The most popular day trip in Northern New Mexico is the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. Circling Wheeler Peak, this 84-mile trip connects Eagle Nest, Angel Fire, Taos, and Red River. Mt. Wheeler is the tallest mountain in New Mexico, rising to an altitude of 13,161 feet. The drive offers spectacular scenery, rugged back country, mountain trails, camping facilities, streams, lakes and a peek at New Mexico’s history.
From Eagle Nest, take US 64 southwest through the Moreno Valley where you are very likely to see vast herds of Elk peacefully grazing on the plains. To the west, just before you get to the road to Angel Fire, you will see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Chapel overlooking the southern end of the valley.
South of the chapel, is the former town of Agua Fria, which was once home to a serial killer by the name of Charles Kennedy. His home, at the base of the Palo Flechado Pass was a rest stop where he enticed travelers into his home, stole their valuables, then murdered and buried them under his house. When he was discovered, Kennedy was killed by a lynch mob led by Clay Allison.
Just past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highway 434 travels south from Highway 64 to the Village of Angel Fire and the Four Seasons Resort. A busy ski resort during the winter, it also offers an 18-hole golf course for summer guests as well as continuing to operate it’s chairlift for hikers, mountain bikers and sightseers during the summer. Another day trip presents itself here by continuing on past the village of Angel Fire and on to Mora, New Mexico on Highway 434. This history filled adventure is not on the Enchanted Circle; but, is a great adventure when you have the chance.
After returning to US 64 from Angel Fire, you will travel over the high 9,101 foot Palo Flechado Pass and down into the Canyon of the Rio Fernando de Taos. There are picnic areas, campsites and many trails through the canyon. Taos Canyon is home to many artist studios which are open to visitors much of the summer and fall season. As you begin the descend the mountain into the valley the canyon provides a spectacular view of the sage covered mesa and the distant San Juan at the southern end of Taos.
You can spend at least a whole day just in Taos, which provides visitors a world of varied experiences. Visit Taos Pueblo, an ancient living Indian village that has stood unchanged for centuries. Or, explore historic Taos Plaza and its side streets. Many of the old adobe buildings that now house shops and galleries were once the homes of some of Taos’ leading citizens – Kit Carson, among them.
You can set off on a mountain trail on skis, horseback, bike or your own two feet. Or ride the bucking Rio Grande in a raft or kayak. With four seasons and five life zones, your recreational options are wide open. The Native American, Spanish, and Anglo cultures are proudly preserved through art and architecture, music and dance, and food and festivals for all to enjoy throughout the year.
Traveling north from Taos the highway crosses the great alluvial apron at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which rise 5,600 feet above the volcanic plateau. Stretching north into Colorado, the Sangre de Cristos, Spanish for the blood of Christ, are one of the youngest mountain ranges in America.
The Río Grande Gorge is a short drive west on U.S. 64 but well worth the side trip. The Río Grande River passes some 650 feet below the highway. Pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge allow you to look directly down into the yawning chasm.
Many other interesting diversions are available on this northward leg of the Enchanted Circle. Taking a left in the lush Hondo Valley at the small village of Arroyo Hondo will take you to the John Dunn Bridge across the Río Grande River at the base of the gorge. John Dunn was an early settler who made his fortune with the purchase of a bridge near this spot, turning it into a toll bridge, where all passengers from the Denver and Río Grande Railroad had to cross to get to and from Taos. Dunn realized a handsome return on his original $5,000 investment.
Businessman, John Dunn, also ran a stagecoach and ore wagon service to many of the towns in the Enchanted Circle and beyond to Ute Park (located between Eagle Nest and Cimarron, New Mexico on Highway 64), where travelers and freight could catch trains east. The road to the John Dunn bridge wanders beside the Hondo River, a favorite of fly fishermen. On the western side of the Río Grande to the right is a favorite swimming spot and to the left and up the hill is the entry to the trail to Black Rock Hot Springs.
Continuing toward Questa is the D. H. Lawrence Memorial and the towns of Lama and San Cristobal. The scar of the Hondo Fire of 1996 marks the Sangre de Cristos north of Lama.
A stop at the New Mexico Fish and Game’s Red River Fish Hatchery is a must. On the west side of the highway, just south of the Village of Questa, it provides free self-guided tours, picnic facilities and good fishing on the Red River just below the trout breeding ponds.
Questa, at the end of the Camino Real, is known for its local woodworkers, tinsmiths and other traditional artists and artisans. The San Antonio del Río Colorado Church, renamed St. Anthony’s, was founded in 1842 and displays many fine examples of traditional santos (carved or painted images of saints) and retablos (devotional paintings for displays.) Artesanos de Questa is continuing these cultural traditions and has a gallery shop on Highway 38.
The Village of Questa was formerly named Cuesta, which means “the lowering.” It was named this by early Spanish settlers because if its location in a mineral-rich caldera formed 25 million years ago. The town is ringed by several steep-sided volcanoes and offers views of many near perfect volcanic cones, including Ute Peak and Ortiz and San Antonio Mountains to the north and west. Questa has a couple of excellent cafes that serve traditional Mexican cuisine, some with great green-chile.
The Enchanted Circle continues east from Questa, but, just 11 miles north at the town of Cerro is the entry to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area. You may want to devote an entire day to this Bureau of Land Management park, which is situated at the conjunction of the Río Grande and the Red Rivers, and offers guided and self-guided walks to the bottom of the gorge. Picnic and campsites are available both on the rim and beside the Río Grande.