Taos. The reason most people venture to this northeast region of New Mexico. And with good reason. Taos itself is a fun community to visit, where art, food, and creative inspiration mingle with native history and traditions. It’s a feast for the eyes, the mind, and the belly. It is easy to get caught up in Taos and go no further, and from the traffic trying to inch its way through the one major thoroughfare in town and the throngs of people crowding the streets, it’s easy to believe most people do just that. So visit Taos. And then explore further. The area has much to see and do.
I have a couple of my own recommendations for Taos itself. I won’t delve much into what to do there, as there is already a lot of information out there about the town. And also because part of the fun of Taos is setting out on foot to wander down the main street and through the historical area of town, popping into the galleries and shops that catch the eye, people watching, and admiring the low-set adobe architecture. Be prepared to walk when you’re in Taos. Not only is it the way to really see the town, it is also a way to avoid getting caught up in too much of the traffic through town and fighting for street parking. I recommend parking at the lot on Kit Carson road. It’s free. And it’s just off the main thoroughfare, one block east of Paseo del Pueblo Norte, where many people don’t see it, so you’re more likely to be able to find ample space to park.
In addition to a very active art community, Taos has been home to many writers and musicians. I recommend a visit to the Society of the Muse of the Southwest, aka SOMOS. This organization is devoted to supporting local writers and hosts several poetry reading events every month. They also have a bookstore which has a great selection of books from local authors, as well as an array of new and used books from across genres. If you are looking to offload some books that you have finished reading while you are in town, this is a place you can do so. Check out livetaos.com for a full calendar listing of events of all kinds for the time you are there.
There are restaurants aplenty in Taos, but I’m going to just mention the three I favored. For breakfast, I was hooked on Taos Diner 2 and ate here multiple times during my three-week stay in the area. It is a pretty popular place and was busy each time I visited, but I found that I did not have to wait for a seat if I went either early or after the breakfast crowd and before the lunch crowd. For good local brews, good pizza, and a good atmosphere, head to Taos Mesa Brewing Taos Tap Room. And the spicy marinated olives are amazing. For a good Mexican meal, you will have to hop in the car and head to the outskirts of town on the south end. Antonio’s, The Taste of Mexico, is tasty indeed. Chef Antonio knows what he’s doing in the kitchen and I’ve never had fajitas that have tasted so good. I don’t know what spices he uses, but they are amazing. I had the veggie fajitas, and the array of vegetables is more plentiful than the standard peppers, onions, and tomatoes, with a speckling of mushrooms, seen on most veggie fajita platters. They also do a delicious tableside guacamole. I found the meal here to be worth the drive through town.
That’s all I’m going to say on Taos, except to have fun exploring! And now on to the beyonds…
The Enchanted Circle. If you’ve investigated the Taos area at all, you might have heard of or read about it. It’s very likely, however, that you have not. The Enchanted Circle is the name given to a scenic drive that takes you on a loop highlighting five towns along the way: Taos, Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Red River, and Questa. If you are staying in Taos, as most do, you begin and end your loop there. If you only drive this 83-mile loop, it’ll take you a few hours. Allow yourselves an entire day if you plan to stop along the way, which I very much recommend. I also suggest that you travel in a counterclockwise direction. In doing so, you’ll hit the towns in the order I listed above. The most scenic parts of the drive will be at the bottom of the loop and then again at the top of the loop.
Shortly after leaving the town of Taos on US64, you’ll enter Carson National Forest. The road through the National Forest is windy and beautiful. In the fall, you’ll see loads of color along this route. You might also spot golden eagles swooping down on their prey or any of the several species of hawks in the area. There are a number of trailheads along this stretch of the Carson National Forest. If you intend to drive the entire circle at one shot, I’d recommend a return trip to this section to do any hiking. But do take advantage of the slow speed limits and some turnouts on the side of the road to take in the beauty of the mountainscapes along the way. After leaving the National Forest, you’ll see the turnoff for Angel Fire. Angel Fire is more of a ski resort than an actual town. The views back in this area are pretty, but you won’t find a town with shops and restaurants. In fact, you won’t really miss anything if you bypass this stop along the way, continuing on, instead to Eagle Nest.
The mountains and forests of Carson National Forest give way to a broad valley. US 64 makes its way through the center of this valley, with mountains all around. You’ll see Wheeler Peak from here, the tallest peak in New Mexico. It’s worth a quick stop at Eagle Nest Lake State Park. At the lake, you might get lucky enough to spy a bald eagle. Take a short stroll along the water to stretch your legs and take in the lake views with the mountainous backdrop and the wildlife around the lake. Then hop back in the car and head a little further on to the village of Eagle Lake. You’ll see the evidence of the town’s mining and old west history in the buildings around town. There are a few shops and restaurants in the small downtown strip. It’s a quaint place in which to spend a little time. Once you’ve finished here, you’ll backtrack on US64 to just outside of town, where you’ll then make a right turn on NM38 to continue along the Enchanted Circle.
