The High Road is a back-country, scenic route between Santa Fe and Taos leading visitors through high desert, mountains, forests, small farms, and tiny Spanish Land Grant villages. (The “low road” runs through the valleys along the Rio Grande.) Scattered along the way are the galleries and studios of artists and traditional artisans inspired by the beauty of their surroundings.
From Santa Fe take US Highway 285/84 North. Just past Pojoaque Pueblo’s Cities of Gold Casino and the turn to Los Alamos, go right at the light onto State Road (SR) 503 East. Follow this two-lane road as it begins in the Pojoaque (pronounced “poh-WAH-kay”) River Valley and winds through lovely old Territorial adobes and idyllic horse pastures. To the right, beyond the arroyo, are the homes of the people of Pojoaque Pueblo.
Along the way, you will pass the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nambé. Although lovely, this church is not historic; it was built in the 1940s. Once you have passed the church, you are on Nambé Pueblo land (watch your speed!)
A little farther along, at Nambé Pueblo Road 101 (on the right), there are signs to Nambé Falls and Recreation Area. Along this road you will also see a right turn to the old pueblo plaza. (If you turn here, please be considerate; you are entering the home of the native people. Photos are not permitted.) Founded in the 14th century, Nambé means “People of the Round Earth” in Tewa, their native language. The pueblo plaza is a registered National Historic Landmark. Weathering, neglect, and ill-considered efforts to change the roof of the original San Francisco de Nambé church caused it to collapse, so the people built a new church in 1975.
Until about 1830, Nambé was known for a pottery style called Nambé Polychrome. Today, pottery is making a comeback, especially black-on-black and red-on-white. Weaving is also reemerging. At the plaza, turn around and return to the road. The pueblo encompasses 19,000 acres of land with waterfalls, lakes, and mountainous areas. Turn right to continue to Nambé Falls. There are charges for entrance, taking photos, camping, and fishing; check the website.
After returning to State Road 503 and turning right, you will pass through the pink and green rolling hills of the “badlands.” with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. In the evening, the setting sun turns the mountains red, perhaps inspiring their name (“Blood of Christ”). This land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are old trails along the highway, and in many places it is easy to pass over or through the barbed wire to hike or bike these trails. Be careful to close any gates; they keep grazing cattle from escaping onto the road (but be aware that cattle can be a road hazard). (Cyclists, beware of sharp burrs.)
At 7.5 miles, watch for the easy-to-miss left turn onto SR 98 (Juan Medina Road), which will take you to Chimayó and its famous Santuario.
Learn more about Chimayo and Cundiyo and the artists who work there.
State Road 98 ends at the junction with SR 76. You may wish to turn left and visit more of the artists’ galleries and studios in Chimayó. The High Road turns right here and begins the climb into the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the little villages that house the artists of the High Road. First is Cundiyo, a collection of narrow streets atop a high hill, surrounded by beautiful orchards and green fields along a little river.
Return to SR 76 and continue the climb to the top of the high mesa ahead and the village of Truchas, a scattering of pink adobes at the top of the world, backed by the snow-touched Truchas Peaks. Along the way, you will see the campo santoor graveyard, where the dead have a magnificent view.
Learn more about Truchas and the artists who work there.
A short drive through the Carson National Forest takes you to a series of very small villages. First is Ojo Sarco, with its neighbors Las Trampas and Chamisal.
Learn more about Ojo Sarco, Las Trampas, and Chamisal and the artists who work there.
When SR 76 ends at a stop sign, the High Road turns right onto State Road 75. However, turn left to visit Picurís Pueblo. After visiting the pueblo, continue on State Road 75 into Penasco and the villages of Llano San Juan, Llano Largo, and Santa Barbara and Vadito.
When you return from Llano to SR 75, drive on through beautiful, lush forests and fields to Vadito, a tiny town with a lively river and warm people. After Vadito, enjoy driving through the lovely valley of Placita. At the “stone wall” intersection, the High Road turns left onto State Road 518 to Ranchos de Taos.
However, first turn right on SR 518 to Sipapu Ski Resort and Recreation Area on the Rio Pueblo. It was started in 1952 by Lloyd Bolander and has operated continuously for 52 years. Sipapu has a peak elevation of 9,255 feet. It is also popular as a cool summer getaway and offers disk golf and a geo cache. The drive to Sipapu through the Carson National Forest is one of the most scenic and offers many trails and fishing spots. Don’t miss it!
