North Central New Mexico

North Central New Mexico is Georgia O'Keeffe country — the high desert with the amazing colors. This is a region of incredible scenic variety and fascinating cultural nuances, with two gorgeous mountain ranges separated by the valley of the Rio Grande. One of the world's great travel destinations, Santa Fe, serves as the southern gateway to the region and is famed for its beauty, culture, and art.

Cities

Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe

Other destinations

Bandelier National Monument

Understand

Map of North Central New Mexico

The term "North Central New Mexico" broadly applies to the region bounded on the:

History and culture

Humans have been present in the region for well over a thousand years, as evidenced by the presence of the remnants of Ancestral Puebloan settlements scattered throughout the Jemez Mountains and its foothills, the most famed of which are the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument. The inhabitants of these settlements are generally believed to be the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, who primarily settled along the Rio Grande and its tributaries in New Mexico, where many of them still live to this day.

The first Europeans to arrive in the region were the Spanish, with the first European settlement west of the Mississippi established near present-day Española in 1598, shortly prior to the construction of a capitol city at Santa Fe. Tension grew between the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish, particularly as a result of the vicious treatment of the natives by Spanish missionaries, which resulted in the Puebloans revolting against the Spanish. Though the Spanish would reconquer the region, they returned more willing to grant the Puebloans land and rights, allowing the two cultures to live alongside each other. Despite the region's isolation at nearly the northernmost extent of Spanish settlement, the Spanish established farming villages and a trade network throughout the area.

The first Americans arrived in the area in the early 1800s, primarily along the Santa Fe Trail, a wagon route that linked Santa Fe with the American settlements to the east. Following the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846, the U.S. took over New Mexico and made it an American territory, with residents reacting to U.S. presence with a mixture of welcome and deep suspicion; the years that followed were marked by bitter land disputes, a pattern which has since repeated itself with each subsequent wave of newcomers: the arrival of the railroad and the large-scale ranching and mining operations that followed in the late 1800s, the government officials and scientists who built the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos during WWII, and the outside interests that continue to exert influence on the area to this day.

Tourism has become a mainstay of the region's economy, owing in large part to the many artists who settled in the region beginning in the early 20th century, drawn by the region's scenic landscapes and unique culture. The communities of Santa Fe and Taos both became noted for their art scenes, and today you'll find many galleries and artist communities throughout the region. Alongside this development was also the promotion of the region as a center for spiritual retreat; the 1960s and 70s saw the arrival of many hippies, who sought to establish communes and off-the-grid alternative lifestyles in the area's rugged country. While the communes are long gone, many aging hippies and New Age practitioners still live in the region and make their presence felt.

Today, in spite of the region's diversity, North Central New Mexico is still a place often marked by division. Many residents have deep cultural ties to the region and exhibit a sense of protectiveness over their home. Even today, the word "Anglo" is often used as a catch-all term to refer to anyone not of Native American or Hispanic descent, and in the more remote areas locals will often be reserved and regard outsiders with suspicion. All that said, people here generally tend to be quite friendly and this region is a wonderful destination that offers much for the visitor, with historic communities, a rich artistic heritage, and beautiful mountain scenery.

When to visit

The mountains above Taos in early spring

North Central New Mexico generally has a dry, mild continental climate typical of the high desert, although the significant elevation variations in the region produce a lot of unique local conditions. Summer, which lasts from June to August, is the prime tourist season, and sees crowds of visitors clogging the streets of Santa Fe and Taos. While summer temperatures rarely get as brutally hot as in lower and more southern locales, this is still a season marked by high temperatures, with spectacular afternoon thunderstorms common in the monsoonal season of July and August. Spring, which generally lasts from April to early June, sees fewer crowds and lower temperatures, but also very windy, dry weather which makes it the most at-risk time for large wildfires. Autumn, particularly September and October, is arguably the best time to visit; the peak tourist season will be over, the weather tends to be dry and sunny with crisp evenings, there are many local festivals, and the aroma of roasting green chile will be prevalent in many towns. Winter produces the biggest variations in local conditions; towns at lower elevations (Santa Fe, Española, Abiquiu) will see little snow which tends to melt quickly, while locales at higher elevations (Taos, Chama, anywhere in the mountains) are more likely to see snow linger, with snow on the highest peaks sometimes lasting well into spring; the one constant in the winter throughout the region is that temperatures are cold, with pleasantly sunny days giving way to very chilly nights. If you're interested in skiing, winter is the obvious time to visit, and Christmas time in New Mexico is a wonderful cultural experience, although many places that cater to travelers will be closed owing to the general lack of tourists.

