Taos, New Mexico, would be worth a visit for its setting alone. It’s surrounded by high-country plains interrupted by towering peaks. The Rio Grande River cuts a jagged gash through the desert-like terrain. And its local, earthen adobe architecture gives it a unique sense of place that’s superbly — quintessentially — Southwest.
Those soaring mountains are home to the world-class skiing spots that have made the town famous as a snowy getaway. Equally famous, if not more, however, is its thriving art scene and rich history, including the World Heritage Site that is the historic Taos Pueblo village (pictured).
Population 6,000, elevation 6,969, Taos deserves at least a weekend visit, but if you’re already planning to visit Santa Fe (1.5 hours to the south by car) or Albuquerque (2.5 hours to the south), you owe it to yourself to see the town — at least as a daytrip. Plus the desert drive up from either city — the former is another art mecca and the latter is the hot air ballooning capital of the world — is a bucket-list experience on its own.
But back to Taos: If you prefer modern structures sheathed in glass, you won’t find them here.
Instead the scene is soft, and the ochre color of the Pueblo-style architecture blends naturally with that of the surrounding desert.
Galleries line many streets of the tiny town and the culture of art permeates public spaces as well. Reminders of its past as a Spanish colonial outpost and frontier settlement are everywhere, and the historic remnants of pueblos offer evidence of the rich and lasting influence of Native American culture, too.
But let’s pick up the story in 1540, when a Spanish expedition arrived in the area to find magnificent pueblo structures in which the Tiwa (pronounced TEE-wah) Indians lived.
The Spaniards officially established Taos in 1615 with a walled square, enclosed by adobe buildings. Today the Plaza, like the rest of Taos, reveals a blending of Native American, Spanish and Anglo-American influences that have together created a rich cultural tapestry, along with colorful threads added by fur traders, mountain men and countless artists.
The Plaza continues to serve as the core of town and is the logical place to begin an exploration.
Four rooms in the Ernest L. Blumenschein Home and Museum formed part of the defensive walls that surrounded the original settlement. Later they were incorporated into a home where the artist and his painter wife lived and worked during the first decades of the 20th century.
In addition to paintings by its former occupants, the collection includes works by members of the Taos Society of Artists. In the early 20th century, they earned the town worldwide recognition as a major art colony.
Paintings by society members also hang in the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, named for the Russian emigre who came to town in 1927 and became a leading portrait artist.
Other museums, some located in homes of former residents, also relate chapters of the intriguing history of Taos. The Harwood Museum displays works by outstanding 18th- to 21st- century painters. The story of the Millicent Rogers Museum involves the high-society scion of a wealthy industrialist who came to Taos to recover from a failed romantic affair with Hollywood actor Clark Gable. Her collection includes textiles, pottery and other arts and crafts endemic to the area.
Taos is also home to one of the most photographed and iconic churches in the country — San Francisco de Asis — built in the early 1800s. Famed artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams and others captured its adobe architecture and made the “Ranchos Church” nationally famous.
But it’s not just a historic site; it’s also a working parish. Every June, parishioners and volunteers replaster its exterior adobe by mixing clay, sand, straw and water into a thick mud that’s applied layer upon layer.
Taos, along with its claim to fame as a center for a fascinating fusion of artistic genres, is also a shopping mecca.
You’ll find an overwhelming selection of well-made cowboy and cowgirl paraphernalia, covetable Native American items and a long list of other goods.
If that’s not enough to give you shopper’s overload, some museums offer unusual and often unique merchandise in their gift shops and stores.
For example, a museum-quality collection of Native American art and handicrafts echoes that which is exhibited in the Millicent Rogers house. In keeping with the nationality of Nicolai Fechin, Russian art and crafts share shelf space with local offerings in his former home.
A very different, but equally important, experience greets visitors to the Taos Pueblo.
This historical monument, just a few miles north of town, is one of 19 pueblos (Spanish for towns or villages) in northern New Mexico. The complex of multi-storied earthen structures is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the country, and life there astonishingly goes on much as it has for some 2,000 years.
While many of the pueblo’s residents live in modern dwellings scattered about the expanse, about 150 continue to cling to the old ways in the original apartments. They make do without electricity or running water, and bake bread in outdoor beehive-shaped ovens called hornos (pictured above).
Some rooms of ground-floor apartments function as shops for tourists, offering handmade jewelry and paintings by Native American artists.
If you love Old West history, make time for a stop at the Kit Carson Home and Museum, right in the middle of Taos. This multitasking frontiersman, trapper, scout, Indian agent and Army officer became a legend due to stories about him in news articles and dime novels. The low-slung adobe house where he lived for almost a quarter-century is a repository of artifacts that illustrate the various phases and accomplishments of his career.
Iconic Carson and his house typify the captivating tales, historical tidbits and cultural melange that to this day draw visitors to Taos.
For more information, call 800-732-8267 or go to taos.org.
Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous publications nationwide.