“Well, where should we go?” That was the question a couple of months ago when we began to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future that we could safely travel more than a couple of hours from home. We decided to head south for a couple of weeks and explore our next door neighbor state.
We had spent minimal time in New Mexico – only short business trips and quick stops on our way to somewhere else. (See previous posts about New Mexico here and here.) Our loss! New Mexico is spectacular – hopefully I can convey some of the amazingness we experienced, first in the Taos-Santa Fe area in this article, then in Carlsbad in a future post.
Here’s a preview of the highlights, presented as a short quiz of sorts. Read on for answers (in purple text) and more photos . . .
Taos to Nambé on “The High Road”
After a too-brief, one-night stay in Taos at the delightful Dreamcatcher B&B (9.7 on Booking.com), we set out on a leisurely drive to our home-away-from-home for the next seven nights in Nambé.
The High Road to Taos Scenic Byway is advertised as “an authentic remnant of Old Spain, still evident in the religion, architecture, topography, history, and people along the route.” Not an exaggeration.
The early part of the drive from Taos to Nambé featured picturesque views of snow-capped peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The old churches in the small villages were a highlight. There were a few more along the way that we missed.
The answer to the first quiz question is Chimayó, a community of around 3,000 people. Believers in the healing properties of the church’s Holy Dirt visit from all over the world, about 300,000 per year, including 30,000 who make the pilgrimage during Holy Week.
Chimayó is also known for its unique style of hand woven tapestry wool products, which we learned from a visit to the local museum – small but packed with interesting information.
Our VRBO casita in Nambé was cozy and comfortable, but things got off to a rocky start when we flipped a light switch upon arrival and nothing happened – power outage across the whole area. Nothing we could do but wait – it came back on about five hours later. No subsequent issues, I’m happy to report. The location was ideal for day trips, and we looked forward to the colorful sunsets.
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier, a 33,000 acre property located in the Los Alamos area, was created in 1916 to protect the dwellings and homeland of the Ancestral Pueblo Indians who lived in the area between 1200 and 1600, both on the floor of the canyon as well as in cavates built in canyon walls.
(Second quiz question) Unlike the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings carved into sandstone cliffs at Mesa Verde National Park and other locations in the Four Corners area of the U.S., the cliffs at Bandelier are comprised of volcanic tuff (rhymes with goof), or rock created from volcanic ash, which covered the area up to 1,000 feet thick during massive volcanic eruptions over 1 million years ago.
Our visit to Bandelier was super fun. Not too busy, perfect weather and easily navigated trails for viewing the historical dwellings.
The landscape was intriguing and colorful.
We also hiked to Upper Frijoles Falls.
We loved our visit to Bandelier! And one day is sufficient unless you’re into backcountry hiking.
Located in the Abiquiú area, Ghost Ranch is a stunning property of 21,000 acres owned by the Presbyterian Church and operated by a semi-independent Foundation. Ghost Ranch has a colorful history that involves a pair of cattle-rustling serial killers, anecdotes of weird monsters and evil spirits, and an owner who acquired the deed to the property in a card game. Ghost Ranch eventually became an exclusive dude ranch around 1930, and today it’s used as an education and retreat center.
(Third quiz question) No artist is more closely associated with Ghost Ranch than Georgia O’Keeffe, who first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934, fell in love with the landscape and stayed the entire summer – exploring and painting while staying in one of the homes on the ranch. She returned the next summer, and the summer after that, and so on, until she finally persuaded the owner to sell her a house and seven acres of Ghost Ranch land in 1940. You can read more about O’Keeffe’s experiences at Ghost Ranch here.
A hike to Chimney Rock was the centerpiece of our day trip to Ghost Ranch. Those colors are amazing!
What else did we see on our way to Chimney Rock? More stunning landscapes around every corner and in every direction.
Plus a few wildflowers and gnarly trees.
A couple of other things to see at Ghost Ranch include an old movie set used in the 1991 film, City Slickers . . .
. . . And a couple of small museums near the visitor center – one focusing on anthropology and the other on paleontology.
Ghost Ranch – another terrific day trip. Highly recommended!
