The Wild West
Perhaps nothing is more synonymous with America itself than the “Wild West” – a region steeped in romantic notions of cowboys and Indians, frontier towns and wide-open spaces. And arguably the best place to experience that in its truest form is New Mexico.
New Mexico, specifically its northern half, is home to a vast landscape ranging from scorching deserts to the soaring summits of the southern Rockies, interspersed with old Spanish towns, artist colonies and centuries-old Indian settlements.
First settled by the ancient Pueblo people, then the Spanish, and finally Anglo-Americans a century ago, New Mexico’s unique culture is a blend of all three and completely different from anywhere else in the US.
This is reflected in its architecture, distinct cuisine (a question at any meal is simply “red or green [chili]”), and even its unique dialect of Spanish.
New Mexico is home to 23 different Native American tribes, including the Apache, Navajo, and its most iconic, the Pueblos – a collective of 19 tribes spread across the northern half of the state. “Pueblo” also refers to a settlement comprising distinctive flat-roofed adobe houses that date back over 1,000 years, with hundreds of tribe members still living in these unique mud-brick villages today.
One of the most striking aspects in multi-story adobes is the fact that ladders – rather than stairs – are used to access upper (or lower) floors. For many Pueblo Indians, the ladder is a practical tool and a metaphor, used to descend, ascend, and to cross multiple worlds. They’re also easily moved as a defense against invaders.
One of the best ways to experience the ancient, living culture of the pueblos is to visit on feast days. Happening through-out the year at each pueblo, they honour various saints and native spirits (buffalo, deer, turtle, etc.), combining the tribes’ traditional religions and Catholicism with traditional dances and music.
If visiting in August, you can catch the world famous Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, the longest-running event in New Mexico, in the town of Gallup. The festival features Native American dance, and crafts, with tribe members dressed to the nines. There is also a Ceremonial Rodeo performed by tribe members.
There are several pueblos that you can visit, including Acoma and Taos.
Acoma Pueblo is built atop a sheer-walled, 110m-high mesa in a valley studded with towering monoliths, hence its nickname ‘Sky City’. Established in 1150, it is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America.
Today, about 300 adobe buildings cover the top of the mesa. Acoma’s pottery dates back 1,000 years, recognised for fluted rims, thin walls and geometric design.
The UNESCO-listed Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century; it rises 5 stories high, and has numerous underground kivas (ceremonial chambers). Members of the Tiwa tribe live here today in precisely the same way as their ancestors, banning modern contrivances like electrical lines, water pipes, and even doors.
The pueblo’s association runs guided tours daily (US$16/person), taking in homes, kivas and the ruins of its first 16th century chapel.
WILD WEST EXPERIENCES
Few experiences are more quintessentially Old West than dude ranches and cattle drives, and one of the most famous happens at Burnt Well Ranch in Roswell.
Dude ranches are essentially B&Bs on working (free-range) cattle farms, where guests can get involved with farm work, or partake in horse riding, learning to rope cattle, horseback trips, and dining under the stars. Burnt Well also offers seasonal 1-week cattle drives – like the Chisum Challenge Cattle Drive (2-8 Oct 2017) – with most averaging 15-25km per day.
Another quintessential Old West experience is to watch a rodeo performance, with events – like bareback bronc riding and calf roping – happening in towns like Gallup, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, between June and September.
By some estimates, New Mexico is home to more than 400 ghost towns – most are nothing more than a few foundations and some occasional mining equipment. Most were once mining towns dealing in gold, silver, turquoise, copper, and coal; there were also farms that flourished for a time.
Over time the mines started closing, and hundreds of these towns didn’t just die – they vanished. However, some of these towns still cling on to a few residents in spite of the passing of time.
Between Raton and Albuquerque are a number of towns you can drop by, including Cerrillos and Madrid. Cerrillos was once known for its turquoise, but these days, this town still retains its original architecture that house shops, a post office, and riding stables, and it’s a stone’s throw to Cerrillos Hills State Park with 8km of hiking trails.
Madrid was once famous for its Christmas Lights from the 20s to 30s, but it’s now a creative community with more than 40 shops and galleries.
New Mexico is criss-crossed with historic routes, like the classic Santa Fe Trail and the iconic Route 66, which are some of the best ways to experience the state.
The fabled 3,900km-long Route 66 connects Chicago with Los Angeles, including a 600km section through northern New Mexico (parts of New Mexico’s I-40 highway sits atop older stretches of Route 66). Along the way, it passes desert towns, national parks and Native American sites.
