Following the winding Rio Grande up into the mountains is the highlight of this drive north. The low road to Taos begins past the modern town of Española, passing into a narrowing canyon and finally emerging at the point where the high plains meet the mountains. This dramatic arrival makes it the better route for heading north to Taos; you can then loop back south via the high road.
Embudo and Dixon
The village of Embudo is really just a bend in the river where the Chili Line railroad from Denver used to stop (the old station is across the river). But it offers a random roadside attraction in the Classical Gas Museum (1819 Hwy. 68, 505/852-2995, free), a front yard filled with old service station accoutrements. If the gate is open, the owner is probably home, and you can peek inside to see a beautiful collection of neon signs and restored gas pumps. There’s also a good eating option: Sugar’s (1799 Hwy. 68, 505/852-0604, 11am-6pm Thurs.-Sun., $6), a small roadside trailer that doles out seriously big food, such as barbecue brisket burritos. It’s takeout only, but there are a few plastic picnic tables where you can sit down.
If you’re into wine, keep an eye out for the various wineries just north of here: Vivác (2075 Hwy. 68, 505/579-4441, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.) is on the main highway, and La Chiripada (505/579-4437, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun.) is down Highway 75 a few miles in the pleasant little town of Dixon, known for its dense concentration of artists, organic farmers, and vintners.
The convivial farmers market runs on summer and fall Wednesdays (4:30pm-7pm), and in early November, look for the long-running Dixon Studio Tour. A good year-round reason to make the turn is Zuly’s (234 Hwy. 275, 505/579-4001, 8:30am-3pm Tues.-Thurs., 8:30am-7pm Fri., 9am-7pm Sat., $8), serving strong coffee and classic New Mexican food with a bit of hippie flair; hours cut back slightly in winter.
Beginning just south of the village of Pilar and stretching several miles north, Orilla Verde Recreation Area ($3/car) is public land along either side of the Rio Grande, used primarily as a put-in or haul-out for rafting, but you can camp on the riverbanks as well. Petaca and Taos Junction have the best sites ($7 per night).
Running about 1.2 miles one-way along the west edge of the river, the Vista Verde Trail is an easy walk with great views and a few petroglyphs to spot in a small arroyo about a third of the way out. The trailhead is located on the other side of the river, half a mile up the hill from the Taos Junction Bridge off the dirt road Highway 567 (turn left off the highway in Pilar, then follow signs into Orilla Verde). Stop first on the main highway at the Rio Grande Gorge Visitors Center (Hwy. 68, 575/751-4899, 8:30am-4:30pm daily June-Aug., 10am-2pm daily Sept.-May) for maps and other information.
Across the road, Pilar Yacht Club (Hwy. 68, 575/758-9072, 8am-6pm daily mid-May-Aug., 9am-2pm daily Apr.-mid-May and Sept.-Oct.) is the center of the action, selling tubes for lazy floats, serving food to hungry river rats, and functioning as an office for a couple of outfitters.
This low-road route is more direct than the high road to Taos, and has fewer potential diversions. Driving the 70 miles from downtown Santa Fe to Taos (on U.S. 84/285 and Hwy. 68), with no stops, takes about an hour and a half. There are no gas stations between Española and Taos.