The Sangre de Cristo mountains are visible from the courtyard outside of San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo. Photo by Kyle Wagner, The Denver Post
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A hand-carved peace pipe by Dean Little Lake Johnson, who owns Smoke Signals, a shop on Taos Plaza in Taos, N.M. Photo by Kyle Wagner, The Denver Post
IF YOU GO
Getting there: There is a nonstop shuttle service from Santa Fe ($10 round-trip) from the New Mexico Rail Runner Express stations Thursday-Sunday (www.taosexpress.com). The Rail Runner route goes from Santa Fe to Belen, N.M., with Albuquerque and the Albuquerque International Sunport among its stops www.nmrailrunner.com.
Getting around: Taos is best navigated with a vehicle, especially if you plan to check out the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos Pueblo, Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and attractions outside of town. The Chile Line bus hits most major spots around town (50 cents a ride, or $5 for a seven-day pass), and there's a ski shuttle that goes to Taos Ski Valley mornings and afternoons daily in-season (50 cents each way) from designated lodgings and bus stops www.taosgov.com.
Stay: Adobe & Pines Inn Bed & Breakfast (4107 New Mexico Road 68, 800-723-8267, www.adobepines.com). The owners used to be restaurateurs and it shows - a stay here would be worth it for the gourmet breakfasts alone. The 3-acre property has a stream, a fruit orchard and a labyrinth, as well as an 1830s hacienda and a charmingly landscaped courtyard. Standard rooms in the main lodge start at $98; suites with kitchenettes start at $195.
El Monte Sagrado (317 Kit Carson Road, 800-828-8267, www.elmontesagrado.com). A three-block walk to the Plaza, this Kessler lodging is unique and comfortable. The elegant De la Tierra serves seafood dishes. Standard king rooms start at $229 a night, suites at $289 and casitas at $589.
Sagebrush Inn (1508 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, 800-428-3626, www.sagebrushinn.com). An older, quiet property perfect for families that benefits from reasonable prices, a free, tasty hot breakfast and clean, spacious rooms. Standard king rooms start at $89, fireplace rooms at $109, small suites at $149, executive suite at $169.
Dine: Dragonfly Cafe (402 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 575-737-5859, www.dragonflytaos.com). Laid-back and friendly, the Dragonfly is a casual bistro and bakery that also serves excellent coffee drinks. Inexpensive wines, a kids menu and a cute patio make this an inviting spot.
Michael's Kitchen Cafe and Bakery (304 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 575-758-4178, www.michaelskitchen.com). This cheery, diner-style eatery serves three meals on weekends and breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday. The Mexican side of the menu is the better half; check out the green-chile-smothered chicken-fried steak.
Graham's Grille 106 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 575-751-1350, www.grahamstaos.com. The food is wonderful at this popular spot. If you can stand to spend hours on a meal and deal with service chaos, the payoff is interesting Southwestern takes on comfort foods - chile-studded mac and cheese and an exceptional burger.
Trading Post Cafe 4179 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, 575-758-5089, www.tradingpostcafe.com This locals' joint serves a menu that at first glance doesn't sound like much: chicken noodle soup, seafood pasta, portobello mushroom ravioli. It's the execution that makes all the difference.
Shop: Taos Plaza is mostly souvenirs and T-shirts, with a few notable exceptions. It's fun to wander in and out of a couple of them, get the gist, and then head to Bent Street to check out the John Dunn House Shops. Then drive south to Ranchos de Taos to wander the quirky galleries of the St. Francis Plaza surrounding the lovely San Francisco de Asis Church.
At Home in Taos (117 S. Plaza, 575-751-1486). Tucked back off the Plaza slightly, this groovy store offers eclectic home decor items and unique gifts.
Smoke Signals 121 N. Plaza, 575-737-9227, www.nativepeacepipes.com. Dean Little Lake Johnson handcrafts peace pipes and showcases artisan works by other American Indians.
Two Graces Antiques & Gallery San Francisco Plaza, Ranchos de Taos, 575-758-4639. A delightful jumble of old postcards, license plates, jewelry, books, shrines, Southwestern pottery, Indian art and tons of other cool finds.