You’ll drive through the valley a while longer before entering Carson National Forest and the mountains again. You’ll notice upon entering the mountains along this northern arc of the circle that it has a completely different feel and a different look from the southern arc. The mountains on this side are taller, the makeup of the forest is different. It’s magical here. The views are grand. This section is my favorite along this route. I love the scenery. Not too long after entering the National Forest again, you’ll come upon Red River. Red River is a ski town where the Wild Wild West goes toe-to-toe with Deutchland traditions. It’s kitschy. It’s fun. Oktoberfest is a study in multiculturalisms where there are Indo-American, Native American, and German stands selling food, beer, and crafts, with an oompa band on stage and plenty of lederhosen and dirndls adorning visitors. Take the time to wander up the main street, perhaps meander over to the path along the river for a bit, and then grab a bite to eat. I recommend the Red River Brewing Company. It does get busy, but there is indoor and outdoor seating. The beer is good, the homemade rootbeer is delicious, and the food is tasty.
Once you are fat and happy and have had a stroll through town, continue west on NM 38. The mountain views through here are amazing, so take your time! There are also some hiking trails along the way but save those for another day. I highly recommend the Columbine Trail, a National Recreation Trail, designated wilderness. The entire thing is 8.5 miles each way, out and back, but even hiking a portion of that distance is worth it (see my October 18th, 2018, post on this trail). But bypass this for now and continue on to Questa. Questa is an old mining town that is trying to reinvent itself. There are a few shops here and a coffee shop. There is also a liquor store you should stop into. Just after you turn left from NM 38 onto NM 522, look for it on the left. Right next to the El Monte Carlo Lounge. If you’re there during chili season, you might get a taste of the red or green chili wine from the owner. Who also happens to be the mayor of Questa. And he also happens to make the most incredible breakfast burritos! These burritos are seriously worth a trip back to Questa in the morning. Perhaps on your way to hike the Columbine Trail. Mayor Mark Gallegos is friendly and outgoing. Personable and welcoming. If you have some time, chat with him about Questa and chili peppers, his family business and his hopes for this town he calls home. You’ll leave the shop smiling, and likely with at least a bottle of wine or two. And a date to come back in the morning for breakfast burritos.
You can complete your Enchanted Circle Tour by continuing south until you hit Taos again. Aside from the Enchanted Circle drive and any hiking you choose to do along the Enchanted Circle route, there are two other endeavors that are must dos if you are in the area. The first of these is Taos Pueblo, which lies just outside of Taos on the north end of town. The second is The Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, and this you should see from a couple of different locations, three if you have the ability to get to Ute Mountain, which requires a vehicle with some decent clearance, a bit of time, and some patience with inaccurate GPS directions to get to.
Taos Pueblo sits just north of Taos off of the main drag. There is ample signage to get there, so you’ll have no trouble finding it. There are entrance fees to visit this Native American community. At the time of this writing, the fees are: $16 for adults, $14 for adults in groups of 8 or more, $14 for students, and free for children 10 and under. Visit their website (http://taospueblo.com/visiting-taos-pueblo/) for more information. The Pueblo people are very welcoming. The community is full of artisans, as well as individuals who sell traditional foods. They sustain themselves through the entrance fees and sales of goods to tourists. Dogs roam about freely (they ask that you not pet them), fat and happy. Community members welcome you into their shops, which are also the places they live. If you are lucky, you will be there during the time of one of their open traditional ceremony days. While the pueblo closes for a number of religious ceremonies, they do open their doors to visitors during some of them throughout the year. On these days, visitors are treated to viewing and participation in some of the ceremonial events. However, it is imperative that you pay extra close attention to which domiciles are open to the public and which are closed. Additionally, while photography is allowed on other days, there is a strict no photography rule on ceremonial days. Take pictures with your mind, take the opportunity to absorb a way of life that is rare to see and experience. Walk away knowing you were treated to something special and share that experience with others through your stories.