Return and continue along SR 518 through the valleys and vistas of the Carson National Forest. Eventually you will come to the last High Road village, Talpa. Talpa is an ancient site; pit houses and pueblos were built here from 1100 to 1300. It was settled by Spanish colonists in the early 1700s. The name, which means “knob,” may refer to a formation in one of Talpa’s little canyons. Like the rest of the High Road, Talpa has a number of artists.
Although the High Road officially ends where SR 518 meets SR 68 in Ranchos de Taos, perhaps the best place to end your High Road journey is at the famous San Francisco de Asís church a few blocks south. This lovely church is probably one of the most painted and photographed churches in the nation—and what’s more unusual is that it’s the back of the church that everyone loves so much. It was famously painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and photographed by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams.
Completion of construction of the San Francisco de Asís Church took from 1772 to 1815. Inside, the “Shadow of the Cross” painting by Henri Ault (1896) sheds an eerie luminescence that surprised even the painter. There is a very nice little gift shop on the north side.
If you choose to follow the High Road coming from Taos, take SR 518 (a left turn at the south of town) and follow it through the beautiful Carson National Forest, with its spectacular views, to the intersection with SR 75. Keep straight on to visit the Sipapu recreation area, and then return to the intersection and turn left to go to Vadito and on to Peñasco. The High Road is equally wonderful from either direction.
At last, you have taken the High Road. Don’t you feel better now?
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Conversations with Isabro Ortega
By Patricia Trujillo Oviedo
On July 14, 2018, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Isabro Ortega for the first time. Even though we probably had crossed paths as children at the time that the Parish of Truchas was established by Father Casimiro Roca in 1954, we did not know each other then.
He was an established member of High Road Artisans, and well known for his woodcarving. On the day I met him, he gave me a tour of his home, where he displayed his wood carvings, and showed me how he decorated his home with intricate woodcarvings that he did on window frames, window sills, staircase, doors, cabinets, doorways, and displayed in the walls some of his wood carved santos in nichos he had designed.
As we conversed, we came to the conclusion that we were distant cousins, since his father was from the Ortega family of Chimayo. We talked about how it was when we were growing up, and about memories that most stuck in our head that influenced what we were doing now. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind writing down what he remembered, and he delivered his handwritten essay to me a few days later.
Exactly a month after we met, Isabro died on August 14, 2018, and I share with you the following essay he wrote and gave to me a few days after we had talked:
My name is Isabro Ortega. I am writing the things I remember growing up in Truchas. I was born and raised in Truchas. Growing up was very nice. I have a lot of good memories growing up. My Mother and Father raised us very strict. There were nine of us. I was one of the youngest. I have a younger sister. Even though we were raised very strict Mom and Dad gave us a lot of love, respect, discipline. We were very poor growing up, but we had plenty of love. As far as love is concerned, we were very rich.
My parents raised us to always go to Mass on Sunday. My father was a Penitente, and I became one when I was a freshman in High School. In those days, the special days of the Church were observed. The feast of San Isidro on the 15th of May, and in June Corpus Christi, In July the feast of Nuestra Señora del Carmen on the 16th of July, and the feast day of Santa Anna which is the patron Saint of Truchas.
On the 15th day of each month, brought the Sagrada Familia Chapel to our house by my Tío Nicolás and Tía Verónica, another member [of the cofradia]. Even though they weren’t our uncle and aunt we were raised to call them that. We called all our elder neighbors tías and tíos. We were raised to always wear our escapularios (up to this day I still wear mine). It is very sad to see our beautiful traditions dying. I guess it’s part of life.
Growing up I was an altar boy until my senior year in High School. There were two Moradas in Truchas, one in El Llano Abeyta and the other in town. The one in El Llano Abeyta was the one my father and brothers belonged to. But when I became a Penitente it was no longer in existence, so I joined the one in town. In those days there were about 20-30 members. Today we’re only seven, but our love and faith for our Morada is very much alive.
My father was from Chimayo, Juan Antonio Ortega, and my Mother was from Ojo Sarco, Estefanita Pacheco. I have officially been a carpenter since 1976, but since I was a little boy I used to carve cedar that my father brought from the mountains.
My father was a jack-of-all-trades. When I was in fifth grade I carved a little cedar heart that I sold to Elena Fuentes for a quarter. I believe she still has it. I would someday love to see it. I have been building my house since 1984. I have carved every possible space I can find. It has been featured in the New York Times, Sunset, and New Mexico Magazines.”
May Isabro Rest In Peace. Patricia Trujillo Oviedo