Visit: Blumenschein Home & Museum (222 Ledoux St., 575-758-0505, www.taoshistoricmuseums.org). This amazing house gives insight into the history of the Taos art scene, because Ernest L. Blumenschein was one of the six founding members of the Taos Society of Artists. Part of this structure dates to 1797, and the furnishings and art collection contained within are unparalleled. Admission: $8.
Kit Carson Home & Museum, 113 Kit Carson Road, 575-758-4945, www.kitcarsonhome.com. The house Carson purchased in 1843 for his wife, Josefa Jaramillo, features several rooms with their original furnishings and lots of mountain-man exhibits. Admission: $8.
Taos Pueblo, head right off Paseo del Pueblo Norte, watch for the signs past the post office, www.taospueblo.com. Open daily 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. except on days of religious ceremonies, the pueblo is home to about 150 tribal members, who live without running water or electricity, instead relying on the Red Willow River that runs through the property. Admission: $10 adults, $5 students, under 10 free. Camera fee $5 (still or video). www.taossacredplaces.com; www.taosvacationguide.com
Shards of soapstone have fallen away over several days of careful chiseling, whittling and sanding. A bear is starting to take shape.
Dean Little Lake Johnson begins matching the bear with the right piece of cedar-scented juniper.
Johnson holds up a slender block of wood that he has sawed into a rough outline that he will handcraft into a peace pipe. Later, a couple of feathers, maybe fringed leather or one or two turquoise beads will be added, but it's hard to know right now.
In Smoke Signals, Johnson's tiny shop on one side of Taos Plaza, his calm, patient focus is on this stem.
"This is the thing that people don't always understand about making what you sell, about being a craftsman," Johnson says. "You don't always know how it's going to turn out, and what to do next. When you have shops that sell things that are mass-produced in China, well, then you are getting something that's just like something else. And that's fine if that's what you want."
Johnson's shop is the only one on Taos Plaza that is owned and operated by an American Indian. He's a member of Taos Pueblo and has been, as he puts it, "honored" for 20 years to make the pipes, which can be used for the ceremonial rituals for which they were intended, or displayed as the artistic pieces they are, or actually used for smoking.
Artisan crafts have long been the draw for many visitors to this undulated mesa in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
The Taos Society of Artists was formed in 1915, and although it disbanded a mere 12 years later, in the time since, a long line of painters, photographers and writers has discovered that the area's haunting views and dramatic light are ideal for the artistic temperament - not to mention that the town's generally laid-back and welcoming nature makes it an easy place to settle into.
It also makes it an easy place to visit, except during peak times - late December, February to March during ski season and festival times over the summer. Then, the increased traffic past the plaza on U.S. 64 is so intense that the town's new tourism theme, "Return to Sacred Places," could include the words: "But Only After a Half-Day's Wait at the Intersection of Kit Carson Road and Paseo del Pueblo."
This offer for folks to return to sacred places is lofty indeed. It doesn't refer just to the American Indian presence. After all, the town is named for Taos Pueblo; the word "taos" means "at the place of red willows."
There's also the Catholic presence from the early 1600s Spanish-Indian conflicts, which left behind a slew of beautiful churches and other architecture.
"Sacred places" also could be personal, calling to mind the area's many spas, hot springs and relaxing lodgings. Added to the ever-growing artist's colony and thriving ski area, the theme gives visitors plenty to do.
"Most of the people who come to Taos go to three places: the Gorge Bridge, Taos Pueblo and the plaza," Johnson says. "The Pueblo is the thing they have heard the most about, but they spend the most time at the plaza. Shopping is a big draw."
At Taos Pueblo later that day, the Dimmitts - parents Jeannie and Jim, and Jasper, 9, and Jasmine, 6 - are peeking into San Geronimo Chapel.
You can't photograph inside the chapel, which like the rest of the pueblo is made of adobe, but parts of it are painted white. Inside are elaborately hand-carved vigas (large timbers) and santos (devotional statues), whose wise-looking visages seem to be guarding the quiet space. This is the 1850 replacement for the original that was destroyed, the ruins of which are nearby.
"It's so pretty and peaceful," says Jeannie Dimmitts from Denver, walking slowly around the inside, pausing at the santos.