Last on the agenda, though by no means least (this was actually my absolute favorite place to visit in this area), is Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. An easy point of entry for this national monument is to follow HWY 64 north out of Taos, turning left when the highway does a few miles outside of town. A bridge will cross the canyon, and the view will take your breath away. There are walkways across the bridge in both directions. You can either park in a turnout on the east side of the river and walk out on the bridge, or you can drive across the bridge and park in the rest area that sits just on the other side. From this rest area, you can walk to the bridge and out to the middle for some stunning views. I also recommend that you walk along the West Rim Trail, which leaves from the south end of the rest area parking lot. You can walk as long or as short a time as you care to. The trail is miles long and mostly flat. You’ll get changing perspectives of the canyon and Rio Grande far below as you stop along different points along the trail. Keep your eyes out for the tarantulas and other critters as you make your way. If you visit in the late fall, the snakes will be underground and the tarantulas you’ll see will primarily be the males who are looking for love. The females will be waiting in their dens for male paramours or tending their future offspring. It’s a good time to watch these fascinating creatures.
The second point of entry is just north of Questa. This is the primary entrance, where you’ll find trails, campgrounds, and the Visitors Center. The main road will take you on a loop through the monument. From this loop, you can access a majority of the trails and campgrounds. There is day use parking at each of the campgrounds as well. If you park at the La Junta campground at the bottom of the loop, you’ll be in a good spot to view the confluence of the Rio Grande and Red River. You can hike along the rim at this point, winding your way through juniper forests and through other campgrounds (depending on how far you hike). You can also hike down to the bottom of the canyon from here and hike along the Rio Grande. You can come back up to the rim at Little Arsenic or Big Arsenic campgrounds, making a nice full day loop. You will need to be a confident hiker to make it down and up these trails, as they are steep and rugged, though not long. Another awesome view of the Rio Grande from the bottom of the canyon is at the base of the Chiflo Trail. This is a great spot to sit yourself on a rock and watch the water pass through a narrow opening in the canyon and pass by your perch over the water. You’ll find yourself hypnotized and lost in your own reverie. It’ll be difficult to tear yourself away from the quiet and peace of this place to hike back up to the rim where your car is parked.
There is one other trail that is worth the hike for those who want to do something a bit longer and more challenging. The trail starts from the Red River Fish Hatchery, which can be accessed via HWY 515 off of HWY 522 just south of Questa. Do not cross the little bridge into the fish hatchery parking lot. Instead, drive just a little further on, where the road will end in the parking lot at the trailhead. The trail takes you up and over the mountains, through alpine, juniper forest, and desert scrub ecosystems. You will end up at the Wild Rivers Visitors Center after an almost 3-mile hike. You can then extend your hike a bit longer, should you wish to, by walking along the trail that heads south from the Visitors Center to the El Aguaje Campground. Just keep in mind that you will then have to turn around and make your way just as far back along that trail and then up and over the mountain again to get back to the fish hatchery! This hike is such a rewarding one, and well worth the trek. I did it three times in the three and a half weeks I was in the area. And while I wasn’t lucky enough on any of my hikes to see one, this trail is quiet enough that you might just spot a black bear in the neighborhood if you walk on light feet and make little noise. Along with the Columbine Trail, this trail was tied for favorite in the area for me.
For the adventure on wheels and hiking off trail, Ute Mountain is the place to go. It sits at the very north edge of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. It is not easy to access, and GPS will steer you wrong, but that is part of the adventure of it all! The best adventure is to take off from just outside of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument from the main entrance. The road is labeled Ute Mountain Road. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this road will lead you directly to Ute Mountain. Not even close! But you’ll see Ute Mountain the whole way. And you’ll make your way through sparse countryside and little communities with loads of personality along the way. You’ll hit dead ends and have to back track. Use your GPS as a basic guide but realize that you’ll have to improvise along the way. In the end, you’ll want to make your way up to State Line Road, and head west. It is from this road that you’ll find the entrance to Ute Mountain. Drive in as far as you dare with the vehicle you have. Then park and start walking. The brave will make their way along vaguely defined and not maintained trails up to the top. But you do not have to do that much to reap the benefits of a mountain that is spiritually and historically significant to the area. You can traipse up and along the lower sections of the mountain with relative ease. It will not take long to get high enough that your vehicle, wherever it is parked, will look miniscule. You will see few humans around because of the difficulty in accessing the area. The quiet here is deep and strong. It reaches right into you and settles you into peace. Take some time here to soak it in.
There’s more to South Dakota than just the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Wall Drug. Granted, these icons are places that you should see if you are there. But widen your circle of travel a bit, and you have an opportunity to see so much more. There is more diversity to the South Dakota landscape than you likely hold in your mind’s eye at the moment. There is a deeper history than the one told in the story of Mount Rushmore, and even a deeper history about Mount Rushmore than the one we often hear. The Badlands will boggle the mind and give rise to imaginings of Indians living and surviving and warring among the cliffs and pinnacles and buttes that make up the Badlands. It is easy to imagine how the early explorers must have felt when they happened upon this harsh landscape, and to further imagine Wild West stories and the Native Americans’ efforts to hide out from the Americans in an attempt to survive their persecution, which ultimately led to starvation and death from exposure to the elements. You can see replicas of dinosaur bones and learn of volcanic eruptions that created the geologic layers in the Badlands. And you can still get a 10¢ cup o’ jo at Wall Drug. So, do go to these places. And then go see more.
