Published May/June 2012

Summer Getaway: Northern New Mexico

Historic trains, modern artists, and the outdoors await

BYStuart Wasserman
Unlike the open high plains and desert landscape in southern New Mexico, its northern counterpart is lush with alpine mountain panoramas, making it a cool summer escape. From mountain biking and fly-fishing to sightseeing, riding narrow gauge trains, and taking in a bit of art and culture, the area is rich in outdoor activities and opportunities for adventure.
 
All Aboard
Every summer day at 10 a.m., a whistle blasts two times at the Chama, N.M., station, announcing the morning departure and causing children to cup their hands over their ears. It’s the whistle of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a narrow gauge train that climbs through the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. 
 
Built in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension and essentially unchanged since then, the 64-mile length of track that runs between Chama and Antonito, Colo., is often touted as
one of the most outstanding examples of narrow gauge steam-era mountain railroading in North America. 
 
The six-hour train ride, which starts at an elevation of 7,875 feet, eventually reaches the 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass — the highest mountain pass crossed by rail in the United States. It then loops through Tanglefoot Curve, and crosses the 137-foot-tall Cascade Trestle, before pulling into Osier, Colo. 
 
After an hour-long break for lunch, the train inches its way along the rim of the 800-foot-deep Toltec Gorge, travels through one long tunnel, around Phantom Curve, back through another long tunnel, and the ride ends in Antonito. And if these sights weren’t enough, the train crosses coniferous forests and stands of aspen, winds past brightly colored wildflowers such as tansy aster and sunflowers, and provides glimpses of wildlife from Bald Eagles, Snowy Egrets, and Blue Grosbeaks to deer, elk, and bears. 
 
An Artist’s Perspective
Less than an hour away from Chama, N.M., the stark beauty of Abiquiu attracted and inspired famous modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who called New Mexico home during the ’30s and ’40s. During much of that time, O’Keeffe lived at Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre spread of high desert country, named for its local ghost stories and legends.
 
Today, the ranch serves as an educational center and retreat, offering art, music, and workshops that may include classes, demonstrations, lectures, communal feasts, and lodging. For those who are only passing through, a good way to learn about the area, take in the scenery, and view some of O’Keeffe’s works is to take the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tours.
 
The unique, hour-long tours visit the artist’s favorite painting spots. During these reservation-only walks, participants are led to the grounds where her easels stood and a guide holds up a copy of her finished work, providing a comparison of the landscape to the artist’s vision. 
 
Getting Around
For an all-encompassing means to experience the valleys, mesas, mountains, and national forests of north central New Mexico, head out from Abiquiu about 60 miles east to a drive known as the Enchanted Circle. Connecting cities Taos and Questa with the resort communities of Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angel Fire, the 83-mile scenic New Mexican byway circles around Mt. Wheeler, the highest peak in the state, standing at 13,161 feet.
 
Heading north on NM 522 out of Taos, literary fans flock to the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and Memorial, celebrating the English author of poetry and novels. Then, continuing northeast through Arroyo Hondo and Arroyo Seco to Questa and taking the ascent into Red River from NM 38 presents scenic views of spruce and aspen vistas. Red River offers lodges, resorts, restaurants, gift shops, and ski runs rising just off the town’s main street, and nearby, Eagle Nest Lake State Park’s 2,400-acre lake has trout and kokanee salmon fishing, as well as opportunities to spot birds and wildlife. 
 
Heading west on NM 64, Enchanted Circle travelers will find Angel Fire, a town known for winter skiing, but building a reputation for mountain biking. It hosted the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in 2005 and, last year, the 2011 Collegiate MTB Nationals XC and STXC. The resort now offers full-service rental, retail, and repair facilities on-site and features the best new bikes from top manufacturers. For more outdoor adventure, there’s also rafting, ATV tours, horseback riding, Monte Verde Lake, and hiking at the resort, where the enchanting byway trip comes full circle.
STUART WASSERMAN is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Portland, Ore.
For More Information
Call your local AAA Travel professional at 1-888-870-9392 or visit AAA.com.
 

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Cerro Pedernal
Cerro Pedernal
If You Go
Dining: Located at the Angel Fire Country Club, Elements Restaurant is not to be skipped, especially with summer dining on the deck providing views of Mt. Wheeler. The club itself resembles lodges built in the Pacific Northwest during the 1930s, and the restaurant’s European chef is a master at his craft. 
 
Lodging: A favorite stay for visitors and admired for its romantic atmosphere, the AAA Four Diamond Rated Inn on De Loma Plaza in Taos combines Southwest and historic trappings with the luxuries of modern amenities. On the National Register of Historic Places, the hilltop adobe hacienda is a 200-year-old home built on a historic neighborhood plaza.
 
Along the way: North of Taos, a short drive west on Highway 64 will bring you to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, also known as the Taos Gorge Bridge. One of the highest in the U.S., the bridge provides staggering views of the Rio Grande Gorge and river 650 feet below. Parking lots are available at each end of the 1,280-foot span.
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