3. Northern New Mexico
In the heart of the Southwest, with a nod to the Old West and even older Navajo cultures, the route from Shiprock to Clayton Lake will enchant you. Stunning scenery abounds, with a wide-ranging color palette from purple peaks, creamy sandstone sculptures, and rust-colored buttes, all set aglow under fiery skies at dusk. While fantastic from afar, it is more magical up close: explore ruins, ride a steam train, ski the slopes, discover ghost towns, and climb volcanoes. Spend time in Taos, an adobe dreamland and a good place to relax during the 410-mile drive

Ruins, Railroads and The Rio Grande

Shiprock (Photo: James Gordon)
Start your journey in Shiprock. You will easily spot Shiprock Peak, the remains of an ancient volcano that towers over the area—ascending 20 stories higher than the Empire State Building. The Navajos called it Winged Rock, but early explorers renamed the peak because of its resemblance to a high-masted sailing vessel.

Getting a late start? Get in touch with your inner caveman and spend the night in a cavern dug into a cliff face of 65 million-year-old sandstone. Just outside of Farmington, Kokopelli’s Cave is an architectural wonder furnished with modern comforts including a waterfall shower and jacuzzi. The dwelling, located 70 feet below the surface, can fit up to four people—perfect for families—but book well in advance. Though there are plenty of amenities, you might find yourselves staring at the walls, offering a 360-degree view of cross-bedding, petrified and carbonized wood and plant fragments, according to geologist Bruce Black who began blasting out the cave in 1980. Very secluded with gorgeous views, your only visitors might be chipmunks, squirrels and ring-tailed cats, should you choose to feed them from your balcony.

Continuing east on Route 64, you will pass through fields sustained by the San Juan River. Just west of Bloomfield, The Salmon Ruins was inhabited by the Anasazi Indians nearly nine centuries ago until the river dried up forcing them to abandon the area. A well-preserved pueblo was left behind with over 200 apartment-like dwellings overlooking a central plaza. Stop by the Museum and Research Center to see replicas of sweat lodges and tipis as well as ancient artifacts. A bit further North, explore the Aztec Ruins National Monument from the same period.

Angel Peak is a looming presence above the painted desert, the stone silhouette spreading its wings as if to take flight toward the sun. You can drive to the top of the monument by turning south onto State Route 44. Following route 550 east you’ll pass many more jagged buttes, mesas and mushroom shaped spires jutting up from the earth in all shades of coral, orange, and ocher.

Taking a slight detour up State Route 511, camp or have a picnic at Navajo Lake State Park and Marina, boasting six campgrounds and a marina, which also has pontoon rentals, a grocery store and picnic area. Tranquil and serene, the blue water is rimmed with small sandy beaches separated by vertical cliffs, surrounded by sturdy pinyon pines.

Back on 64 East, you’ll pass through The Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation, a million acres of rolling hills, alpine lakes and sagebrush-spotted prairies. The tribe was nomatic until being forced onto these lands in 1887. The Jicarilla, meaning “little basketmakers,” are known for their intricately woven wares, once valued for their ease of transport, now appreciated for their craftsmanship and beauty. You can watch women ply their craft at the Arts and Craft Museum in Dulce, where they are also displayed and sold.

Next spend a day riding the rails on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, built in 1880. Stop at the Chama Depot and take a jaunt on the longest and highest steam train route in the nation. Though trains run from March to October, fall is their busiest time of year when the aspens turn the entire landscape electric yellow.

Route 64 curls upward past the Brazos Cliffs, with turnouts along the way, through Carson National Forest, a haven for backpackers, to the high plains of Tres Piedras. Out of nowhere you will find yourself on one of the highest suspension bridges in America, looking down at an 800-foot-deep opening in the earth carved by the Rio Grande. The river gushes far below while golden eagles glide high above, making the Rio Grande Gorge a must see.

An Adobe Dreamland

Taos Pueblo (Photo: Ron Cogswell)
Enter Taos. Once the northernmost town ruled by Spain, its history began around 1350 A.D. when pueblo were built in this region; the best example still stands in nearby Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated as both a World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. The multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, and today many natives have turned their homes into gift shops. Guided tours run every 20 minutes.

For the last century, Taos has attracted artists and writers and has a plethora of galleries and museums housing both historic and contemporary art. There is no shortage of motels, hacienda-style hotels, and spas, as well as restaurants galore: try Mosaic for a splurge and La Cuave for mouth-watering Mexican food. The liveliest bar in town is the Adobe Bar, offering live music 365 days a year.

