The High Road to Taos

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church; also known as Rancho de Taos Church. Built between 1772 and 1816, it was the subject of four paintings by Georgia O'Keefe. Contemporary artists still depict it in their work.
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church; also known as Rancho de Taos Church. Built between 1772 and 1816, it was the subject of four paintings by Georgia O'Keefe. Contemporary artists still depict it in their work.


The High Road to Taos  is just that. It is an alternative route to Taos from Santa Fe that takes you from 5,800 feet in Nambe to over 8000 feet in Truchas. You will pass through high desert scrub, junipers, and incredible rock formations. Before you descend into Taos, you will be in the Carson National Forest, with tall trees, campgrounds, and traces of snow. More important, you will see elements of New Mexico culture and history, to include two Pueblos, the Rancho de Chimayo Church, territory of Spanish Land Grants, and a smattering of houses and ranches, large and small.


If you take the main route to Taos from Santa Fe---north on Highway 84/68 through Espanola---it will take you about an hour-and-a-half. If you take the High Road, however, your trip could take two-and-a-half hours (if you drive without stopping), or a whole day, if you choose to visit the churches, villages, galleries, and restaurants along the way.  


As you head north from Santa Fe, you will pass through the small town of Pojoaque. This is pretty much the last town you will be able to get gas and major provisions before you venture up the High Road to Taos. A mile north of Pojoaque, you will turn right at the next light (State Road 503). The sign will direct you to the Nambe Pueblo.


As you continue east on SR 503, you will soon see the sign for the Nambe Pueblo, which is on a small road to your right. The Nambe Pueblo has a central plaza and a church, but there isn't much else to see there. You will not find any commerce, such as shops or restaurants.


Continuing past the Nambe Pueblo, you will see the turn-off for Chimayo. Here, you have two choices. You can turn left at SR 520---which will take you to Chimayo---or continue on to the town of Cundiyo, which is about five miles up the road. Your journey through Cundiyo will take you past a few small homes and galleries. Eventually, you will join up with SR 76. If you turn right on SR 76, you continue on the High Road to Taos.


My recommendation is that you turn left at SR 76 in order to see Chimayo. You can then back-track, picking up where you left off.



"If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles

in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a

broken heart, follow the long mountain road,

find a home in Chimayo."


--- Poem on the wall in

the Santuario de Chimayo



Tucked in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the village of Chimayo seems far off the beaten track. Yet, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way each year to the tiny church, sometimes called the Lourdes of America.


If you drive the highways of New Mexico during Holy Week, you will see them walking ... from Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, even Old Mexico. They come seeking miracles of healing from the church and its little well of scared dirt found in a small room off to the side of the altar. Is this superstition? Not at all.





Next to the Santuario is the Santo Nino Chapel. This shrine is one of three in the world to honor Santo Nino de Atocha, the manifestation of Jesus Christ as a child.


Santo Nino appeared in the tiny community of Atocha, Spain in the 13th century to rescue the men of that village from starvation in the prison of the conquering Moors. In the sixteenth century, Santo Nino rescued miners in Mexico.


In 1857, in fulfillment of a promise made to God, a small chapel was built by Severiano Medina. Thus, Santo Nino was brought to New Mexico.


During World War II, many New Mexicans suffered through the seige of Corregido, the Bataan Death March, and internment in Japanese Camps. They prayed to Santo Nino for their salvation, and upon their return, requested to be allowed to make the pilgrimage to Chimayo to give their thanks. This began the Easter pilgrimage to El Santuario and Santo Nino Chapel which has grown to several thousands of pilgrims each year.



After visiting the Santuario---and especially after you see the red and green chile in the gift shops---you will want to eat. Fear not. Just beyond the Santuario is Rancho de Chimayo Restaurante.


In October 1965, the home of Hermenegildo and Trinidad Jaramillo became Restauranté Rancho de Chimayó. Arturo, Hermenegildo’s grandson, and his wife Florence had an idealistic vision in their plans for the house and land. Their restaurant would preserve the rich traditions of their family and its proud culture.


The setting is comfortable and romantic. Fireplaces radiate warmth into cozy rooms and family photographs hang on the white washed adobe walls. The lovely terraced patio beckons you to exquisite outdoor dining.


In August 1984, the Jaramillo family completed restoration of Hacienda Rancho de Chimayó, Epifanio and Adelaida Jaramillo’s home. Their home has been lovingly renovated into seven guest rooms. Each room opens onto an enclosed courtyard and within each room one finds turn of the century antiques, a private bath, a quiet sitting area and fireplace.



Ok, back to our road trip.


If you head north from Chimayo, you will hit SR 76. Turn right and you are back on the High Road to Taos.


On your right is the turn-off to Cordova, though frankly, there isn't much to see there. A few artisans have home-galleries, but most of these are by appointment. If you drive down to Cordova, know that the streets are tight and narrow, so go slowly and carefully.


Just past the turn-off for Cordova is Truchas (which means Trout in Spanish). This little town has a lot of galleries, as well as some funky houses. Pay attention, though, because the High Road to Taos continues on your left, but the signage is poor.





Beyond Truchas is the small village of Las Trampas. 


First settled by 12 Spanish families in 1751, the village of Las Trampas was originally built within a defensive wall with low buildings packed around a central plaza. The small villa’s layout helped protect its earliest inhabitants from Indian attacks. The tight-knit traditional community flourished for hundreds of years, developing and retaining a culture little influenced by the outside world. Within the village is the San José de Gracia Church, one of the most-original and best-preserved examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in New Mexico.


Today, the Las Trampas Historic District preserves significant elements of the original 18th century village, including the San José de Gracia Church. Both the district and church are National Historic Landmarks. The original Spanish plaza town, continually occupied throughout the Spanish, Mexican and American periods – still survives as a distinct community today.


The church still retains most of its original 18th century features with its wide-plank wooden floors, decorative interior, and the strong adobe walls that have been preserved and continually re-plastered. The unique and original transverse clerestory window in the nave casts light on the sanctuary and altar, which is otherwise still lit by candles. Such clerestory windows are unknown elsewhere in Spanish Colonial architecture or in Christian architecture anywhere in the world. They were likely an invention of the Franciscan padres of New Mexico, and the church at Las Trampas has a beautiful example.


In the walled forecourt of the church is the cemetery, the final resting place of the people of Las Trampas for generations.


San José de Gracia is still an active parish church and is regularly open to visitors on the weekends.





As you leave Truchas, you will feel the effects of the altitude, as you are now above 8000 feet. That's high for New Mexico, unless you're up skiing somewhere. The altitude in Albuquerque is about 5000 feet; Santa Fe, 7000 feet. Are you coming from Las Cruces? The altitude is just under 3000 feet. Are you coming from California? The altitude in Oakland is 948 feet.


Even if you don't feel a shortness of breath, you will notice a change in the terrain, as you are now in the Carson National Forest. You will continue climbing to Penasco, where, if you have the time, you can make a detour to the Picuris Pueblo  [one of the largest northern pueblos early in the fifteenth century. Today, its population has shrunk to less than 300].


Watch for elk as you drive. This road is also twisty-turny, so stay alert! There are a few 'scenic view' turn-offs, so try to stop there if you want to take it all in.




As you leave the Carson National Forest, you will take the steep decline into Taos. You will pass a few villages along the way, so go slowly in case you want to stop.


At the bottom of the hill, you are in the town of Ranchos de Taos. If you turn right, you go to Taos itself. If you turn left, you can visit the Rancho de Taos Church, made famous by Georgia O'Keefe and more contemporary artists.