The Northeast is deservedly famous for its autumn palette, but New England doesn’t have a lock on fall color. Bright yellow foliage decorates many parts of the Southwest this time of year, and there’s no better place to experience those hues than on a drive around the Enchanted Circle, an 85-mile loop in Northern New Mexico that begins in Taos.
“It’s the aspens everyone comes to see, those gorgeous golden colors,” said Jolene Mauer, a spokeswoman for New Mexico Tourism.
As in other parts of the country, peak leaf color is fleeting, lasting about two weeks. It’s often in early October, but the exact “timing depends on Mother Nature,” Mauer said.
Visitors coming to Albuquerque for the annual Balloon Fiesta, which began Saturday and runs through Oct. 13, also might consider a side trip to take in the Enchanted Circle. Taos, the logical jumping-off point for the loop, is about 130 miles from Albuquerque and also offers museums, great food and tours of the Taos Pueblo, a centuries-old Native settlement famous for its picturesque adobe dwellings silhouetted against the bright blue New Mexico sky.
You can cover the Enchanted Circle route in just a couple of hours if you drive straight through. Just looking out the car window will provide plenty of beautiful scenery as you wind around mountains, across valleys, past rivers, through small towns and ranchland. But there are also numerous places to stop along the way, as well as a few worthwhile detours, so you can also make a day of it if you want.
From Taos, the route heads west on 64, then north on 522 and east on 38. You’ll drive through the wooded byways of Kit Carson National Forest and take in views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, including the state’s highest point, Wheeler Peak. The aspen gold is offset in many of the vistas by deep greens from spruce and other types of trees.
You’ll pass through the towns of Questa and Red River, with a beautiful stretch through the Moreno Valley, then on to Eagle Nest, with a lake and state park, where you’ll pick up 64 again. In the resort town of Angel Fire, you can pay your respects at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park before heading back to Taos. And if you want to extend your trip a bit, keep going northwest on 64 about 10 miles past Taos to the Rio Grande Gorge, where you can park and walk across a bridge for a view of the river 565 feet below.
Ready to relax after all that driving and sightseeing? The mineral springs at Ojo Caliente are about 30 miles from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and there’s a great café onsite.