Autumn is a special time in New Mexico. The brisk mornings provide optimal conditions for local balloonists, who fill the skies with their bright, colorful, wafting orbs. The smell of roasting chile permeates the air. In the backdrop, the mountains of New Mexico are dappled with yellow, gold and red as the aspens, cottonwoods and oak wane for the season. Taking the time to travel to one of the state’s scenic byways or mountain trails to experience, and appreciate, the fall color will reduce your stress level and recharge your batteries.
September and October are the best viewing times for fall color. The lower elevations usually peak between late October and early November. When peak color occurs varies seasonally, based on temperature and rainfall. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a fall foliage hotline: (800) 354-4595, press 3 for status. If your favorite New Mexico fall foliage journey isn’t listed, please add it in the comments.
Sandia Crest Byway
The Sandia Crest Byway is an offshoot of the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. The road is a mile above the surrounding countryside and two miles above sea level. The Sandia Mountains provide ample trails and scenic overlooks to enjoy gorgeous fall colors, with impressive views of the Albuquerque city lights and inspiring sunsets from the peak. As an added perk, the mountain blocks the lights of Albuquerque at night, making the eastern slope ideal for star gazing.
If you don’t have the patience to drive around and up the mountain, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the top by Tram. The Sandia Peak tram, accessed off of Tramway Boulevard, offers a 20 minute, 2.7 mile vertical ascent of the mountain, passing over deep canyons. This mode of transportation provides a unique vantage point, with breathtaking views of the city and mountain walls. From the top, the 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape is impressive. TIP: Regardless of the temperature at the base of the mountain, take a jacket. It is invariably cool and windier at the top. Layering is key.
For additional fall color, the Rio Grande Nature Center and Bosque Trail are home to one of the world’s largest remaining tracts of cottonwoods. The cottonwoods typically change color in October, lighting up the Rio Grande river valley with a vibrant stripe of yellow. The Rio Grande Nature Center includes several wetland ponds that provide a haven for 270 species of birds. There are 5 miles of trails, a visitor center, and a refuge for injured wildlife.
Jemez Mountain Trail
Highway 4 through the Jemez mountains provides ample fall foliage viewing, with aspens abundant at higher elevations and copses of golden cottonwoods lining the riverbanks of the canyons. There is an abundance of scenery and worthwhile stopping points, from the red cliffs of Walatowa, the bubbling hot springs in and around Jemez Springs to the alpine peaks near Valles Grande. With a million-year-old caldera and 13th century Native ruins at Bandelier National Monument, this route has a lot to offer visitors.
The 66-mile byway begins at the junction of U.S. 550 and State Road 4, northwest of Bernalillo, in the pastoral village of San Ysidro, named for the patron saint of farmers. The road continues to the junction of 501. 501 leads to Los Alamos. Unless you are interested in the atomic museum or fascinated by physics, continuing on highway 4 is a better option in terms of natural scenery. It passes Bandelier National Monument and White Rock Overlook. Anticipate at least 3 hours of driving when planning your trip. You will need a lot more time if you plan to savor the sights along the way.
Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway
When the aspen leaves burst into fiery gold and crimson in late September, the hillsides between Hyde Memorial State Park and the Santa Fe ski area are resplendent. The shimmering gold of the aspen leaves add a golden hue to the air. When the small leaves quake against the stark, white trunks, they look like shimmering coins. They filter sunlight on to the forest floor in an ethereal, magical way. The air is golden.
There are pullovers and rest areas along the route, though the density of aspens increases significantly at higher elevations. The trees prefer altitudes of 8000 feet or higher. As you approach the ski area, there are numerous trails and pullovers, with the trails at Big Tesuque and Aspen Vista receiving the heaviest autumn traffic. Justly so. The views are fantastic. The Aspen Vista trailhead is about 10,000 feet above sea level. The trail is shrouded by thick copses of aspens. They form a golden canopy for the several miles of the 7 mile trail.
Ski Santa Fe has ski lifts available to take visitors to the top of the mountain. One way or round trip tickets are available based on your enthusiasm for hiking. Information is available online at Ski Santa Fe, (505-983-9155).
A lesser traversed route nearby, with equally vibrant autumnal eye candy, is state road 63 to Cowles via Pecos, New Mexico. This approach takes you into the Sangre de Cristo mountains from the other side into the Pecos Wilderness area. This area also offers numerous scenic hiking options, with the trek to Lake Katherine from Cowles providing impressive aspen viewing.
High Road to Taos
For fantastic fall color, northern New Mexico is a contender for optimal beauty. The High Road to Taos is an exceptional 56 mile autumn experience, with a memorable assortment of Indian pueblos and villages established by the early Spanish explorers. These settlements were established when the land grants were bestowed to the conquistadors, and crew, by the King of Spain. Several of these communities have Spanish churches, far older than the better known missions of California. The Santuario of Chimayo is a contemporary pilgrimage site, receiving over 300,000 visitors a year.
The landscape varies considerably as you head north, with high desert rock formations near Chimayo giving way to open, scenic mountainous vistas as you approach Truchas. Vast meadows surrounded by mountains swathed in aspen yellows and golds serve as the backdrop from Truchas to Taos. For the art afficianado, there is a rich artistic tradition in the region, with outstanding galleries and artisan studios in every village on the route.
Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway
The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is an 83 mile loop through the mountains and valleys of Taos, Angel Fire, Eagle Nest and Red River down to the mesa expanses of Questa and Arroyo Hondo. With national forest land providing a sampler of New Mexico landscapes, this is a route worth exploring. The circle links the oldest continuously occupied residence in New Mexico, Taos Pueblo, the United States’ first memorial to Vietnam War veterans, with stunning scenery, hiking and biking trails, fly fishing and camping. The beautiful alpine scenery and clear vistas provide photographers with fantastic light and endless subject matter. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is a worthwhile side trip. The bridge is about 12 miles west of Taos. It stretches 1280 feet long across the canyon carved by the Rio Grande River 585 feet below.
For those that prefer to experience nature up close, the 25 mile South Boundary trail from Angel Fire to Taos is one of the best mountain biking experiences in the country. Also, the Taos Ski Valley offers hiking and biking trails of two to eight miles, with the potential to see bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer. There are also cougars and bears in the area. Be aware of snacks you are packing and how that might be perceived as bait.
U.S. 64 Taos to Chama
US 64, across the Carson National Forest between Taos and Chama, is beautiful any time of year. However, if your schedule is flexible, traveling this route during peak fall color (early to mid October) is optimal. The air is cool. The colors and contrasts are incredible. The human traffic is minimal. Take the whole day. Stop often. For photographers and other artists, this area is elixir for the soul.
Heading west from Taos, this route crosses the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the second highest bridge on the U.S. Highway System, which passes 565 feet over the Rio Grande. It was referred to as the “bridge to nowhere” during construction, because they built it prior to securing funding to continue to road on the other side. Urban planning New Mexico style.
The autumn colors become more abundant as the road climbs to Tres Piedras. The Brazos Cliff overlook provides inspiring views of the surrounding landscape, which is particularly impressive when the aspens turn the mountain sides gold.
For an overload of fall foliage, and a moment of time travel, take the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad from Chama to Antonito, Colorado. The Cumbres & Toltec is a narrow gauge train operating daily between June and October. Passengers are treated to a 1880s style railroad journey through epic mountain scenery. The train passes from New Mexico into Colorado via Cumbres Pass (at 10,022 feet above sea level), venturing through the 1,100 foot deep Toltec Gorge on its way to Antonito. Lunch is available at the midway point in Osier, Colorado. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a fantastic way to catch the fall foliage, but book early because these tours are very popular.
Fall is the also the perfect time for canoe trips. The lower waters of the Chama, cooler temperatures and seasonal color make autumn one of the best times to visit the Chama River Canyon Wilderness. Local guides can outfit canoe and custom hiking trips. Los Rios River Runners offers 1/2 day, full day or overnight floats on the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama. As you travel downstream plan to stop and layover for a day, allowing time to hike in spectacular areas that most people miss due to time limitations.
This route also involves a portion of the Enchanted Circle, from Taos through Eagle Nest; however, the path diverges at Eagle Nest. Beyond Eagle Nest, this route winds through narrow, forested Cimmaron Canyon, camping, hiking, horse trails and fly fishing along the stream that runs through the canyon. This area is picture perfect, made more spectacular when the aspens and cottonwoods lining the stream turn gold.
Ratón Pass, on the New Mexico/Colorado border, is 7800 feet above sea level, crossing a line of volcanic mesas that extend east from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains along the state line. With the numerous high volcanic peaks of the San Juan to the west, this is the easiest route from the Arkansas river valley in southern Colorado to the Canadian river valley to the South, which stretches to Santa Fe.
Near Raton, Sugarite Canyon State Park is vibrant when the fall colors peak. You can appreciate the scenery, get some exercise and soak up some history. The Coal Camp Interpretive Trail winds through the ruins of the Sugarite coal camp, which is a haunting experience when the area is adorned in ambers and golds.
Sunspot Scenic Byway
Cloudcroft is a small, charming mountain town with approximately 850 inhabitants. With wonderful shops, restaurants, a logging and railroad history museum, and a fairly healthy event schedule, it is a fun place to visit for the weekend before embarking on adventures in the Sacramento Mountains. The Cloud-Climbing Trestle Trail, also known as the Mexican Canyon Trestle Trail, offers a moderately challenging, albeit beautiful, climb through the Trestle Recreation Area outside of Cloudcroft. The mile-long trail begins at a replica railway depot and follows the former Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad. The first half-mile is paved. The remainder is a dirt pathway.
The Sunspot Scenic Byway starts in Cloudcroft. It is a 16-mile asphalt ribbon winding from Cloudcroft to Sunspot. Aspens surround the road. Sunspot hosted two national observatories until they were shuttered. I am not sure the town will survive, but the influence can be seen by the road names. The byway is officially designated State Road 6563, which is the light wavelength in Angstroms used by scientists to find active areas on the sun. Since aspens prefer high elevation, above 8000 feet, the Ponderosa pines are the main attraction around Cloudcroft. However, the pines provide a deep green backdrop for the aspen gold that dapples the mountain slopes. Most visitors return via the same route to Cloudcroft. However, it is possible to continue south to the small ranching community of Timberon.
Gila National Forest
Fall is a wonderful season for hiking, biking, camping or motoring through the Gila Country. For experienced hikers, the hundreds of miles of high country trails within the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness offer numerous options to lose yourself in nature for a few days or longer. During the final weeks of fall, the highest trails, like the Crest Trail (FT 182) near Mogollon ghost town, are a hiker’s delight. This trail is known as the Crest Trail. It follows the crest of the Mogollon Mountains from Sandy Point to Mogollon Baldy. Most of the trail is in old growth mixed conifer and offers spectacular views of the Gila National Forest. The vast groves of Aspen capping the high peaks of the Mogollons transform the trails into paths of gold.
Regardless of which route you choose, get out and enjoy the autumn color. The beauty and time in nature is nourishment for body and soul.