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Enchanted Circle Drive

Taos to Red River and Angel Fire — New Mexico

in the Taos area of Northern New Mexico, the Enchanted Circle Tour is one of two overlapping circle routes through the Carson National Forest, north and east of Taos. The longer Valle Vidal tour uses the same start and finish points but cuts a wider path through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Both tours begin and end at Taos.

Along the Drive

We begin at the Plaza in downtown Taos, heading north on State Route 64/68, driving past the town park named for frontiersman and guide Kit Carson. The park contains the graves of Carson and his family. There’s a blinking light 4 miles north of the Plaza (past the side road to Taos Pueblo), from where you may wish to drive 7 miles to the east on N.M. 64 to see the spectacular views from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Otherwise, we continue north (straight) taking State Route 522. Continue on the road for about 40 miles until you reach the small community of Questa.

The longer Valle Vidal Loop takes State Route 522 (keep straight) while the Enchanted Circle Loop takes N.M. 38. This road leads past the Carson National Forest ranger station and the Molycorp molybdenum mine and mill (on hills, north of the highway). Another 13 miles of driving and you’re arriving in Red River, a rustic ski and summer resort town. Highway 38 continues in a southeasterly direction for another 18 miles to Eagle Nest, a small recreation-based town that sits at the junction of Highway 38 and U.S. 64. The lake here is a popular fishing spot. It’s another 31 miles on the return drive to Taos via Highway 64 (turn left at the junction).

Millicent Rogers Museum

Five miles north of Taos, the museum features the art of northern New Mexico. Opened in 1956, the core of the museum’s collection came from the estate of Millicent Rogers, a prodigious collector who did much to foster the art and crafts of the region. She amassed many of these art works during the 1940s. Displays include Native American textiles, basketry, jewelry, and paintings. The building is built in a respectful adobe style and is open daily from 9 am to 5 p.m.. If you have time to visit only one local art museum, this is it!

Taos Ski Valley

This side-trip takes you off the Enchanted Circle, but if you have the time, the half-hour drive into the valley is worth while.

With Mt. Wheeler looming overhead, this is New Mexico's best downhill ski area. It also serves as a base for outdoor activity in the summer with hiking trails fanning out through the Carson National Forest. The vertical drop is 2,612 feet, and the longest run is a long 5.2 miles. At the base are condo accommodations, restaurants, and bars. To get there, turn right (east) onto N.M. Route 150. The ski area is 19.5 miles from downtown Taos.

The Wheeler Peak Wilderness is a superb scenic recreation area, accessed mainly through Taos Ski Valley. As you continue your drive around the Enchanted Circle, you can see the peak northwest of Eagle Nest. The peak, at 13,161 feet, is the state's highest mountain.

Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River

Just north of the little town of Questa, State Route 378 leads west, through the village of Cerro, to the Rio Grande Wild River Recreation Area -- 8 miles west of Highway 522. The recreation area includes the Rio Grande Gorge. This area has fine scenery and striking geological features, in addition to Indian rock pictographs. The recreation sites managed by the B.L.M., includes a visitor center, campground, and picnic area. You can look into the gorge from viewpoints or hike down to the river level.

There's a fine hike available, leading into the Rio Grande Canyon. The hike is a seven-mile round trip, starting from a trailhead at the Big Arsenic Springs Campground. To get there, drive from Questa on State Route 522 for about 5.5 miles, to the road which leads to the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (a sign is at the turnoff). Driving west on the paved road, you'll find the campground almost 12 miles from the turnoff. You may wish to stay at this scenic campground which lies 800 feet above the river.

Another great view of the river, at the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge, is found on Highway 64, just west of the junction with Highway 522. Turn at the light located north of the Taos Pueblo turnoff.

Valle Vidal Northern Loop (optional extended route)

Settlers, Ranchers and the Colfax County War

This loop, to the north of and longer than the Enchanted Circle, offers superb views of vast open spaces, high Rocky Mountain peaks, wildlife (including a magnificent heed of elk and wild birds), and reminders of the early frontier days of Northern New Mexico -- an era dominated by mining, lumbering, and ranching.

