It’s a great option this day in age when money is tight and guided tours are, at their worst, reminiscent of really bad field trips from elementary school. Taos is a do-it-yourself kind of town, too, populated by individuals who appreciate the natural world that is so abundant in north central New Mexico. Taos Mountain, the Rio Grande, the gorgeous Taos plateau volcanic field, and the ski valley are all monumental natural features that make little Taos, with a population of about 32,000, one of the most spectacular tiny towns in America.
Another redeemable aspect of the self-guided tour is it speaks to the spirit of this place. Taos has long been home to the seekers, the self reliant, and the star gazers. Naturally the original inhabitants of the region were the Tiwa-speaking Puebloan Indians, and it is their presence in modern-day Taos at Taos Pueblo that is the highlight of the tour, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the only such “living” cultural destination in the continental United States. The ancient Taos Pueblo, located in a small valley of a small tributary of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, is the best preserved of any pueblos in the United States, and is and the longest continuously inhabited community in North America, with the site continuously occupied for more than 1,000 years. This four-story mud-brick structure is one of the “Eight Northern Pueblos” of New Mexico, and the group collaborates on craft fairs, advocates for the legal interests of the pueblos, and shares a rich, and ancient, cultural and spiritual connections. Taos Pueblo was a integral trade center, and continued on after the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
Another stop on this self-guided tour is the La Hacienda de los Martinez (Martinez Hacienda), a trading center in the 18th century and one of the last Spanish Colonial “Great Houses” remaining in the southwest. Taos drew the infamous “mountain men” like Kit Carson, who came to the region seeking fortune in the furs of beavers and in the gold deposits he hoped to mine. A yearly “rendezvous” began during this time at the Martinez Hacienda, with the fur trappers and gold miners doing brisk trade with all the varied interests in the region, from the Pueblo Indians to the Mexicans to the various frontiersmen in the area. Many people believethat the Martinez Hacienda was the end point of the famous El Camino Real (the Royal Road) form Mexico.
Another destination on the itinerary is the San Francisco de Asis Church, known to locals as the St. Francis Church, or Ranchos Church, is located in Ranchos de Taos. This adobe-made church was completed in 1815 by Franciscan Fathers. This is one of the most photographed and painted churches in the world, and that’s not an overstatement as one could make an argument it’s one of the most depicted buildings in the world, and was selected as a National Historic Landmark in 1970, made a World Heritage Church, and was the subject of artwork done by giants in their field; photographs by Ansel Adams and four paintings by legend Georgia O’Keeffe, who called it, “one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spainards,” according to the book, Georgia O’Keeffe: American and Modern.
Real and fictional iconoclasts lived or passed through Taos. Real iconoclasts like Dennis Hopper, who came into town atop a Harley during the making of Easy Rider, and part of the self-guided tour takes you to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the third highest suspension bridge in the United States and a location featured prominently in both Easy Rider and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. After filming, Hopper stayed on and made his home here until his dead last year. Fictional iconoclasts like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity, who came into Taos in Jack Kerouac’s genre-defining novel On the Road. Real life literary and intellectual luminaries came through Taos much like Kerouac’s American dream seeking characters, novelists like D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather and Swiss psychiatrist, psychologist and all-around genius Carl Jung.
They’ve included a lot more to see and do on their self-guided tour. There’s the Millicent Rogers Museum, which has an incredible collection of Southwestern art from the myriad cultures that have lived in the area, a stop at the Greater World Earthship Biotecture Tour, a home made entirely of sustainable materials (they even call it “radically sustainable,” it’s that sustainable!), and a stroll through Taos Laza, considered the beating heart of the old Spanish settlement in Taos Valley.
Taos really is, objectively, a very cool place. What better way to check it out then at your leisure, guided by nothing but your curiosity. That’s how they’ve done it there forever.