Jeepers, Peepers. It’s Leaf-Peeping Time in Northern New Mexico

By Nina Anthony | October 1, 2013

Golden aspen leaves in northern New Mexico

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, ideal conditions for triggering a colorful fall are a warm dry summer followed by a rainy autumn.  New Mexico has had both, with the rainiest September on record for decades ending a three-year drought. With any luck, this combination of weather will intensify the brilliancy of autumn color in northern New Mexico, which is expected to be at its peak the first 10 days or so of October – depending on elevation (colors peak earlier at higher elevations) and weather, of course.

Located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range of the Southern Rockies, Taos makes an ideal starting point for autumn leaf viewing. Auto tours, hiking treks, chairlift rides and train rides – all within easy driving distance – provide lots of colorful options.

While you’ll find some red, purple and bronze pigments from maples, oaks and beech trees, the predominant autumn color in northern New Mexico is yellow from the plentiful aspen trees that coat the Sangre de Cristo mountainsides in glorious gold. Here are some favorite spots for finding gold in them there hills.

Driving Tour: The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway

The Enchanted Circle is an 85-mile circular route that loops through Taos, Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest, Angel Fire and back to Taos.  It traverses through mountains, canyons, sprawling ranches, a gold-mining ghost town (Elizabethtown was the first incorporated town in New Mexico) and the breath-taking Moreno Valley.  You may start your trip in Taos at the Taos Visitor Center and head east on Highway 64 toward Angel Fire, or, head north out of town on Highway 68 and then on to Highway 522. At the town of Questa, take a right (east) on Highway 38 that will take you to the high-altitude recreation town of Red River and over Bobcat Pass to Eagle Nest, Angle Fire, and back around to Highway 64 that will bring you back to Taos.

The whole trip will take you about 2 hours if you drive straight through, but you’ll most certainly extend the trip by making some stops along the way. If you visit northern New Mexico in mid-October, for example, you’ll be just in time for Oktoberfest in Red River, scheduled for the weekend of October 11-13. There you can enjoy authentic German food and music, shop for arts and crafts, and taste craft beers & New Mexico wines while enjoying the changing colors.

Driving Tour: Highway 64 to Tierra Amarillo

One of the prettiest drives any time of year is between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarilla, but this 80-mile drive is particularly beautiful in the autumn.  From Taos, head north on Highway 68 to the junction of Highway 150 that heads east to Taos Ski Valley and Highway 64 that heads west toward the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  Take a left on Highway 64 and continue past the 285 crossroad at Tres Piedras (translation: Three Rocks). From there, the road begins to climb into high altitude country that meanders through the backbone of north central NM. Be sure to stop at one of the scenic outlooks on the right for a spectacular view of the Brazos Cliffs and surrounding countryside that will be dotted with golden aspens if you time your trip right.

Another must-see stop along this route is Tierra Wools, a 100-year weaving studio and showroom in the historic town of Los Ojos, just 7 miles north of Tierra Amarilla on Highway 64/84. Here, weavers carry on the age-old tradition of spinning hand-dyed yarns from the wool of Churro sheep. The showroom/gallery offers everything from rugs, blankets and pillows to felted wool hats, shawls, scarves and large selection of yarns and weaving supplies.  They’re open through Monday – Saturday  9:00 am – 6:00 pm and Sunday  11:00 am – 4:00 pm through November 30.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

From Tierra Amarilla and Los Ojos, it’s an easy scenic drive up to Chama, New Mexico, where you can catch a ride on the vintage steam locomotive-driven excursion on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. You’ll travel via a narrow gauge railroad line built in the late 1800’s through meadows and mountains that will take you beyond 10,000 feet at Cumbres Pass — the highest pass reached by rail in the country — and head back down through the deep Toltec Gorge.  Along the way, you’ll pass through aspen, cottonwood and scrub oak groves that should be bursting with color. The open-air car at the rear of train affords 360-degree views of the stunning countryside and is ideal for capturing photographs. Be sure to bring a jacket – it gets chilly in the high elevations. The train runs daily from Chama through October 20th. (Weather permitting.) Try to plan your trip so you can stay overnight in Chama, a scenic outdoorsy community nestled among towering cottonwood trees where the Archuletta and Willow creeks meet.

