Getting Tough in New Mexico

From desert heat to the Taos High Road

Even tough guys can appreciate the striking sunsets of New Mexico.
Even tough guys can appreciate the striking sunsets of New Mexico.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

Maybe I agreed to do the ride to prove I’m not a wimp. It would take a tough guy to ride all day in the desert. Hot. Dusty. Gritty. Sounds pretty rugged to me. I didn’t want to ride in the New Mexican heat, but it might boost my cred as a biker to say I spent a week out there.

My wife, truly tougher than me, tried to convince me I’d enjoy other aspects of the ride: the Billy the Kid Trail, proximity to Route 66, aliens in Roswell, Indian pueblos, and on and on. Okay, so it sounded fascinating, but I kept thinking about the heat—would it make me wish I hadn’t tried it? What finally convinced me to take the tour was the chance to spend time in Taos, a town famous for its art, laid-back nature and gentle climate. At an elevation of 7,000 feet and surrounded by mountains, heat is unlikely to interfere with your enjoyment of the nearby fabulous roads.

As an English major, I knew that such creative people as Dennis Hopper, John Nichols, and D.H. Lawrence considered themselves residents of Taos. The icing on the cake would be the ride from Santa Fe to Taos along the High Road: the famous scenic route between the two pretty sister towns of New Mexico.

The High Road connects Santa Fe to Taos with scenery that is worth facing the desert heat for.
The High Road connects Santa Fe to Taos with scenery that is worth facing the desert heat for.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

Getting High
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains define the southernmost part of the Rocky Mountain Range, which stretches down to near the Rio Grande outside of Santa Fe. Although everyone has a different aspect of New Mexico they like, bikers love the geology. The timberline of the Sangre de Cristos goes way up to 12,000 feet, and you'll find plenty of roads at 10,000 feet. In short, that would probably mean we'd have some cool riding days.

Expecting to ride our Valkyrie Interstate into a furnace, we instead arrived in Santa Fe with the temperature at a mild 72-degrees. Nice! We had booked a condo near the old town center to allow us to explore nearby roads and experience this historic city.

We loved the Santa Fe traditions. Strolling through the Palace of Governors, we could imagine this special place 300 years ago. Chatting with the local Native American craftsmen selling traditional silver and turquoise jewelry let me know I was no longer in my plain vanilla suburban home. Even worse, the mild temperatures denied me the chance to brag about surviving a tough ride.

At Bandolier National Monument you can enter the cliffside homes of the pueblo natives.
At Bandolier National Monument you can enter the cliffside homes of the pueblo natives.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

And the food! It captivated us so completely that we signed up for a cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. They gave us an entertaining lesson on cooking traditional New Mexican food, which included a gourmet meal. Since the ride wasn’t proving difficult, and I had now taken a cooking class, I realized my street cred as a tough biker was in serious jeopardy. As I ate my chili relleno, little did I know I’d be tested by fire later on.

Our favorite daytrips out of Santa Fe included Bandolier National Monument. Not only do the beautiful pavement and scenic views reward riders, but the monument itself offers visitors the chance to explore a canyon where pueblo natives once lived in cliffside abodes. You can even climb into the dwellings to view old petroglyphs.

The must-do ride out of Santa Fe is the sweet, 36-mile round trip through the Hyde Memorial State Park to the ski area at well over 10,000 feet. In September, the aspens bathe the roads in a golden buttery light that makes the cool, soft air seem almost medicinal. We parked at the top and strolled among the trees, where we admired the view of Santa Fe far down in the valley.

Scenic views and winding roads, New Mexico knows how to treat a rider.
Scenic views and winding roads, New Mexico knows how to treat a rider.Sharon and Bruce Hansen
Expect to see adobe-inspired architecture throughout Old Town Taos.
Expect to see adobe-inspired architecture throughout Old Town Taos.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

To the Top
We loved Santa Fe, but were eager to take the legendary 100-mile High Road to Taos. The route is famous for its views and chances to experience the New Mexican way of life.

We choose to stop at Chimayó. Its Plaza del Cerro is the last surviving Spanish fortified plaza and the church there is renowned for its healing dirt. I’m not superstitious, but I did put a coin in the box, and rubbed some of the holy dirt on my sore knee. The only change I noticed was a dirty knee, but perhaps the miracle only works for the truly tough.

Our first view of Taos was an unimpressive, Walmart-style sprawl. After 20 minutes of dense traffic, however, we broke into a world of serious New Mexican charm. Sharon had made reservations at the historic Taos Inn. Bikers like this place because it’s close to Old Town’s shopping and restaurants, but it also has its own great restaurant and the famous Adobe Bar. I could picture Dennis Hopper sitting there having a beer and socializing with the locals. Every evening, the Adobe Bar offers free live music and features an amazing microbrew selection.

If the restaurant at the Taos Inn isn’t fabulous enough, try Graham’s Grill across the street—if you can get a reservation. Sitting there with my linen napkin and creamed soup spoon was a far cry from the “eating cold beans from a can out in a desert with a poor wi-fi signal” scenario I had dreaded.

Take a moment to soak in the view of the aspen-covered hills on the High Road.
Take a moment to soak in the view of the aspen-covered hills on the High Road.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

For riders, the absolutely best part of Taos is the Enchanted Circle Drive: an 85-mile circuit around Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet), the highest mountain in New Mexico. It's more than just a romp through spectacular scenery; it's an all-day journey through New Mexico's history and culture. Side roads kept calling us throughout the day, and it was chilly by the time we rode into the Taos Inn parking lot. We would need to get up early the next day to explore the Gorge Bridge across the Rio Grande—one of the highest bridges in the USA, and a co-star of the movie Wild Hogs.

Heading back to Santa Fe, the temperature hit triple digits in Espanola. Finally, I thought . . . my trial by fire. Now I could say I truly rode New Mexico like the gritty bikers of yore. Okay, I did complain a little, but just to Sharon. Sharon was unimpressed, explaining that one hour of hot weather and a dirty knee does not a legendary biker make. But she likes me anyway.

Early the next morning, passing through Albuquerque, we happened upon the Mass Ascension—hundreds of hot air balloons ascending to celebrate the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival.

Watching the huge New Mexico sky full of colorful balloons gave us a buoyant feeling. This state is not defined by its heat, its desert highways or the between-the-teeth grit I had imagined. We decided we must return to explore again—if it’s not too hot.

New Mexico is indeed the Land of Enchantment and is worth another visit.
New Mexico is indeed the Land of Enchantment and is worth another visit.Sharon and Bruce Hansen

Resources
Kokopelli Property Management
www.kokoproperty.com
(505) 629-1796

The Taos Inn
www.taosinn.com
(888) 518-8267

Graham's Grill, Taos
www.thefayway.com

New Mexico Tourism
www.newmexico.org

Bruce Hansen is author of Motorcycle Journeys Through the Pacific Northwest, Second Edition, by Whitehorse Press.