La Posada De Taos, an adobe bed and breakfast located in the Historic District, is enclosed in cayote fences and opens up to a large courtyard at its core, surrounded by private patios and well-manicured succulent gardens. Decorated with an artistic eye and attention to detail, the hotel is full of fine art and Southwestern artifacts, including architectural touches such as tiled adobe Kiva fireplaces and old Mexican doors.

Art lovers can stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, an incredibly quirky, wonderfully offbeat stacked hotel where some of the greatest minds of the 20th century have stayed, including Georgia O-Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, and Ansel Adams. The solarium on the third floor is especially spectacular. For more affordable accommodations stay at the American Artists Gallery House and share the grounds with George, a colorful peacock and longstanding guest. He walked onto the property fourteen years ago—and never left.

Must see museums are the Millicent Rogers Museum and the Harwood Museum. The first features Native American, Hispanic and Anglo art from the Southwest, including more than 1,000 pieces of pottery from the prehistoric to the present, Apache baskets and Plains beadwork. The latter houses the best modern and contemporary art from the region from the 19th Century onward.

If time allows, why not get off the beaten path and explore the wilderness by llama? Available through Wild Earth Llama Adventures outside of Taos, hike and camp in New Mexico's pristine Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with a woolly hiking buddy—carrying your gear—and a knowledgeable wilderness guide. Snowshoe tours are offered in winter.

The Enchanted Circle

Wheeler Peak (Photo via Flickr)
Back on the road, this 80-mile detour lives up to its name, looping around Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain. Red River, on State Route 38, was an old mining town, rediscovered by ski-buffs, and is now a lively little resort. Copper King Lodge is a popular place to stay. Perched on the river near the ski lift, its woodsy furnishings and stone fireplaces will charm you while its large outdoor hot tub will warm you. Everybody eats at Shotgun Willies, a ramshackle diner known for its great burgers, fried catfish and bacon and green chili burritos.

Upon leaving, make sure and stop in the gold-mining ghost town of Elizabethtown, that unlike Red River, was frozen in time. Back on route 64, meander down through the mountains and then between the granite palisades of narrow Cimarron Canyon, considered by many to be the route’s most picturesque expanse. Blue spruce and bubbling brooks abound, with husky mule deer frolicking at dusk and dawn.

The town of Cimarron, a few miles east, is home of the notorious St. James Hotel where Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill were early patrons. 400 bullet holes were found in the hotel’s saloon during a 1901 renovation, many of which are still visible. Boasting 15 saloons when the west was still wild, today only a few taverns remain, but folks still like to stay in The St. James’ Historic Haunted Rooms—where paranormal activity is apparently still alive—or at least have dinner and grab a drink at the infamous bar.

Past Sugarite Canyon State Park, another haven for nature lovers, make your way to Capulin Volcano National Monument. Head up the narrow road to the summit of Capulin Mountain, an extinct volcano. You can walk around its almost perfectly formed rim, and hike into its concave heart from where fire and ash once spewed.

Around the same time the volcano erupted, which was probably partially responsible for their extinction, dinosaurs roamed the banks of the Great Plains, then an ancient seabed. Proof is embedded in the sandstone at Clayton Lake State Park where the beasts left their mark: 500 enormous footprints cover two-acres. Unnoticed for eons, the imprints were discovered in 1982 after a massive rainstorm. One can almost picture the prehistoric monoliths traipsing heavily through mud. A fitting place to conclude our journey, visitors add their own footprints following pathways and byways laid through the ages in a beautiful land steeped in history.

by Christie Grotheim
Route Details
Shiprock, NM
Clayton, NM
410 miles plus side trips
About 7 hours
Recommended Stopovers
  • 1. Shiprock Peak
  • 2. Kokopelli's Cave
  • 3. Salmon Ruins
  • 4. Aztec Ruins
  • 5. Navajo Lake State Park & Marina
  • 6. Jicarilla Apache Indian Art and Craft Museum
  • 7. Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
  • 8. Rio Grande Gorge
  • 9. Taos Pueblo
  • 10. Mosaic Restaurant
  • 11. La Cuave Restaurant
  • 12. The Adobe Bar
  • 13. La Posada De Taos
  • 14. Mabel Dodge Luhan House
  • 15. American Artists Gallery B&B
  • 16. Millicent Rogers Museum
  • 17. Harwood Museum
  • 18. Wild Earth Llama Adventures
  • 19. Copper King Lodge
  • 20. Shotgun Willies
  • 21. St. James Hotel
  • 22. Clayton Lake State Park