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Road Trip: The High Road to Taos, New Mexico

After a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico we remounted our rented Ford Fiesta for the drive northeast to Taos, New Mexico. From my reading, I knew the drive on the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe  is part of the there — there.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, Taos

Adobe San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico (Photo Credit: Travis Witt, Creative Commons Lic. 3.0 Unported)

The 56 mile route officially starts at Pojoaque, northeast of Santa Fe. The road is usually only two lanes and it winds up and down hilly terrain. It is best to devote at least half a day for the trip, depending on how often you might want to stop.

My husband, Mr. Excitement, and I do not rarely argue. (Some people think this is unhealthy, but that is a subject for another blog post). Unkind words are most likely to be exchanged when he is driving and I am riding shotgun as the navigator.

I am so anxious not to exasperate Mr. Excitement I think I am sometimes over-prepared. On this trip, I settled into the passenger seat gripping Fodor’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque which devotes some six pages to “The High Road to Taos,” and includes a map. I also had a real paper map from the car rental place, and I had enabled Google maps on Mr. E’s I-phone.

Bring Your GPS on The High Road to Taos

I highly recommend you embark on the High Road to Taos drive with some GPS enabled device. Even though the route has been officially designated as a New Mexico Scenic Byway, there were missing road signs.

We drove through the 8,000 feet high mountain town of Truchas only to find ourselves on a dirt road through some fields. We figured the need to drive on an unpaved road was something the Fodor’s guide definitely would have mentioned. So, we back tracked, this time listening to Ms. GoogleMaps, telling us where to make the right angle left turn onto the road to Peñasco. As we passed several other lost looking tourist types driving the wrong way towards the same dirt road, Mr. Excitement finally became less excited and believed my strident assertion that there had been no sign designating the turn.

Later during the ride, when we came to an unmarked fork in the road, we were spared having to look for moss on the north side of trees by Ms. GoogleMaps who kept us pointed in the right direction.

Fodor’s provides the following directions from Santa Fe:

U.S. 285/84 north to NM 503 (a right turn just past Pojoaque), to County Road 98 (a left toward Chiamayó), to NM 76 northeast to NM 75 east, to NM 518 north.

Got that?

High desert on the high road to Taos from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

High desert on the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The High Desert on The High Road to Taos

The first part of the “High Road” takes you through an arid high desert where, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you can imagine John Wayne and his posse riding out from behind a rock formation. Indeed, this was a popular place to film Westerns back in the day.

This type of topography is known as “badlands“. I imagine this is because if you were trying to cross this area in an oxen drawn covered wagon, you might be wondering, “And I thought this was a good idea — because why?” In a car with a decent transmission you will be more inclined to admire the scenery.

We stopped for lunch at Rancho de Chimayó which is a right turn off the road. There was a Road Scholar tour bus parked there and quite a few cars in the parking lot, but the place was roomy enough to accommodate that group and drop-ins like us.

It was a nice enough day for us to eat outside on the covered patio. Our meals were not particularly memorable, but surpassed what we could have eaten at road-side fast food emporia. (Disclosure: I don’t eat chile which is pretty much a non-starter for enjoying the full breadth of New Mexican cuisine). If you are afraid to choose not to deviate from the main route, your lunch options are limited.

During the ride, you will experience “reverse” ecosystems in that the treeless high desert is at lower elevation than the pine forests you encounter as you drive further into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Much of the ride is through the Carson National Forest. If you like to hike, there seemed to be quite a few trail heads. When we were there, they were “closed” by an ill-advised and extremely annoying federal government shutdown.

Carson National Forest on the High Road to Taos.

Carson National Forest on the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway

In the event your nicotine patch isn’t working, please do not dispose of any matches or lit cigarettes out your car window. The area is prone to forest fires and evidence of past conflagrations is visible from time to time.

Soak in the scenery along your drive. The High Road to Taos drops you off on a commercial strip road into Taos where beautiful vistas are replaced by big box stores and chain restaurants. If you have spent your drive on the High Road to Taos dreaming of a fried shrimp platter at Red Lobster — you’re in luck.

Should you go?:  If you are doing a loop of the major “must sees” in northern New Mexico, chances are that you will be driving between Santa Fe and Taos. The “low road” is also quite picturesque, traveling along the Rio Grande River. However, the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway provides the opportunity to experience both the natural beauty of the area along with opportunities to interact with the art (traditional weaving and wood carving) and the old Hispanic culture of this part of of the state.

Caveat: On a poor weather day, driving this route could be unpleasant and even dangerous. For more in depth trip planning along the High Road to Taos, check out this article by the Santa Fe Travelers.

Do you enjoy road trips? Which is your favorite — in the U.S. or elsewhere? If you have driven the High Road to Taos, do you have any additional recommendations? 

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Suzanne Fluhr, Midlife Boulevard's travel editor, is a recovering Philadelphia lawyer, empty nester, wanderer, dog person and Zentangle® enthusiast. She also writes about Baby Boomer travels for the body and mind on her personal blog, Boomeresque. Instagram: Boomeresque2

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Friday 1st of December 2017

I love a road trip. My husband loves to drive. Europe is great but I love driving to areas in this country. We did the Sante Fe to Taos trip in May several decades ago with my parents. It was really fun. We made lots of stops, got lost and found a hot springs spa that we all enjoyed and not on our itinerary. The only time I drove and my husband navigated was when we were in Hawaii. All the streets with Hawaiian names are hard to differentiate and I take direction better than hubby! A couple of my favorite road trips were to the south. Once we flew into Atlanta and drove to Savannah and Charleston and in-between. Another we flew into New Orleans and drove around the gulf. These are really very different trips for us living here in the Pacific NW.

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