The High Road to Taos: Northern New Mexico Churches

The High Road to Taos leads the intrepid traveler through many historic and deeply culturally Hispanic villages in Northern New Mexico.  Entering NM 503 from US 285/84, you meander through arid juniper and pinon spotted hills that spill directly into the village of Chimayó.  Chimayó appears lush with Cottonwoods and its desert grasses.  Here, a pilgrimage and heritage site, the Santuario de Chimayó is found.  The church was completed in 1816 on earth that is believed to possess curative powers.  Pilgrims make the journey to pray and experience the miraculous powers from the healing dirt from the floor of a side chapel.  As I entered the small main chapel, I sensed a positive, calm and meditative presence.  Some of the vistitors were meditating in alternative styles, and others deep in Christian prayer.  It was a beautiful experience that I wish to repeat on another trip to this peaceful space.  Nearby is the Capilla de Santo Nino de Atocha.  It was closed when I visited, so I didn't have a chance to see the papier mâché Christ Child at the altar that was offered by Don Severino Medina, a founder of the chapel.  I have included a photograph that I found from the chapel's website, as well as a Bulto of a pilgrim in the familiar folk art tradition.  In addition to weaving, the hamlet produces a variety of red and green chiles.  I bought red chile from the general store, El Portrero's (Vigil Store), which leaves a smooth, smoky richness on the palate.  The proprietors were friendly and were happy to share their knowledge of the area.  For lunch, I feasted on Chile Rellenos at the town favorite, Rancho de Chimayó Restaurant.  The Margarita menu looked inviting, but since I was going to be traveling on new roads through the mountains, I didn't partake.  The food was good, but didn't live up to the reviews I read across the web.  

 As I exited the Santuario, I turned right.  All roads seem to lead to NM 76.  Drivers beware.  Your Google directions may say take NM 76N, but at this point,  NM 76 is heading west, and is marked as NM 76W.  Take the turn right toward Cordova to stay on the High Road.  Cordova stands at an elevation of about 8,400 feet.  I stopped at the scenic overlook, but didn't have time for the town.  I must return because my goal was to arrive at Chacon before dark, and it was already 3:00 p.m.  Night was falling at about 6:30.  I've read there is an old church in this woodworking town, and a couple of wood carver's shops to enjoy.  

Next is Truchas.  Truchas, is the town that you run into where NM 76 takes a sharp left (that was not clearly marked--make sure you turn at the mural).  I ended up driving straight into town, but missed the church and other points of interest because I was trying figure out what happened to NM76.  The road apparently dead ends on a dirt road, but I turned around before I reached it.  The town displays monochromatic wood framed and adobe buildings circa 1850.  Truchas is apparently so untouched, it was the site for the filming of the Milagro Beanfield War (an interesting movie, by the way).  I could not find the left turn, now a right turn, to stay on NM 76.  There are no signs going south, and perhaps I missed the one going north, but just make sure you turn at the mural.  I ended up driving all the way back to the Cordova overlook to turn around because some little jerk got on my bumper out of Truchas and wouldn't let up.  Oh, and there's nowhere to turnaround unless you want to get a headlong view of the valley. By-the-way, Truchas Peak, in the Sangre de Cristo range rises to well over 13,000 feet north of East of Truchas.  While not really visible in my fog then, my calmer memory of the mountain views were spectacular.  After a minor meltdown, and calls to my friends, I took a chance and turned at the mural.  Still no signs indicating you are on NM 76.  In fact, the only way I knew I was possibly heading in the right direction was because my friends mentioned Chamisal.  Driving through the Ponderosa forest in the Carson National Forest was not comforting until I reached the hamlet of Las Trampas.  Finally, I saw the junction sign for NM 75.  (Note to NM State Government:  If you promote a road as a scenic byway, at least put up some signs reassuring out-of-towners that they are on the right track.  There aren't a whole lot of people to stop and ask, cell phone service is non-existent, which means that GPS dependent on data signals don't work.  Please mark the turn-off, and at least one sign to indicate, "Yes, you have reconnected to NM 76," to gently lead us.  Note to Travelers:  If you don't want to feel like the Spanish missionary priests wandering through unknown territory  (pictured below), print out your directions!)  With all that said, I am eager to travel this road again, and really take my time to stop in these delightful hamlets.

After stopping briefly in Las Trampas, I continued through Chamisal and turned right onto NM 75 through the lush meadows of the outskirts of Penasco and Vadito. When you hit the junction of NM 518, you turn left (north) for Taos.  (This is clearly marked). You'll find the San Francisco de Asis Mission in Ranchos de Taos, 4 miles from the Taos center.  In Taos proper, you'll see Our Lady of Guadalupe church, and on the Pueblo, of course, you'll find the San Geronimo Mission.  The present San Geronimo Mission structure on the Taos Pueblo was constructed after the original church's destruction during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  Later U.S. Soldiers destroyed the second structure after a revolt against the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (The one that made New Mexico a state). The final structure built in 1850 still stands. The remains of the second structure still stands on the pueblo.  Santa Fe has a number of interesting churches, but I included the Santuario de Guadalupe, and the the San Miguel Mission because of their dates of construction and adobe architecture.  

 My journey, however, led me to go south on NM 518 through the Carson National Forest winding through deeper meadows of Trés Ritos, and the Sipapu Ski resort.  The Rio Pueblo runs alongside the road, and explains the heavily forested mountains and expanse of lush meadows throughout the valley.  Cattle come down from up the mountain onto the road to graze in the lush green valley, so beware of large leaping sides of beef onto the road!  Remember, cattle have the right-of-way! 

The road climbs high above Angostura, and finally descends into the Chacon-Holman area. Northern New Mexico is fascinating.  It's relative isolation has left many of the hamlets virtually untouched.  I found two beautiful churches in Chacon and Cleveland, respectively, that are worth noting.  The caretakers of the Capilla de San Antonio, formerly, San Antonio de Padua in Chacon added bell tower in later years.  I gleaned this from an old book on Northern New Mexico churches.  The adobe churches need periodic maintenance, so it appears that when tastes changed, so did the structure.  San Antonio Church in Cleveland is an adobe structure with beautiful wood-working in front.  

Read your history to get an understanding of the mission system in the Southwest, particularly, New Mexico, and visit these wonderful villages on the High Road.  Mission churches abound throughout New Mexico.  I have and will share more photos in other posts.  

The High Road is the slower route to Taos or Las Vegas, but so well worth the drive.  

©2013--Helen Moore Photography