People slowly congregated at the edge of the Taos Valley RV park to watch the vast New Mexico sky blush shades of reds, pinks and purples as the sun disappeared behind the distant mountain range. In pairs or groups of three or four – some with coffee mugs in hand sipping their evening brew; others with leased dogs emerging from the sage covered surroundings – they stand with their backs to the darkening east sky, which silhouettes the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The creative power of the New Mexico light was first recognized in 1898 when two young artist, on an adventure to experience Native American culture, had their wagon wheel break on outskirts of the Taos pueblo. Ernest Blumenshein and Bert Phillips were forced to remain for several days and became enamored of the inhabitants and of the clear light. They decided to remain and paint. This was the start of the Taos Society of Artists.
The Native American pueblo and small art colony has expanded into a tourist town sprinkled with excellent restaurants and historical frontier sites and surrounded by a national forests and recreation areas. Today visitors can wander for days amongst the canvases and sculptures of the numerous galleries and museums of Taos. Most visit the adobe church, San Francisco de Asis. It’s flowing beige buttresses made famous in photographs and Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. The Historic Taos Plaza is circled by tourist shops. Best not enter the narrow streets and alleys of the Plaza with a large RV.
However, RVs and campers are common along the main road through town. The municipal lot is a popular parking place and overnight parking is permitted. Best option is to leave your RV at one of the two RV parks, which are located on the south end of town, and catch the Chile bus. For a guided tour, hop on the trolley ride which starts in front of the Visitor Center.
The Taos recreational areas and national forests create a network of outdoor activity outfitters. In the winter, skiing reigns at the nearby Taos Ski Valley and Red River. In the summer, river rafting is the most popular outdoor activity. In June, I approached Taos from Highway 68 to be greeted by a massive scar winding through the sage covered mesa. This wound, The Gorge, created by the Rio Grande River transports kayakers and rafters. While watching the sun set at the Taos Valley RV Park; a couple, Ted and Carol, and I discussed the Rio Grande’s different rafting runs. The river was low this year making for a technical raft ride around the boulders and rocks. I had joined a group to start at a spot called “The Race Course”. In the morning school buses unloaded their passengers dressed in bathing suits and hats. Rafts were carried to the riverbank and each guide gave a though briefing explaining the basics of paddling and safety procedures. Our guide made sure the straps of our bright orange life vest were pulled tight around our chest before we clamored aboard.
Floating downstream we maneuvered around and over the boulders and rapids. During the lulls between the white water activity our guide identified the shrubs and flowers which lined the canyon walls. A hawk soared above then disappeared into a crevice along the orange wall. We conquered the rapids“Sleeping Beauty” and “Eye of the Needle”. The sun beat down on us.
Jane, a visitor from California, decided to swim during a slow stretch of the river. Soon most of us, except the guide, had slid into the refreshing water and floated along side the raft. Our guide had us practice a safety procedure (if you are thrown from the raft): floating on our backs, legs straight in front with buttocks raised. This is to protect your body, especially your head and spine, from contacting with hidden rocks. We enjoyed the trill of gliding over a small rapids, before clamoring back on board.
I described my rafting experience to Steve and Edie who had reservation for white water rafting the next morning before their drive back to Tennessee. Their plan was to drive their 5 wheel Electra down to “The Race Course”. After their morning raft trip their RV would be waiting with hot showers and a change of clothes before hitting the highway home.
They had two mountain bicycles attached to the back of their new Electra. For Taos has all levels of mountain bike trails. Also the local drivers are accustomed to bicycles in town. Taos is small and when I got stuck in its commute traffic; I wished for my bicycle.
Another outdoor activity which centers on the Rio Grande is hot air ballooning. Usually a hot air balloon soars up into the sky. Not in Taos. One early morn found me standing on the edge of the gorge watching the silver ribbon of the river below glow as the sun rose. Behind me the balloonist were using a large industrial fan to expand the multicolor silk fabric into a balloon. Once the balloon had sufficient air to upright itself we climbed over the side of the wicker basket. We were pressed together like six canned sardines. The balloonist, Joe, wore a six gallon hat and cowboy boots. Thick leather gloves protected his hands so he could turn on the burner above our heads. With a twist of lever a large flame noisily burst upward. The warmth expanded the air above us and we lifted about a foot from the ground. A slight breeze pushed us to the edge of the gorge; then we dropped down. The gorge walls were edged with an orange glow reflecting the rays of the rising sun. We slowly dropped further, about 700 feet total, till the bottom of our basket skimmed the silver river. Our cameras clicked as another balloon in front of ours dipped in the river and skipped over a hidden rock. Both balloons glided along the rivers’ path as the sides of the Gorge loomed above us. As we rounded a bend The Gorge Bridge came into view and grew in size until a blast of flames lifted us above the east rim to land softly on the bridge parking area.
Afterwards we enjoyed a champagne breakfast and were joined by a chipmunk, who stole a cracker. What happen during the initiation ceremony, for those who had experienced their first hot air balloon ride, must remain a secret.