Talk

English, of course, but a considerable number of other languages are spoken in the area. Many residents speak Spanish at home and sometimes at school and work, and dialects of Tewa, Tiwa and Keresan are spoken at the American Indian pueblos of the region, and Jicarilla Apache is spoken in the area of Dulce. Visitors for whom English is a second language may have problems with the indigenous version of English, which is often spoken with a rapid, "machine gun" accent, particularly in some of the rural communities where Spanish is dominant. It doesn't take long to get used to the accent, however. Visitors who speak no English or Spanish at all face some challenges, but a surprising number of residents of Los Alamos and, to a lesser extent, Taos and Santa Fe are fluent in the major European and Asian languages.

One recommendation: If you encounter a place name that appears to be Spanish in origin, it's a good idea to pronounce it as Spanish. A majority of place names in this region are Spanish, some of them with diacriticals to prove it (Española, Peñasco, etc.), and persistently avoiding Spanish pronunciations will be interpreted by some residents, many of whom speak Spanish at home, as rude. The pronunciation tips in the Spanish phrasebook are useful here; the most common things to watch for are words with "ñ" as in the Española example, double "l" (e.g. the very common Gallegos surname), and double "r" (e.g. Rio Arriba County, which incidentally is a particularly good place in which to have your Spanish pronunciations in shape).

Get in

The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque. Santa Fe has very limited air service that, so to speak, comes and goes; check the Santa Fe page for current status.

No interstate highways pass through the region, but I-25 skirts it on the southeast as it passes from the Colorado state line on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos, around Santa Fe, and on to Albuquerque. US 84 and US 285 cross north-south through the heart of this region between Santa Fe and Southern Colorado. East-west, US 64 traverses across the northernmost reaches of the area, just south of the Colorado border.

A commuter train, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, connects the Albuquerque metro area to Santa Fe, with limited service daily. Fares are based on how far you ride, and a day pass will usually be in the range of $5-$10. Tickets can be purchased online or from the conductor on the train. Amtrak's daily Los Angeles-Chicago Southwest Chief route serves North Central New Mexico with a stop in the village of Lamy, about 15 miles south of Santa Fe on US 285, and a shuttle that transports passengers between Lamy and Santa Fe.

Get around

Drive; the area is too big and hilly for there to be viable alternatives. Note that traveler amenities (grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, etc.) can be few and far between in this region, reliably found only in towns of substance — that is, Española, Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Taos. Most of the small towns in the region will have at least a gas station and perhaps a diner or two, but given the general lack of options you're not likely to get the best deal on gas or necessities. However, they can be great places to get a taste of the local culture.

This part of the state has severe problems with DUI, so keep your eye out for erratic motorists. Another, possibly related problem is the astounding fraction of vehicles that are seriously decrepit. You probably won't have to log many hours of driving in northern New Mexico before you see something unexpected and hazardous fall off a car or (particularly) truck, maybe in your path. Defensive driving is a good idea, even though the traffic density is low except in and near Santa Fe.

Relying on others for your transportation doesn't work well here. Hitchhiking in this area is an iffy proposition. Traffic density in the rural areas is low, so you may have to wait a long time for a ride, and the DUI issue makes it downright dangerous to be at the roadside at night.

Surprisingly enough for such a rural region, there is a degree of public transit service in the area. The North Central Regional Transit District operates a network of free bus routes on the weekdays that link the communities of the region. However, this service is really meant more as a lifeline for local residents and isn't going to be very convenient for visitors. The only services offered by the NCRTD geared towards visitors are the Taos Express weekend service between Santa Fe, Española, and Taos, and the daily Mountain Trail service between Santa Fe and Ski Santa Fe, both of which charge fares.

See

There are many interesting sights in this photogenic area, most of which are covered in the separate pages for places named in Cities and Other destinations. A few that don't fall conveniently into one of those pages:

Native American life

Taos Pueblo

Several American Indian pueblos call the region home, many of which are open to public for visits. Española is a good jumping-off place for visits to most of these pueblos, with a couple easily accessed from Taos. More detailed information on each of the pueblos listed here, as well as those in the central and northwestern regions of the state, can be found in the New Mexico Pueblos guide. In geographic order roughly from north to south, the northern pueblos are:

Scenic drives

High Road to Taos

The quiet community of Truchas along the High Road to Taos

The High Road to Taos, between Taos and Santa Fe, is perhaps the best-known scenic roadway in this area. From south to north, the route is as follows:

Low Road to Taos

NM 68 entering the Rio Grande Gorge

The Low Road to Taos, also known as the main route or the river road, is another scenic drive between Santa Fe and Taos, and while it's much faster than the High Road, it also offers some scenic attractions in its own right.

Enchanted Circle

Wheeler Peak viewed from Eagle Nest

The "Enchanted Circle" is a circuit that loops around the highest mountains of New Mexico. The whole route takes anywhere from 2.5 hours with no stops to a full day if you make time to explore sights along the route. Heading clockwise from Taos (although this route can be done in either direction from any community along the route):

Jemez Mountain Trail

Battleship Rock along NM 4

NM State Road 4 follows the Jemez Mountain Trail scenic byway through the Jemez Mountains, another spectacular drive that takes you through some lovely alpine forest scenery.

