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A Taos Pueblo. Photo by Kevin Rebholtz

First-Timer’s Guide: Taos, New Mexico

Head to this Northern New Mexico destination—less than a five-hour drive from Denver!—for a funky vacation in a Southwestern landscape.

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Taos, New Mexico, is a vibrant community about an hour and a half from Santa Fe. At the heart of the town, you’ll find more art galleries and chile dishes than you’d think possible for a population of just over 5,700. And beyond the city limits, you’ll be thrilled to find ample opportunities for adventure.

The Odometer: 289 miles (about 4 hours and 45 minutes) from Denver, one-way

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Chokola
The Matcha Trio from Chokola is a piece of single-origin chocolate with matcha powder on top, white chocolate matcha ice cream, and a matcha caramel truffle. Courtesy of Chokola

Eat & Drink: If you went to Taos just for the food, you could stay for weeks and not get bored. Mexican, New Mexican, and Native American dishes are on menus throughout town. Just don’t judge the restaurants by their humble adobe exteriors. La Cueva Café might be the smallest restaurant you’ll ever set foot in, but you’re sure to enjoy their mix of traditional Mexican and New Mexican fare, as well as a variety of seafood dishes. For lunch or lighter fare, try Mazanita Market, which serves up homemade ice cream, hearty salads, and creative sandwiches. We loved the coconut chia seed pudding with mango.

Get a science lesson along with your afternoon snack at Chokola, where their “Bean to Bar” motto refers to cacao instead of coffee. You’ll find decadent mousses and other desserts here, but the real treat is thick sipping chocolate so rich it’s served in shots instead of mugs. Just behind the counter, you’ll catch a glimpse of the whole cacao-to-chocolate process. For local brews and some Saturday night dancing, head to Taos Mesa Brewing, where the building is as much of a story as the food is. It’s powered by the sun, collects rainwater for brewing, and was built largely from reclaimed materials.

Rio Grande
Rafting on the Rio Grande. Courtesy of New Mexico Tourism

Explore: If you’re looking for a weekend full of outdoor adventures, you’ve come to the right place. Hit the Williams Lake Trail in Taos Ski Valley for a two-mile hike that ends at a gorgeous alpine view at just over 11,140 feet. For a shorter trip with a more relaxing reward, hike down to Manby Hot Springs and take a dip along the Rio Grande. (Take a high-clearance car, if possible. We made it to the trailhead in a Prius C by driving 1 MPH over a rutted and rocky road, biting our nails the whole way, and we recommend you avoid this at all costs.) Or, raft the Rio Grande with one of the many whitewater guides in town. And of course, in the winter, ski or snowboard the Sangre de Cristo range at Taos Ski Valley, where powder-hunters will be rewarded with fresh snow if they’re willing to put in a little bit of a hike.

Learn: Conquistadors first arrived in Taos in 1540, and the area is rife with history and Spanish influence. But Taos is much more than 500 years old. Some of the adobe buildings at Taos Pueblo, home to about 150 Taos Indians, may be as old as 1,000 years. For comparatively modern architecture, take a tour of historic churches in the region to find a few, like San Francisco de Asís Mission, that are more than 200 years old.

Taos
Taos Plaza. Courtesy of New Mexico Tourism

Shop: You’ll find all kinds of art galleries in and around Taos Plaza, along with souvenir shops and boutiques. Step into Earth and Spirit Gallery for a wild pop of color—most of the paintings here get an extra dimension when you view them through 3D glasses. Head to Wanderer for chic women’s apparel, and Taos Mountain Outfitters, the local gear shop, if you’ve forgotten something essential for your adventures.

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Stay: Taos is full of inns and hotels that are walking distance from the Plaza, but we suggest renting a home from Airbnb or Earthship Biotecture. In town, you’ll find your pick of historic and beautiful adobe houses to call your own for your stay. And just across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, you’ll find one-of-a-kind “Earthships” for rent, in which you can get a taste of off-the-grid life. These houses are built from recycled materials and actual trash, yet they’re as stunning as they are fascinating. If a hotel is more your speed, Hotel La Fonda de Taos, located right on the Plaza, or the pet-friendly Palacio de Marquesa, which got an upgrade in the summer of 2014.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Don’t look down from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which is suspended 650 feet above the river. Courtesy of New Mexico Tourism

If you do one thing: Drive to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, park at one end, and walk across to the other side. The view to the river may be dizzying from such a height—at 650 feet above the river, it’s the fifth-highest bridge in the U.S.—but trust us, you’ll want to look down. Get up early and walk the bridge during sunrise if you want to beat the crowds.

(Read “Los Secretos De Taos”)

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