We spent a few days sightseeing in Taos, a tiny town with a fascinating mix of cultures–Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo, not to mention the influence of artists and free thinkers who have made their residence here for over 100 years. For such a little town, there’s a lot going on.
Taos Plaza and Historic District
Our first stop was Taos Plaza, the heart of the Taos Historic District. The plaza was built in the 1800’s with defense in mind—it was originally walled in, and the windows and doors of the surrounding buildings faced inward. Many of the buildings in the historic district date back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The buildings directly surrounding the plaza (most not historic) are filled with art galleries, restaurants, and tourist shops.
Our main focus while downtown was the Harwood Museum, but some of the other buildings in and around the Historic District have fascinating histories:
There’s the Governor Bent Museum and Gallery, which was (sort of) home to Charles Bent, New Mexico’s first territorial governor. He was assigned to this post shortly after Mexico ceded New Mexico to the United States. Locals took umbrage to the idea that their home region now fell under American rule, and they promptly killed Bent before he’d even settled into his new home.
Another interesting building is the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, the visionary whom I wrote about in our Harwood Museum post. It was in her home that she welcomed the many artists whom she lured to Taos during the first half of the 20th century. After Luhan’s death, the actor Dennis Hopper purchased the home from Luhan’s husband and moved to Taos in 1970, bringing the sixties’ Easy Rider counterculture with him. Artists and friends followed, and a new art colony grew in Taos. As time passed, Hopper’s drug abuse also worsened, and amongst the locals he was legendary for his rowdy behavior (he got clean in the 1980’s). Hopper loved Taos, and Taos loved him. He is buried in nearby Ranchos de Taos, and the town celebrates Dennis Hopper Day annually on his birthday. Festivities include an Easy Rider motorcycle ride through town.
There’s also the Kit Carson Park and Cemetery, where Carson and other important Taos citizens, including Mabel Dodge Luhan, are buried. When I first pointed out that we were camping in Carson National Forest and that Kit Carson had lived in Taos, Dale asked, “Who the hell is Kit Carson?” I Googled him, and depending upon what you read, he was either a revered American hero or a villain who persecuted Native Americans. Originally from Kentucky, Carson made his name as a frontiersman, mountain man, guide, and U.S. Army officer during the Mexican-American, Civil, and Indian Wars. Even while he was still alive, he became the star of dime store novels and the stuff of legends. His impeccable, larger-than-life legacy persisted until the 1960’s, when some historians began calling into question his actions during the Indian Wars and later. Both those opponents and proponents of Carson have strong opinions, and the debate continues to this day.
(Disclaimer: We didn’t visit any of the three places mentioned above, so I can’t attest to whether or not you should visit–read Trip Advisor–but the history of these places and people are such a huge part of Taos that I thought I’d include them).
Our next stops were just outside of town…
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Dale grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of deep South Texas, and the river has always been a part of his consciousness, so he was interested to see a northern stretch of it. (Not surprisingly, there’s also a Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico).
The source of the Rio Grande is Canby Mountain in Colorado, not too far from the New Mexican border, and the river runs for over 1800 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the 22nd longest river in the world and fourth longest in North America.
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, spanning 1280 feet across the gorge, is a much-hailed must-see by Taoseños. Eight miles out of town, it sits 650 feet above the water and is thus the second-highest bridge on the U.S. Highway System and the fifth-highest in the country.
And a little piece of trivia–long before Sarah Palin and the Alaska “bridge to nowhere” scandal popped up, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge earned this nickname because, at the time it was being built, there was no funding to continue the road on the other side. That problem has long since been rectified.
San Francisco de Asis Church
The San Francisco de Asis Church, in Rancho de Taos, is quite possibly the most painted and photographed church in America, immortalized by Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams, among many others.
It was built in the 1700’s, and, like all adobe buildings, the church has to be replastered regularly so that it remains resistant to the elements. Parishioners and volunteers come together every June to tend to the church in an activity called El Enjarre, or “the mudding.” Adobe buildings are replastered by mixing clay, sand, straw, and water to create a thick mud which is then applied to the surface of the building.
Our last excursion of the day was to the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that deserved its own post.
This seems as good a post as any to mention two New Mexico scenic byways.
The first, called the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, is an 84-mile drive that begins and ends in Taos, taking sightseers through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The byway circles New Mexico’s tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet). We didn’t actually drive the whole byway; we did it by default, every time we left our campsite, because the road that cuts through Cimarron Canyon State Park is part of the byway. Needless to say, the section that we drove was gorgeous.
When we left Cimarron Canyon and headed for Santa Fe, we took the back roads along the High Road Scenic Byway, 105 miles through some of the tallest mountains in New Mexico. We came upon numerous old Spanish villages and historic churches, and the afternoon trip reminded us very much of our time in Spain (except we were in the comfort of our car instead of on foot!). The San Jose de Gracia Church in the town of Las Trampas is over 225 years old and still in use. The village of Chimayó contains Plaza del Cerro, the last surviving Spanish fortified plaza in the southwest. And the Santuario de Chimayó is believed to offer healing powers and is one of the most visited churches in New Mexico. The High Road was a wonderful alternative to taking a more direct route to Santa Fe.
Taos is a beautiful little town with a significant amount of diversity and depth. In the next post, we’ll talk about our visit to Taos Pueblo and also discuss the region’s fascinating, sometimes violent history, a history shaped by the diverse cultures inhabiting–and often clashing–in Northern New Mexico.