South Dakota is home to grasslands, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, caves, and the forested Black Hills. If you concentrate your visit on the south-western region of the state, you can hit all of these systems. You can begin your journey at the Badlands, and make a loop in a clockwise direction. You will close the loop at Custer State Park, just a bit southwest of the Badlands. From the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern end of the Badlands, you can take a drive south, southwest on small county roads to see the historical Wounded Knee and on to the significantly infamous Pine Ridge Reservation. Before you go to either place, if you are unfamiliar with the background of the Reservation, I recommend you read up on the history and current conditions (try here, here and here for starters). In Pine Ridge, you can visit the Heritage Center on the Red Cloud Indian School campus and support the local Ogala Lakota artists in a community that would greatly benefit from your support. A drive across Highway 18 from Pine Ridge west to Oelrichs takes you through a small stretch of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The rolling grasslands are a sight to see. Mixed prairie grasses shimmer and dance in the wind across undulating hills. On a mostly sunny day, the endless blue skies contrast with billowing white clouds. There is something grand in those South Dakota skies and majestic in the waves of grasses. It is worth a slow drive through this section to take in the views. If you have time, veer off course to visit more of the 60,000 (non-contiguous) acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Once you pass through the grasslands, Highway 18 will turn north and head up to Hot Springs. This historic little town was once known for its spas, with their natural mineral-infused hot springs. The public spas no longer exist, and the only recreation that currently exists for the hot springs is the indoor water park called Evans Plunge. According to the Chamber of Commerce’s website, however, Minnekahta Springs, an historic public spa, is under construction and will be again open to the public upon completion. There is a walking path that runs alongside Fall River in town and ends up at Kidney Springs, a spot under a gazebo where a fountain of sorts spills water out of the side of the rock face. Soak your hands for a bit in the warm water. You can feel the presence of the minerals. You can feel muscles relax, and you will wish you could take a full-on dip in this gloriousness. In lieu of that, you can fill up a water bottle and sip on the lukewarm water, as you read about the mineral contents and benefits on a sign posted on the fountain. A stroll around town will offer up views of original sandstone buildings from the late 19thand early 20thCenturies, a beautiful mural painted on the side of a building near the police station, and coffee shops and restaurants in which to get your caffeine fix and fill your stomach. As you stroll around town, you will inevitably notice a grand structure at the top of a hill. You can climb a set of steps on the west side of town to reach this structure, and it is worth the climb. This is the site of the Battle Mountain Sanitarium. It was originally constructed at the end of the 19thCentury to provide care for veterans. While underutilized today, it still provides health care to veterans and is a designated National Historic Landmark.
For a trip back to the Ice Age, visit the nearby Mammoth Site. With hands-on activities, exhibits, active fossil excavations, and informational films, it’ll both educate and entertain the imagination. Also close to Hot Springs is the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where you can see rescued horses roam free. Pre-scheduled tours are required to see these horses and are available for a fee in lengths of 2, 3, or 6 hours. Also close to Hot Springs is Wind Cave National Park. This national park is known for what is underground, but I highly recommend you spend some time on top as well. You’ll need to schedule a tour to see the cave sites, but there is also ample hiking on the surface through prairies and pines, as well. A drive in the early morning hours is likely to reward you with ample sightings of buffalo grazing quietly in the grass and few others with which you will be sharing the experience. It is also possible to hike off-trail in Wind Cave but be sure you have the skills to do so before you embark on such an activity!
To finish up a journey through southwest South Dakota, spend some time in Custer State Park. If you can, make it several days. Custer has several campgrounds, many of which are suitable for both tents and RVs and are dispersed in various areas throughout this 71,000-acre park. There is much to see and do here, from hiking trails to historic sites to scenic drives, so allow yourself some time. Some highlights that are not to be missed: drive the Needles Highway and spend some time at Sylvan Lake, hike up Black Elk Peak, and treat yourself to breakfast at Blue Bell Lodge.
