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The end of September sees the New Mexico landscape come to life in fiery color. Set against the backdrop of a crisply blue sky, the mountains quake with the song of ruddy aspens, while in the river valley golden-leaved cottonwoods play host to jabbering ravens preparing for the fall. Along roadways wildflowers give it their all in one last hurrah of vibrant purple, red, and yellow bursts. With the pendulum of weather balanced perfectly between the too-hot-to-breath and the too-cold-to-stand, the air itself caresses the skin, calling you forth to explore the state's many hidden treasures. Whether you want to hike, drive, ride the rails or get a bird’s eye view, we’ve selected five of the best ways to experience this magical time of year in the Land of Enchantment.
1. Drive the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway
This scenic loop starts and ends in the historic city of Taos – a destination in of itself, legendary for its bohemian roots, artsy heart beat, and connection to the ancient Taos Indian Pueblo. The 85-mile route of the Enchanted Circle takes you across the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and into the lush Moreno Valley. Whether you are out for a Sunday drive, or looking for some of the state's premier camp sites, it is the ideal place to soak up a million dollar view of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain, hike through the protected Red River Valley and Eagle Nest Lake State Park, and train your eye for bighorn sheep, elk, deer and other wildlife along the way.
Local Tip : Add on an extra day in Taos to visit the epic Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and the Taos Pueblo, one of the longest-inhabited communities in America.
2. Travel Along the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
With an open-air carriage boasting 360-degree views, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is one of the most magnificent ways to experience the fall colors of northern New Mexico. Let the adventure begin with a scenic drive north to the Village of Chama, nestled along the cottonwood-lined banks of her namesake river. Here you'll find the quaint home of one of America’s most intact steam-era railroad yards.
Hop aboard the vintage steam engine and travel along the narrow, late-19th-century gauge railway. Here you will zigzag along the Colorado-New Mexico border, passing through picturesque meadows and beneath the soaring San Juan Mountains. Enjoy the thrill of crossing the dramatic 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass, with families of aspen and scrub oak lining the way as you chug down through the Toltec Gorge.
Local Tip : Whether you ride in elegance in the Victorian style parlor car, or choose the budget-friendly coach car, a delicious lunch buffet is provided.
3. Hike the Columbine Trail
Flanked by aspen, maple and oak trees, the Columbine Trail is one of the most popular walks in the Enchanted Circle area for witnessing the changing fall leaves. The trail head begins near the Columbine Campground, around 7 miles west of Red River, and can be as short or as long as you like, with the option to continue all the way to the Taos Ski Valley.
Wander through the open meadows that line Columbine Creek, with bridges crisscrossing the stream’s route, and stop to picnic beneath the brilliant yellow foliage of its aspen grove.
Local Tip : This is the best time of year to get out in nature and enjoy the cool, fresh air and plethora of natural eye candy around you. Pack a sack lunch, your camera, a light jacket, and your pup to make it a full day of outdoor adventure.
4. Take the High Road between Taos and Santa Fe
Find yourself inspired by local color in two of the country's most notable art communities, and then spend the day taking in the landscape that has inspired famous artists from Georgia O'Keefe to our own team here at Etkie. Beginning in either Taos or Santa Fe, the 56-mile-long High Road winds through the spectacular mountains of the Carson National Forest, where verdant meadows and vibrant vistas provide a wealth of photo-ops along the way.
The route will take you through the Native American community of Picurís Pueblo, home of the Tiwa people, as well as the heritage-listed village of Las Trampas. Also be sure to stop in the charismatic village of Chimayo where stands the historic El Santuario de Chimayo, an adobe chapel that contains earth said to create miracles in the lives of true believers.
Local Tip : During the late summer and early fall it is harvest time for the New Mexico state food, chile. Much chile is grown in communities along the High Road, so be sure to grab a bite along the way to enjoy the freshest red or green chile.
5. Ride the Scenic Chairlift at Angel Fire Resort
Seeing fall in New Mexico from the ground is breathtaking, but seeing it from above is a whole other kind of incredible. For those that can't climb into a gondola and float through the sky in a hot air balloon, the Chile Express chairlift at Angel Fire is a close second. The cahirlift soars over the Moreno Valley to a 10,677-foot summit in the Southern Rocky Mountains. From there you can follow a scenic hiking trail to Summit Lake or soak up the views towards Eagle Nest Lake State Park and Wheeler Peak from the Summit Haus restaurant. Ride the chairlift back down to the base or opt to go on foot, enjoying the magnificent changing leaves along the way. There's no wrong way to do it!
Local Tip : Looking for a bit more excitement? Book a ride on the Angel Fire Resort Ziplines which range from 120 to 1,600 feet in length.
(images from top to bottom courtesy of: Beyond Taos, Inside Santa Fe, Motorhome Magazine, Angle Fire Resort)