Scenic Autumn Chairlift Ride at Angel Fire Resort

Ride the Chile Express chairlift more than two miles up for gorgeous panoramic views from 10,650 feet. Once you’re at the top, soak up the fall colors on foot and hike your way back down. Hours from October 5th – October 27th: Saturday – Sunday 10am-5pm.  Price: $30.00 for an all-day pass

Columbine Trail

There are hundreds of great hiking trails in the Taos and Enchanted Circle area that offer spectacular fall scenery. Columbine Trail is one that is popular with locals and visitors alike.  It’s located on the south side of Highway 38 – about 7 miles west of Red River and 5 miles east of Questa.  Drive through Columbine Campground until you reach a small parking area at the back where you can pick up the trailhead. It can be an easy to moderate hike depending on how far you choose to go. A good place to stop if you’re looking for an easier hike is just before the Twining Trail junction. There you’ll find an aspen grove that’s an excellent spot to stop for a picnic. Beyond this area, the trail becomes steeper and more advanced — you can head all the way to Lobo Peak, Gold Hill and Taos Ski Valley, if you choose.

Goose Creek Trail (Trail #65 to Goose Lake)

Aspen, maple and oak leaves on the forest floor on Goose Creek TrailLike Columbine Trail, Goose Creek Trail can be an easy hike if you don’t go all the way to Goose Lake. If you choose to go all the way to the lake, be prepared for a fairly difficult 6-mile hike (one way) that climbs to an elevation of 12,700 feet. To access the trailhead, drive to the the east end of Red River and then veer to the right on State Road 578  towards the Upper Valley and travel about 2 ½  miles. Look for the trailhead sign on your right and a pull-off area on the road where you may park. Cross the bridge and begin your hike to the left along the river. You’ll soon enter into some great leaf-peeping territory with lots of aspen trees. This is a beautiful hike no matter how far you go.

Williams Lake Trail #62 and Wheeler Peak Trail #67

The trail to Williams Lake is probably one of the most popular trails for Taos locals of all ages due to its relative ease and stunning scenery. You can access the trailhead past the chairlifts near the Phoenix Grill in Taos Ski Valley.  A little under 2 miles in length, the trail reaches its summit at 11,142 feet – about ¼ mile from the lake. It will take you anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to reach the lake depending on your pace.

If you prefer a more challenging hike, look for a sign for the Wheeler Peak trail on the east side of the trail before you reach Williams Lake.  Wheeler Peak is the highest point in New Mexico at an elevation of 13,161 feet. While the trail to the summit is just under 1.5 miles and is considered easy by mountaineering standards, there are some steep switchbacks along the way that can get slippery (and icy depending on the weather). The final ascent to the top requires some muscle strength and there’s a boulder field near the top that requires cautious footing. Trekking poles are very helpful – especially on the way down. Call the Ski Valley ahead for weather conditions. There has already been snowfall in the higher elevations. Dress warm in plenty of layers for this trek. You’ll definitely need a hat and gloves at this time of year.

Bear Tips: It’s important to bear aware when you’re hiking in the New Mexico wilderness – especially in remote areas. Fall is the time of year that bears are trying to fatten up for the winter, so, it is possible to encounter them on the trail. Black bears are the only type of bear found in the Taos area and they’re generally non-aggressive. If you see a bear in the distance, make some noise and let the bear know you are there, so you don’t surprise them. They’re anxious to avoid humans and will usually move away and continue their search for food elsewhere if encountered.

Do you have any favorite spots for leaf-peeping in northern New Mexico? Please share this post on your social media channels and add your your top spots for enjoying autumn color in Taos and beyond.

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