New Mexico’s Golden Autumn is a smorgasbord of leaf-peeping road trip options centered on Santa Fe and Taos.
Scenic Side Trips are nicely planned road trip itineraries that are focused on especially beautiful scenic highways, and if you follow them just as they’re laid out in my book, they’ll guide you to and through just about everything you might want to see in this remarkable region (and a whole lot more besides). Even at that, SST’s, Scenic Side Trips, were never intended to be carved in stone, and rearranging them to suit your own style and interests can be half the fun. From the feedback I’ve received, a great many of my readers pick and choose pieces of the routes, rather than driving the whole thing. People also combine sections of different routes to create special trips with a theme, such as Spanish Missions, Red Rock Canyons, or Anasazi Ruins. I think that’s a great idea, and I’m going to throw out a themed trip suggestion of my own that’s just perfect for this very time of year.
Autumn is an especially grand time for road-tripping in New Mexico. This may come as a surprise to some, but New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, is featured on just about every list that’s ever been compiled of must-see destinations for fall foliage. How can that be, you ask, in a region that has so few trees—especially when compared with those forested mountains in the east? In New Mexico, as you’ll discover, it’s not the quantity of trees or the intensity of their color that decides these things, it’s the SETTING. The landscape, the climate, and the culture of New Mexico combine to create a setting unlike any other, and when you toss in the colorful contrast of golden aspens blazing on the mountainsides, and flaming yellow cottonwoods setting the river valleys aglow, the result is nothing short of spectacular.
When should you go? The timing of the extravaganza varies with altitude, ranging from a late September launch in the high country around Taos, extending into late October along the Rio Grande, never lasting for more than a week or two in any given spot. The middle of October is a reasonable compromise, and that time frame certainly worked for me when I toured the state while researching the routes for my book. In different weeks, different areas will be in different stages of the autumnal shift, so there’s a bit of luck required in addition to your planning; still, I’ve included enough distinct possibilities that you’re bound to hit on one or more of them. The trick is to stay flexible, and be prepared to change your route and rearrange your overnight stops if necessary.
Rent your car in Albuquerque if you’re arriving by air; otherwise, drive directly to Santa Fe to finalize your plans and begin your adventure. Check locally for the most current advice on the condition of the foliage: the Visitor Information Center* in Santa Fe is at 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, phone: (505) 827-7336. On the web: New Mexico True. Depending on what you learn, you’ll head north, or south, or possibly even west, in whatever combination and sequence gives you the best leaf-peeping opportunities (and fits the time you have available). Santa Fe itself is quite lovely in October, with plenty of fall color in neighborhoods that have a small town feel and a southwestern flair. * Note, as of October, 2020: the Santa Fe Visitor Information Center is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
OPTION A: The high country always turns first, so, assuming you didn’t arrive in the area too late to catch the show, you’ll probably want to head north from Santa Fe as your first order of business. Take the Low Road to Taos, just as it’s laid out in Scenic Side Trip #23, following NM 68 from Espanola. You’ll be driving alongside the upper reaches of the Rio Grande, and if your timing is right, you’ll be rewarded by stunning views of cottonwoods turning, filling the whole valley with a golden glow. From Taos, once again you’ll want to check locally, because there are two additional options here. The first is the famous scenic drive known as the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, which I describe in some detail in Scenic Side Trip #24. The 84 mile drive circles all the way around 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico, and requires a minimum of 2 hours (although more is always better, to allow for frequent stops). Here’s the route: from Taos, follow NM 522 to Questa; from Questa, take NM 38 through Red River, up and over 9,820 foot Bobcat Pass to Eagle Lake, then switch to US 64, sailing past Angel Fire, up and over Palo Flechado Pass, and finally, back to Taos.
Around the Enchanted Circle in autumn:
Along the way, if your timing is right, you’ll see fabulous color, especially the aspens at the higher elevations—but this is where you’ll need some luck, because those golden aspens are a fleeting phenomenon that peaks fairly early. Take a short detour from Eagle Nest into Cimarron Canyon (following US 64 east), and you’ll be rewarded with an entirely different autumnal palette along the Cimarron River.
OPTION B: This is a 410 mile loop from Taos to Farmington and back. You should take at least two days for this one, and you truly won’t be sorry! From Taos, get back on US 64 and drive west, over the Rio Grande Gorge on the wonderful bridge. And then, up into the mountains. This is the middle section of Scenic Side Trip #25, with the itinerary reversed. Keep going, past the extraordinary views of the Brazos Cliffs. When you get to Tierra Amarilla, don’t turn south on US 84; break from SST #25, and turn north instead, following US 84/64 through Chama, and US 64 on to Farmington, in the heart of Navajo country. The mountains around Chama, in particular, are renowned for fabulous fall foliage, primarily those astonishing aspens, so if your timing is right, this whole stretch of highway will be a treat.
Farmington would be a good place to stop for the night, if only because it’s a long way to anywhere else! And besides, you’ll want to spend some time visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument, the quite wonderful remains of an Anasazi town that dates back to 1100 AD. Just behind the ruin, there is a majestic grove of cottonwoods standing guard against the wind and the ravages of time, (a contest that every work of man, both ancient and modern, no matter how solidly built, is destined to lose). For two weeks every year, beginning around mid-October, the woody windbreak bursts out in a golden swan song that sets the ancient walls aglow!