The Complicated History of Los Alamos
In 1917, a Detroit business man named Ashley Pond founded a boys’ prep school outside of Santa Fe. Over the next 25 years, the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School catered to wealthy families in the northeast U.S. with a rigorous academic curriculum and demanding outdoor activities. Attendees included William S. Burroughs (writer), Gore Vidal (writer), Bill Veeck (owner of the Chicago White Sox), and Arthur Wood (president of Sears Roebuck).
The campus included dormitory space and homes for school staff, as well as the striking Fuller House, built from 771 trees handpicked by the architect and school’s director. The large posts are ponderosa pine, and the thinner ones are aspens. The wood was sealed with oakum, which gives the building its golden glow.
Imagine the reaction by the school’s president in December 1942 when he received this communication from the War Department:
So in early 1943, the school’s buildings and adjoining property were converted into a top secret military operation led by Army General Leslie R. Groves and civilian scientist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.
(Fourth quiz question) Their mission (code name “Manhattan Project”) was to recruit a team that would develop the world’s first atomic bomb. And they did.
Bill and I paid a visit to the Los Alamos History Museum and participated in a 90 minute walking tour led by highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides, John and Carolyn.
We learned a great deal about the school and how the various buildings were then converted for use by the Army. They also touched on earlier area residents, including the Ancestral Puebloans and the homesteaders.
The town of Los Alamos currently has a population of around 12,000, and the county ranks among the highest in the U.S. for median household income. The National Laboratory operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy, employing around 13,000 people working on projects related to national security, space exploration, renewable energy, nuclear fusion, medicine, nanotechnology and supercomputing.
Security remains high – we had to go through a checkpoint and show IDs just to drive on the public road that passes by laboratory facilities.
Los Alamos is worth a visit if you are in the area. Perhaps by then, the actual Manhattan Project Visitor Center and tours – currently shut down because of COVID – will once again be available.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
(Fifth quiz question) For fans of the TV show Longmire, Sheriff Walt’s cabin is physically located not in Wyoming, but rather in Valles Caldera National Preserve. Apparently, New Mexico offered more attractive filming incentives than did Wyoming.
Valles Caldera National Preserve encompasses 89,000 acres adjacent to Bandelier National Monument. Previously a working ranch until purchased by the federal government in 2000, its claim to fame is the 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera (i.e., crater) contained within, one of three so-called “super volcanoes” in the U.S. In 2015, Valles Caldera became National Park Service (NPS) unit #408.
Valles Caldera remains a work in progress for the NPS, both in land restoration efforts as well as development of visitor amenities, which are sparse. However, the volunteers at the visitor center were most helpful. We hiked the Coyote Call Trail and explored the historic cabins from the ranching era.
As you can see, the area experienced a fairly recent wildfire, which Google told us was the 2011 Las Conchas fire – still the largest in state history at 157,000 acres – that burned parts of both Bandelier and Valles Caldera.
And finally, a few photos from the historic cabin district, the hub for ranch operations and staff living quarters until sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Valles Caldera wasn’t as awe-inspiring as Bandelier or Ghost Ranch, but I’m glad we made the trip. This property is all about potential – how will it be transformed over the next several generations as the land recovers from decades of over-grazing and aggressive logging?
Wandering through the Nambé Badlands
The plan for our final day was hiking at Plaza Blanca, a unique setting near Abiquiú with striking gypsum canyon walls. It didn’t happen, however, as the gate was locked when we arrived and no phone signal to call. So back to the casita we went.
Bob, our host, had told us about trails at the Nambé Badlands located just three miles from our location. I went solo just for the chance to be outside and ended up walking five miles. Some of that time was spent meandering through an unmarked network of mountain bike trails looking for a route back to the main path. Interesting scenery!
We enjoyed our week of exploring! Not nearly enough time to do everything on our list, plus some sites were still closed because of COVID restrictions, so we already have a few ideas for our next visit.
And the one that got away this time – Plaza Blanca. (photo from reddit.com)
Thanks for reading this long article! Next post will be about our upcoming week in the Carlsbad NM area.