The next day found me nose to nose with a friendly llama named “Jose”. This was my day for llama trekking in the Carson National Forest. Llamas and guests became acquainted during the preparatory activities. After time spent brushing their thick coats and offering them hand fulls of sweet feed; we each created a bond with our favorite llama. I chose a spirited teenager with a soft brown nuzzle and large brown eyes. The owners, Leah and Stuart Rosenberg, saddled the lamas with packs containing food, water and our gear. What a genteel way to hike. Even our water jugs sat in a pocket of the saddle, easily available for grabbing a quick sip. As we led the llamas along the trail, we paused often; while Stuart would identify the trees and wild flowers and describe their Native American medical use. The llamas followed like obedient shaggy ponies. The oldest, Julie, would create a deep humming sound like an ancient Buddhist “om”. Jose insisted on leading. His camel-like feet of five large toes are well suited for the rocky hard trail.
After several hours we stopped under a grove of trees for lunch. Out of the packs came a table, tablecloth, utensils and container after container of food. Joe was a professional chef before becoming the leader of llama treks. We delighted in gourmet pasta dishes, homemade breads, avocados, tomatoes and cheeses. Llama treks can be organized for day treks to overnight camping trips. We all wished we chosen a longer trip. For those who prefer riding to hiking, Taos offers Native American and western horseback rides.
However, the next day I was scheduled to visit the ski areas and lakes of Taos along the Enchanted Circle. This drive can be completed in several hours. But no need to rush. Heading north on Highway 64 from Taos to Highway 522 along the Rio Hondo I passed small camping sites within the Carson National Forest. There are usually no facilities except an outhouse, but parking and camping is free. I spotted an occasional RV in spots under large trees along the river banks. Perfect spots for fishing in the river and mountain streams or hiking on the well marked trails.
I detoured onto Highway 150 to visit the Taos Ski Valley, which is dotted with wild flowers at this time of the year. A chairlift ride presented me with a lofty view of the surrounding mountains and valleys and the Swiss like chateaus. The best day hike is to Williams Lake, an alpine area. The trail leads from the valley floor, passes a waterfall and into the Carson National Forest. As we crossed a last winter’s avalanche path we were awed by the snow’s strength. Trees were stacked along the hillside like fallen matches. Off the trail is a memorial to a skier who was fatally trapped during the snow slide.
Patches of wild flowers quilted the forest floor. The trail stopped climbing when we passed the tree line. We paused to glance down on a pool of turquoise water – Williams Lake. The lake edge has scattered large boulders, some already reserved by sunbathing campers. We chose a few rounded rocks to rest upon while enjoying our pack lunch. A crystal creek lead us to a roaring waterfall and the pink alpine flower “Parry’s primrose. The hike back down to the valley is a breeze.
I retraced my route back to the Enchanted Drive, which at the village of Quest, follows Highway 38. My next stop was a less serene ski area, Red River. The old mining town offers full service RV parks, a stocked fish pond, chair lift rides, mountain biking and jeep rides. The chair lift carries people and bicycles from the center of town to the summit where there is a Café, with a deli and a large outdoor patio eating area. A trail map displays all the ski runs which are clearly marked with street signs.
The jeeps are more like a Philippine jeepney without a roof. Twelve of us hung on to the rails as the jeep careened along the ski trails passing hikers and mountain bikers. We made stops to visit a historical mining camp with displays of tools and animal skulls and to photograph the vast vistas and a passing deer.
At the end of the day I left Red River and continued on the Enchanted Circle Drive. Within five minutes the area was engulfed by a mountain thunderstorm. Impromptu streams of water and pebbles formed creeklets across the highway. My vehicle carefully maneuvered around fallen rocks. Then all vision was entirely blocked as large hail pounded the windshield. Just when I thought I couldn’t continue driving; the clouds parted and a rainbow crossed the sky.
The rest of the drive toward Taos was peaceful as I passed rain-cleaned pastures of painted ponies and wild irises of the Moreno Valley. At Eagle Nest Lake we pulled off the road to check out one of the RV parks on the lake. As we walked though the door the owner, Jeri Cook, offered fresh coffee. She mentioned that they are sold out for four weeks surrounding the 4th of July. The large fireworks over the lake and homemade ice cream draw visitors from Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona. This lake has some of the best fishing in the southwest for rainbow trout, kokonee, and koho salmon. World class flyfishing guides, such as Taylor Streit, summer in this area.
Within forty minutes I was back at the Taos Valley RV Park; in time, to view the magnificent sunset I described in the beginning of this article.
Golden Eagle RV Park, Hwy 64 (32 miles outside Taos), Eagle Nest, NM 87718. Tel: 505-377-6188.
Taos Visitor Center: Tel: 800-732-8267. GOTOBUTTON BM_2_ email:firstname.lastname@example.org;http://taoswebb.com/TAOS/
Taos Highway Report Hotline: 800-432-4269.