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Magical Riding in Northern New Mexico

Tim KesselMarch 31, 2016
Every bend in the road in northern New Mexico seems to reveal another geological intrigue.

Every bend in the road in northern New Mexico seems to reveal another geological intrigue.

en · chant (verb): To place under a spell as if by magic.

Yep. That’s exactly what the mountains of northern New Mexico have done to me. There is something magical about this state, and I believe it stems from its wide-ranging diversity. The cultural, architectural and environmental palate from which this region is painted is as multi-hued and vibrant as you will find anywhere in the world. And no, that’s not hyperbole.

Ascending to Enchantment on the 64

Worshipers have been walking through the doors of El Santuario de Chimayó for more than 200 years.

Worshipers have been walking through the doors of El Santuario de Chimayó for more than 200 years.

As I pull out of the village of Chama in extreme northern New Mexico, my knowledge of U.S. Route 64 is limited to the attractive curves on my folded map. When the three dimensional version of the ribbon of tarmac comes to life under the wheels of my BMW R 1200 GS, the magic begins. The 64 will be my path from near Chama all the way to Taos, and the first leg of the route spells the climb into the mountains of north central New Mexico. It has always been my preference to climb rather than descend great curvy roads. However, as wonderful as this ascent is, I am constantly compelled to slow or stop to imbibe the panoramic views to my rear.

After a remarkable series of both hairpins and sweepers, I crest U.S. 64 and begin the eastern descent into the Carson National Forest. The views, while slightly less panoramic than those I just witnessed, are still awe-inspiring. On this mountain leg of the ride, I am intrigued by the numerous remnants of a bygone era. Log cabins and other historic structures dot the landscape in various states of succumbing to the mountain elements.

Eventually, the evergreens reduce to grasslands and the 64 straightens as I roll toward Taos. After miles of expansive views and light traffic, I begin to notice strange outcroppings dotting the treeless plain. It turns out that they are organically stylized dwellings crafted out of adobe and a smorgasbord of other materials. These Earthship homes are freeform, off-the-grid structures that are reminiscent of something from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

Just before reaching Taos, I roll over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The Gorge is an impressive testament to the erosive power of the Rio Grande and the bridge is a gleaming tribute to the engineering prowess of man. Spanning more than 1,200 feet, the bridge has been the setting for numerous famous scenes in movies such as Natural Born Killers, Wild Hogs and Terminator Salvation. Sadly, it also has a reputation as a destination for desperate souls seeking to take their own life, which has inspired “helpline” call boxes along its length.

Each expansive vista looking to the west on U.S. Route 64 seems more impressive than the last.

Each expansive vista looking to the west on U.S. Route 64 seems more impressive than the last.

Tracing the Enchanted Circle

The aptly named Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway starts and ends in close proximity to the eclectic town of Taos. I opt to use a visit to the hamlet as my first pit stop before embarking on the loop. It’s a fantastic place in which to stretch the legs and grab a little sustenance—Mexican food, of course. I enjoy a couple of delectable street tacos at an outside table at Orlando’s before throwing a leg back over the GS.

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

The Enchanted Circle is an 83-mile loop ride that circumscribes the state’s highest point, Wheeler Peak. Heading out of Taos to the northwest, my ride begins as a straight road cutting through high chaparral environs on State Route 522. It is not until the loop takes an eastern bend onto State Route 38 that the route becomes what I expected—and the enchantment begins. The winding road cuts through rugged valleys, through towering pines and beside a few massive mines. This smile-inspiring stretch ultimately leads to the historic town of Red River. The picturesque mountain village sits at the base of a ski area and offers a plethora of opportunities to eat, shop or just walk.

The climb out of Red River offers a nice look back at the village I just visited. Over the course of this next leg of the loop, the road eases from the twisty alpine variety to a view-filled and more relaxed topography. The next notable town is Eagle Nest, which sits to the north of a rather substantial lake of the same name. It is during the ride after Eagle Nest that I come to one of those great, unplanned stops that make a tour
truly memorable.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park emerges from the hillside on the southeastern portion of the Enchanted Circle.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park emerges from the hillside on the southeastern portion of the Enchanted Circle.

An incongruous white structure seemingly growing out of the grasslands catches my eye as I pass. I throttle down, pull a U-turn and return to get a closer look. It is Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park. The unique sweeping whitewashed architecture houses a striking tribute to those who served in that war. I was only a child during the Vietnam War, but I know dozens of veterans of the conflict, and the visit is an emotional one. From the memorial’s elevated perch, the park offers a nice view of the road to come.

The Red River Valley is a highlight of the Enchanted Circle.

The Red River Valley is a highlight of the Enchanted Circle.

Back on Route 64, I ride the remainder of the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway through more sweeping turns and one more stretch of thrilling tight twisties. The loop ends at the southeastern city limit of Taos. Since I have already explored the town, I am off on another great leg of this ride. However, if one were ready to call it a day, Taos would be a good stay-over.