Tucumcari is the Route’s largest town, known for its famous signboard, “Tucumcari Tonight!” The town’s historic main street is home to numerous vintage-era buildings, including the Blue Swallow, the Odeon, and a 1920s train station.
Situated on Navajo land 3 hours northwest of Albuquerque, Chaco Canyon is home tothe most extensive ancient Anasazi ruins in the US. Dating back over 1,000 years, Chaco was a nexus of Pueblo (Native American village) culture. Hundreds of structures stretch over 15km along the canyon, including Pueblo Bonito (with 650 rooms) and Pueblo Alta on the mesa overlooking the canyon. The Pueblo Alto Trail (7km, return) is the best way to take in Chaco’s vastness.
Named for its thousands of inscriptions dating from ancient inhabitants up through to the colonial period, Inscription Rock in El Morro was a landmark for early explorers. The Headland Trail (4km) leads up to the summit of the mesa and the 900-year old ruins of its crowning Atsinna Pueblo.
Nearby is the town of Gallup, home of Red Rock Park which hosts annual Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial.
THE SANTA FE TRAIL
The Santa Fe Trail was pioneered in the 1820s, connecting Santa Fe (in what was then Mexico) to the US. A part of this 1,900km trading route cuts across northern New Mexico from Raton to Santa Fe.
The sleepy town of Raton was featured in Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road, and was one of the more notable stops along the Trail, with wagon trains descending via the Raton Pass (2,390m) on their way into Santa Fe.
The tiny Cimarron was also a major stop. Like other regional towns, the arrival of the railroad and dwindling gold mines in the early 1900s started its slow decline.
Today, its historic district is home to the St. James Hotel, one of the West’s most historic hotels with guest rooms (some supposedly haunted) named for their famous former occupants including Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.
Santa Fe is New Mexico’s state capital, and also the cultural capital of the region, thanks to its bustling art scene, historic architecture and constant stream of festivals and events.
Founded in 1607, Santa Fe is not only the US’s oldest state capital but its highest, at 2,130m. Like most Spanish-era towns, it has a placid Plaza that remains its core, and walking through its adobe neighbourhoods you can feel its timeless, earthy soul. Its artistic inclinations are a principal attraction – there are more quality museums and galleries than you can visit in a day – although it was once a site of bullfights, gunfights, and public markets since the 17th century.
Situated at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo range, it makes a fantastic base for hiking, mountain biking, backpacking and skiing. After that, you can indulge in its fiery cuisine, or stroll along its remarkable architectural heritage – a large number of the city’s structures are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the 17th century Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the US that once served as the main capitol building and now houses an excellent historical museum.
The city is dotted with many historic churches, including the simple, adobe-styled San Miguel Mission, thought to be the oldest surviving mission church in the United States, as well as the Loretto Chapel, built in 1878 with an intriguing feature: The Miraculous Staircase, a winding staircase that looks like it’s floating in the air, said to be built by St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.
Centred on the town’s 300-year old plaza, the historic city of Taos combines some of the state’s best outdoor and arts attractions.
Taos Art Colony
Over a century ago, Taos became a magnet for artisans and painters, thanks to its stunning landscape and iconic pueblo, becoming especially known for its carpentry, oil painting and tinwork, developing into distinct Hispanic, indigenous Taos, and Modernist schools (seen in the works of luminaries like Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe).
Taos Ski Valley
Just 30km north of town is the famous Taos Ski Valley, situated at the foot of New Mexico’s tallest mountain – Wheeler Peak (4,013m) – and is home to the highest town in the US (2,800m). Ski season runs from December to mid-April, with a total of 110 runs (25% intermediate, 50% advanced) accessible via some of the highest lift access in North America at over 3,800m on Kachina Peak.
Green Season in Taos
Taos has numerous hiking trails. One of the best, moderately-challenging routes is the 13km Williams Lake Trail from the ski village to the summit of Wheeler Peak. An easy forested hike up to the lake is followed by a steeper summit climb, with bighorn sheep and elk regularly spotted en route. Local operators also offer horseback tours, as well as hiking trips accompanied by pack llamas.
Taos is also home to New Mexico’s best MTB trails, with the most infamous being The Northside (of Taos Valley) with its big drops and very steep descents. There are also excellent high-altitude rides like the South Boundary (35km), widely regarded as one the best single-tracks in the state with its long downhill and rolling meadows. The granddaddy of them all is Cerro Vista, which ranges from 65-100km long and climbs to over 3,600m.
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