The Needles Highway is a 14-mile stretch of SD 87 that begins just west of Legion Lake and winds its way through spectacular, jaw-dropping, scenery before it ends at Sylvan Lake. Be warned, there are size restrictions on this road and if your vehicle is wider than 8’4” or taller than 11’3”, you will not be able to drive this route! If you can make it, though, the trip is amazing. Give yourself plenty of time to complete it, as not only is the speed for driving slow, but you will miss out if you do not allow plenty of time to pull over and take it all in as you go…especially if you are the driver. This is a winding road. It is narrow. There are two rocky, narrow, tunnels that are a bit on the nerve-wracking side to drive through. But they are so cool, too. And the scenic stretch of highway finishes up at Sylvan Lake, a deep blue, rock and spire lined lake that can pull your eyes into its depths for hours. You’ll want to walk around the lake, to sit by its side and stare into it or get lost in daydreams as you gaze off at nearby rock formations or distant hills.
The most popular hike up to Black Elk Peak begins at Sylvan Lake, but you are going to likely want to do this on a different day than the one you spend driving the Needles Highway and lounging around Sylvan Lake. The hike can take several hours, and you should count on spending time at the top, where there is a historic fire tower to see, exploring to be done, and 360 views for miles and miles. Pack a lunch, snacks, and plenty of water, especially in the summer months. The peak was formerly known as Harney Peak, but was renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016 to reflect its importance to Native Americans, and it is the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees. The rock-constructed fire tower at the top was built in the 1930s by the CCC. The fire tower was historically manned by a family, who lived there during the fire season. The CCC also constructed a mini-reservoir where you can take a dip to cool off once you get to the top. While the trail starts in Custer State Park, most of it passes through Black Elk Wilderness. Be sure to sign the registry and carry your portion of the (free) permit with you as you hike. You’ll see this registry as you enter the Black Elk Wilderness. Deposit your permit in the box on your way out.
Blue Bell Lodge is a rustic-themed resort within Custer State Park with a lodge, cabins, campground, restaurant/bar, and a chuck wagon. It is located on SD 87 in the central western region of the park, surrounded by pine forests with their aromatic scent that will call to mind Paul Bunyan, or perhaps Thoreau for the more poetic minded. The scents and scenery here lie in stark contrast to the prairies of the lower elevations. On cooler days, wood fire smells fill the air, and the log-sided lodge welcomes you into its interior, to the warm restaurant inside. Breakfast here is delicious. The menu is different from what you’ll find in other restaurants within the park. On the off-season, there is no wait, but during the high season, reservations are not a bad idea. They also make a mean bloody Mary.
While you are staying in Custer State Park, you can make the trip to Mount Rushmore on the one hand, and, on the other, to the historically contrasting Crazy Horse Memorial. I found the trip to Crazy Horse to be one of many conflicting emotions (read my post about it here), but still worth it for the education and the site itself. The Crazy Horse Monument is a work in progress. The monument was started in 1947 by a man named Korczak Ziolkowski, and with an invitation by Chief Standing Bear. While Ziolkowski has passed away, his wife and most of his ten children are still involved in seeing this ongoing project through. The monument grounds consist of a museum, restaurant, informational center, and gift shop. There is also a university for Native Americans on the site. The Crazy Horse Monument is only partially completed. His head is complete and part of the arm, and you can begin to see the faintest of outlines of the horse’s head. The monument is clearly visible from the central visitor’s grounds. You can purchase a ticket for a van tour up the mountain for a face-to-face look. These tickets are pricey, as the funds go directly towards further progress on the monument’s construction. But you can also take a ride to the base of the mountain for $4 per person, or, twice a year (once in spring and once in fall), there is a free Volksmarch up the mountain that is open to the public. The Crazy Horse Monument also holds special events to educate the public on Lakota traditions and history through Speaker’s Series and music and dance performances on the outdoor patio. Admission onto the monument grounds is $24 per car for two people, $30 per car for more than two people. The weekend I went, there was a special food drive and your admission was free in exchange for a donation of three cans of food per person. Crazy Horse Memorial is funded entirely on donations. I highly recommend a visit to Crazy Horse Memorial if you are also going to go to Mount Rushmore. You will learn about the less often discussed history of Mount Rushmore, and the impacts of the construction of Mount Rushmore to the cultural and spiritual well-being of the area’s Native Americans.
South Dakota is much more than the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Wall Drug. It offers a diverse array of activities and sights. There is an abundance of history, going all the way back to the days of the dinosaurs. You’ll see grasslands and forested hills, historical towns, and Native American and explorer history. This history will not always be comfortable, but it isimportant. A visit to the southwest corner of South Dakota takes you back in time, sends your mind into a reverie with the sights, and brings your senses into a heightened state through the experiences of the many landscapes in just this corner of the state. Do yourself a favor. Spend some time here. Take it all in, and leave more fulfilled, knowledgeable, and with a greater understanding than when you came.