnants of the Spanish colony established at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1846 the U.S. government sought to gain control over the hostile New Mexico territory following the annexation of the land at the end of the Spanish-American War. The home of the first territorial governor, Charles Bent, is found in Taos. Taos was also the scene of his assassination one year later, in 1847, and the subsequent hanging of the leaders of the revolt that led to his death. The governor's home still stands, as well as that of early Taos' most famous citizen, Kit Carson. In the early twentieth century, Taos became famous as an artist colony.
The "low road" returning to Chimayó runs alongside the Rio Grande valley. The Rio Grande is often pictured as being slow and plodding, but here, in the high country of northern New Mexico, it is a fast flowing river with some world-class rapids. During the late spring and early summer months you can see kayakers out practicing their craft as well as river rafting companies catering to the more adventurous tourists and locals.
As you approach the end of the loop, the Rio Grande flattens out and the horizon expands. This part of the river is dotted with tiny agricultural communities comprised of small fruit orchards and wineries. The views of the high desert plains along this road are stunning, particularly during the summer when thunderheads build and move slowly across the sky.
The road parts from the Rio Grande after Okay Owingeh Pueblo, Española, and the ancient Spanish colony of Santa Cruz de la Cañada. From here it follows upstream along a tributary, the Santa Cruz River. The last of the Spanish colonial churches along this route, the oldest, and one of the most beautiful, is Santa Cruz de la Cañada. Just seven miles from El Santuario, this church played an important part in the El Santuario legend. It was here that the Cross of the Esquipulas, found on the sacred ground where El Santuario would eventually be built, was taken for safekeeping every day for three days and it was from this church that it disappeared every night, only to be found again in the soil in Chimayó.
The final leg of the journey back to Chimayó follows the path of the procession that carried the cross to the church, except in reverse. It is along the small Santa Cruz River, passing the the many galleries and studios that are nestled among the sandstone hills and shaded by the large trees that grow in the wash of the river (see map).
Now you have returned to Chimayó. You have completed a journey across time and across powerful and enduring cultures. You will find yourself even more appreciative of the legends and the history that permeate this area, deepening your experience of the serenity and beauty of the land and the people. Your investment of a day will last a lifetime.
Images courtesy of Richard Rieckenberg.Go to Map
Each year a torrent of melted snow pours down off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the Santa Cruz River. In 1929, a coalition of farmers and government officials built the Santa Cruz Dam to contain some of these waters, both for recreational purposes and to provide water to some of Chimayó’s farms via its extensive system of irrigation channels (acequias). Many of Chimayó’s residents actually opposed the dam because they feared an increase in taxes, and they were right: the Santa Cruz Irrigation District teetered on bankruptcy and had to be rescued in the 1930s by New Deal government agencies.
Today the dam provides not only water for farms but also a little jewel of a lake, peacefully set among the sandstone hills. Although closed to swimming (because the dam creates dangerous currents), it is a popular site for fishing, boating (small boats, low-speed), picnicking, hiking, and basic camping. The lake is periodically stocked with rainbow and brown trout by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
For access to the lake itself, you must enter from the northeast (main) entrance off State Road 503. There is also an overlook with picnic tables that is accessible from the south off 503. And some people enjoy viewing the dam's spillway from below on Santa Cruz Dam Road (off Highway 98 near the Santuario), especially in the spring and early summer, when the snow-fed waters pour over the dam into the river.
Open year-round (Overlook area closed in winter)