Finding Religion on the High Road

OK, I haven’t always been credited with “taking the high road.” However, on this day I do. It’s known as the High Road to Taos, but for my tour, it is the high road from Taos. The road is famous, in part, for the early Spanish Missions that dot its 105-mile length. There are a handful of the historic, adobe sanctuaries on the route. They are all spectacular, but I choose to fully explore the Santuario de Chimayo in the cool little village of Chimayo. The sanctuary is famous for its El Posito, a hole in the floor that exposes what is said to be healing soil. My stop happens to coincide with a full Catholic mass, which adds another level of texture to the visit.

It’s not just the history that makes the High Road attractive to motorcyclists. The ride, which comprises State Routes 518 and 76, among others, is spectacular. Like most of the others that I have traveled in New Mexico, the route is a diverse cornucopia of turns, straights and views. You would be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing ride anywhere.

Big skies and vibrant colors are the constant backdrop on the roads in northern New Mexico.

Big skies and vibrant colors are the constant backdrop on the roads in northern New Mexico.

To the Manhattan Project and Beyond

The descent off the High Road leads to another outstanding east-west stretch. I ride the high desert road (State Route 502) that sweeps its way to Los Alamos. The city of 12,000 is the historic site of the globally significant Manhattan Project. The WWII-era research conducted here lead to the development of the first nuclear weapons. The area is still highly secure and I have to show identification at a checkpoint to make it through the city. You can bypass Los Alamos via a southern route, but the history of the area makes it worth the effort.

A helicopter and other military memorabilia are on display in Vietnam Memorial State Park.

A helicopter and other military memorabilia are on display in Vietnam Memorial State Park.

As I ride out of Los Alamos to the east, State Route 4 becomes almost instantly curvy. It’s a welcome return to the mountains. The road tops out at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 13-mile-wide volcanic caldera. The descent from the crest winds through forests and high plains and the road is well paved and smooth. After miles of great riding I approach the Jemez Historic Site, which contains stone ruins of both a 500-year-old Native American village and the San José de los Jeméz Mission. It’s worth the stop.

U.S. Route 550 takes me due north on my return leg of the tour. This stretch is another relaxing, open-throttle ride through high chaparral terrain. After miles of sweepers and straights, I head east for 50 miles on State Route 96. As is the rule in New Mexico, the terrain morphs again. I am back in tall evergreens and the road gets a bit more winding. The final run on this amazing tour is due north on U.S. Route 84. The highway features high vistas, rock bluffs and intermittent forests. This is a fitting and diverse mix to end my 500 miles through some of the very best that New Mexico has to offer. This is a true three-season ride. Obviously, the extreme elevation and environmental diversity along the route will necessitate a wide range of gear preparedness. Plan and pack accordingly.

So is this the Land of Enchantment? In a word, yes. Let me leave you with a verse from a song by Michael Martin Murphey:

We watched the sunset by the Rio Grande
A mission bell, rang farewell, she took my hand
She said, “Come back amigo, no matter where you go
To the land of enchantment, New Mexico”

The Vista Del Rio Lodge in Chama.

The Vista Del Rio Lodge in Chama.

Lodging Spotlight

The beginning and ending point on my loop was the small northern New Mexican village of Chama. Activities in the area include hiking, fishing, horseback riding and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. I stayed at a wonderful little motel on the banks of Chama River. The Vista Del Rio Lodge is spotlessly clean, motorcycle friendly and the owners are warm and accommodating. As I enjoyed a post-ride drink outside my room, a doe meandered onto the lodge’s tidy acreage. That’s relaxing!

vistadelriolodge.com

 

Even New Mexico’s signage hints at the state’s spicy nature.

Even New Mexico’s signage hints at the state’s spicy nature.

Numerous log cabins and settler dwellings are reminders of the West’s rich history.

Numerous log cabins and settler dwellings are reminders of the West’s rich history.

ontinental Divide crossings are frequent and memorable in northern New Mexico.

ontinental Divide crossings are frequent and memorable in northern New Mexico.

Otherworldly structures dot the landscape northwest of Taos.

Otherworldly structures dot the landscape northwest of Taos.

The majesty of the Rio Grande Gorge is magnetic to sightseers and tortured souls.

The majesty of the Rio Grande Gorge is magnetic to sightseers and tortured souls.

Historic markers all along the route detail interesting events in the state’s history.

Historic markers all along the route detail interesting events in the state’s history.

Numerous log cabins and settler dwellings are reminders of the West’s rich history.

Numerous log cabins and settler dwellings are reminders of the West’s rich history.

The ride through Los Alamos is a reminder of the awesome, even terrifying power of the human brain.

The ride through Los Alamos is a reminder of the awesome, even terrifying power of the human brain.

Otherworldly structures dot the landscape northwest of Taos.

Otherworldly structures dot the landscape northwest of Taos.

One comment

  1. Read this in your mag. There was something that caught me about this place. Nice seeing it here again.

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