US Highway 64

Fall scenery overlooking the Brazos Cliffs

If traveling through the region, rather than within it, US Highway 64 is a scenic option that traverses the region east-west just south of the Colorado border.

Do

Rafting down the Rio Grande

This is a tremendous area for the active visitor, particularly if your interests run toward the outdoors. Both the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, picnicking, and camping. The Carson National Forest and the Santa Fe National Forest, which administer these areas, both offer excellent information on recreational opportunities in the region. Virtually every town has some good hikes in the vicinity, with some highlights being the foothills above Santa Fe, the canyon-and-mesa country in and around Los Alamos and Bandelier National Monument, the Rio Grande Gorge, and the beautiful red-rock country near Abiquiu.

The Rio Grande Gorge is a well-known destination for river rafting, and the Rio Chama, which flows into the Rio Grande near Española, has one short but spectacular white-water stretch above artificial Abiquiu Lake. There are outfitters in Santa Fe, Taos, and some of the small towns between Taos and Española that run raft trips when conditions are satisfactory (water flow in the rivers varies seasonally, with spring generally being the best time). If you like water sports of a less dramatic nature, there are several small, man-made lakes along the Rio Chama that are suitable for small boating and fishing: Heron Lake and El Vado Lake in the vicinity of Chama, and Abiquiu Lake near Abiquiu.

Birdwatchers can have an interesting time along the Rio Grande, particularly in October and February–March. One of the major North American migratory routes follows the Rio, so that all manner of southbound birds are visible in October and again in late February as they make their way back north. Vast flocks of sandhill cranes and geese fly overhead and can be heard a long distance away. Their wintering grounds are at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Albuquerque in the central part of the state.

Skiing at Taos Ski Valley

Skiing and snowboarding are popular activities in the winter months, with several developed ski resorts in the region. Ski conditions can vary considerably year-to-year, with some of the resorts relying heavily on artificial snowpack. However, the ski areas in the vicinity of Taos are at generally high enough elevations to ensure decent ski conditions, with Taos Ski Valley being far and away the most famed. Nearby Red River and Angel Fire also have large ski resorts with extensive offerings and facilities. South of Taos along NM 518 is the small ski area of Sipapu, which is less reliable for ski conditions and has fewer offerings, but is rather cozy and much cheaper. Near Los Alamos is the similarly small Pajarito, which is also inexpensive but tends not to open during relatively dry years. Ski Santa Fe above Santa Fe is a major resort at a comfortably high elevation for good snow conditions. Additionally, cross-country skiing is also a possibility in the region after a decent snowfall, with some good trails around Chama and Red River.

At the end of a day out and about, go for a soak in a hot spring. The villages of Ojo Caliente (north of Española on US 285) and Jemez Springs (along NM 4 in the Jemez Mountains) contain "developed" hot springs with tourist facilities (and of course a fee). If you prefer "wild" hot springs, several are along NM 4 through the Jemez Mountains. Warning: dangerously pathogenic amoebas have been isolated from some of the wild springs. Don't let water from the wild springs get into your eyes, ears or nasal passages.

Stay safe

The high mountains pose the usual mountain hazards (altitude sickness and avalanche danger for the hiker/skier, snowpacked roads in the winter for the motorist). Roads here are also plagued by drunk drivers; drive suspiciously, particularly after dark.

There are few significant public-health issues in this region of concern to the traveler, but curiously enough, bubonic plague is endemic, and claims a few victims each year (most recover with prompt and aggressive medical care). Plague is carried by the small animals of the region, so if you see one in distress, leave it alone and let nature take its course; buzzards are immune to plague, you are not. Drinking untreated water from regional streams is not a good idea owing to Giardia parasites, but tap water is generally not a problem.

Small-town bars in this area are not recommended unless you're familiar with the locals. Some have clienteles that don't take kindly to strangers, and in too many of the small towns, a bar is a place to find a fight or worse, not a drink and some relaxation. Santa Fe and Taos have plenty of acceptable bars and the few watering holes in Los Alamos are okay. The casinos associated with the American Indian pueblos also provide nightlife of a sort, if you like that sort of thing.

Go next

See the articles on Central New Mexico, Northeast New Mexico and Northwest New Mexico for the contiguous regions of the state. North of the Colorado state line, South Central Colorado retains much of the flavor of this region, although there is less of the red-rock country that is seen around Abiquiu. The northward extension of the Sangre de Cristos is considerably higher and more rugged than the New Mexico Sangres and provides challenges for the "peak bagger" and technical climber. North of the state line, the high country of the Colorado Plateau bearing Chama and Tierra Amarilla turns into a full-fledged, major mountain range (the San Juans), which serves as the dividing line between South Central and Southwestern Colorado.

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