What is now called the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest was once the huge Maxwell Land Grant -- two million acres -- deeded by the Mexican Government in 1841 to Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Miranda returned to Mexico while Beaubien, loyal to the United States, stayed in New Mexico. Beaubien's daughter Luz married Illinois fur trapper Lucien Maxwell and the couple settled here, establishing a ranch. Maxwell began buying adjacent properties in 1864, following his father-in-law's death, and wound up owning the whole grant -- the size of Rhode Island.

Then, in 1870, Maxwell sold the land to an English syndicate. It was later sold to a Dutch firm. A local war then broke out, fueled by the owners' demand that the ranchers and other settlers who lived on the land leave. They had built homes with Maxwell's assent, and were not prepared to leave. The Colfax County war ensued, pitting the remaining settlers against the Dutch company which was victorious in 1887, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company. By the turn of the century, the land was subdivided. New ranches were opened, loggers came to topple trees, and a private organization established a private retreat. 200,000 acres of the original land grant was used by members of the Vermejo Park Club, including Hollywood celebrities the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Cecil B. DeMille, and others including Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon and Harvey Firestone. The Depression saw the closing of the club and the property reverted to ranching uses.

The Vermejo Park property and other lands -- totaling almost one million acres -- were eventually bought by Texas magnate W.J. Gourley. Wanting to expand the small existing elk herd, he purchased several hundred elk from Yellowstone National Park (at $5 per head). He also bred and raised wild turkeys, in order to increase the wild bird population. Gourley died in 1970; the land was then sold to the Pennzoil Company, which donated 100,000 acres to the Forest Service in 1982.

The prime job for the Forest Service now is wildlife preservation, although the land grant area is also used for ranching. There are two developed campgrounds along the route. Because of the elk calving season, some of the western part of the Valle Vidal unit is closed to traffic from May 1 until early-to-mid July. Motorized campers are restricted to the two campgrounds, although backcountry camping is permitted in the unit.

D.H. Lawrence Shrine

Kiowa Ranch, once owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan (a woman with a fascinating story of her own), was the home of novelist D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, in 1924 and 1925 -- given to them by Mrs. Luhan. Frieda continued to live at the ranch after the author’s death. She later married Angelo Ravagli. In 1934, they built a shrine for Lawrence’s ashes. Aldous Huxley was one of the many literary and other artistic visitors to the ranch, which is now owned by the University of New Mexico. The shrine on San Cristobal Road is open daily. Red River Fish Hatchery Two miles north of Questa on N.M. 515, the hatchery rears trout and is open daily. The visitor center features a display on the fish-rearing process, with a free self-guiding tour.

Red River Resort

Set in the forests of the Red River Valley, this rustic and informal town provides a getaway for those who eschew the sophistication of the ritzier ski and summer resorts. This popular summer and winter playground offers excellent stream and lake fishing, guest ranches, hotels and tourist courts. The ski area is right in town. Wheeler Peak is to the southeast. Restaurants run to steak and barbecue cuisine, and there are several small cafes serving “down-home food.” This is a great place to stay for a thorough exploration of the region.

Eagle Nest Lake

This popular fishing lake is leased for public fishing by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The lake is also a mecca for windsurfers. If you wish to wander farther, the Wild West town of Cimmaron is located east of Eagle Nest, via Highway 64.

Angel Fire

Angel Fire, another noted ski area, is located 26 miles east of Taos -- via N.M. Route 68 and then south for 4 miles on N.M. Route 75. With a vertical drop of 2,180 feet, runs up to 3.5 miles, and a cross-country ski center, Angel Fire offers just about everything (including golf when the snow has disappeared).

Angel Fire is a very scenic resort town. Summer activities include golfing, hiking, and mountain biking. The ski area is a popular alternative to Taos Ski Valley, and you'll find good accommodations (motels, condo units) in the little town.

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