There are other things to see near Farmington, such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Bisti Badlands (all of these attractions, including Aztec Ruins, are described in detail in Scenic Side Trip #17). However: if your focus is autumn leaves? You’ll want to head back to Taos. Use a slightly different route on the return leg.
From Farmington, take US 550 east to La Jara, where you’ll join the mid-section of Scenic Side Trip #22; next, follow NM 96 north and east through Georgia O’Keefe country to Abiquiu, where you connect with US 84 to Espanola. From there, you can head back to Santa Fe, or, you can turn north on US 285, retracing that low road back to Taos (Scenic Side Trip #23). From Taos, even if you’ve messed up and arrived too late to catch the changing of the leaves, you’ll want to do this next stretch:
OPTION C: Better known as the High Road to Taos (or, as we like to call it, Scenic Side Trip #24).
On the surface, the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway is nothing more than a scenic route through the mountains, a particularly nice way to travel between Santa Fe and Taos. In practice, this drive is like a magical journey through time, traversing beautiful valleys that are locked in a bygone era. (The views along the way aren’t half bad, either!) From Taos, take NM 518 south to the intersection with NM 75 (follow the signs). Head toward Peñasco, where you’ll connect with NM 76. Follow that road for a while, through Chamisal, Las Trampas, and Truchas; note that each small town is unique, occupied by families that have lived there for many generations in a place that’s almost like a world apart. You’ll pass by Chimayo, a world-famous sanctuary that’s always worth a stop.
OPTION D: Back in Santa Fe, reverse the itinerary of Scenic Side Trip #22 and head for Bandelier National Monument. The prehistory of New Mexico includes some of the most fascinating chapters in the human saga of North America. Complex civilizations rose and fell before the first European set foot there, leaving mysterious traces, ruined cities and towns built of stone and adobe brick. Bandelier National Monument is a wonderful example. The Ancestral Pueblo people settled in what is now called Frijoles Canyon, way back in 1100 A.D. They were farmers, and they were builders, and for more than 500 years, they did quite a lot of both. The volcanic “tuff” that predominates in the cliffs here was easily carved into living spaces, ranging from single-family cave-like homes to communal dwellings with as many as 600 rooms. Frijoles Canyon is chock-a-block with ruins and stately cottonwoods. Time your visit for mid-October, and with a little luck, you might just see them at their golden best.
Keep following SST #22 (in reverse), and you’ll come to the Jemez Valley, a place where golden cottonwoods meet red rock canyons in a fusion that’s most pleasing to the eye. You’re at a lower altitude here, so the timing of the foliage is just a bit later; that’s a good thing, if you’re traveling later in October. Head south along the Rio Grande following US 550, and just before you get to the intersection with Interstate 25, stop at the Coronado Historic Site, a New Mexico State Park that commemorates the “first contact” between Coronado, the Spanish explorer, and the Pueblo Indians whose civilization flourished in this valley for hundreds of years. That event, when you look at what actually happened, was hardly something to celebrate. Before Coronado moved on, hundreds of Indians had been slaughtered, many of them burned alive, and the survivors were so traumatized that they permanently abandoned their villages in this area, moving higher into the mountains, to places like the Jemez Valley. The Coronado Historic Site is nevertheless a lovely park, with a small museum, a restored kiva, and beautiful views of the river, backed by the Sandias, Albuquerque’s signature mountain range. At the right time of year, the fall foliage here is superb.
From here, reverse the itinerary of Scenic Side Trip #20. Follow Route 66 out of Albuquerque, and head east until you get to NM 337, the Salt Mission Trail. Drive south to the intersection with NM 55, and follow that to the small town of Tajique. From the State Highway, turn west onto CR A013, a graded dirt forest road known as the Torreon Tajique Loop, which you’ll follow for about 7 miles to the 4th of July Campground. If your timing is right—again, mid-October—look around you. The surrounding hillsides, which are covered with the largest stand of red maples in New Mexico, will appear to be ablaze! This is unique, and well worth the short detour. Try to time it for a week day. It’s very close to Albuquerque, the largest city in the state, so there’s a strong potential for weekend crowds.
If you’ve dropped your jaw, you’ll want to put it back in place before reversing course on CR A013 and returning to the highway. Follow NM 55 to US 60, with an optional stop at the ruins of the Quarai Mission, one of three long abandoned missions that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The missions and the towns that supported them are known as “the cities that died of fear,” a reference to the bloody raids by marauding Apaches that forced all the people to abandon their homes and flee for their lives, way back in the 17th century, and the area has remained essentially abandoned to this day, more than 300 year later. Quarai is my personal favorite among the Salinas Missions, and in the autumn, there are cottonwoods turning to gold alongside the ruins.
After leaving the mission, cross the Rio Grande on US 60 and then, travel downriver to Socorro on Interstate 25. (Note that this is the only section of Interstate on any of these autumn road trips!) In Socorro, shift over to NM 1, which runs parallel to the Interstate, and follow that state highway south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a 60,000 acre preserve managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The central attraction is a 3,800 acre floodplain that flows into 9,100 acres of wetlands and a wild section of the Rio Grande. Throw in mild winters and reliable forage, you have a habitat that attracts migratory birds from far and wide, including tens of thousands of majestic Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and hundreds of other species, all concentrated in this relatively small area from November through February. The Bosque is described in some detail in Scenic Side Trip #19.
If you get your timing just right, you not only see the birds, you see lovely fall color as well!
If you don’t already have a copy of RoadTrip America Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips, right about now would be a great time to pick one up!