Carson National Forest Overview
|Carson National Forest (Rich Reid/National Geographic/Getty)|
Rife though it may be with Indian pueblos, historic villages, superb alpine ski areas, and cultural capitals such as Taos, we think that the most remarkable features of north-central New Mexico's 1.5-million-acre Carson National Forest are its starkly varied landscapes.
Drive from the village of Taos up to Taos Ski Valley, for example, and you move from sage-scented, high-desert scrub and blood-red soil, to spruce- and fir-clad mountainsides, and then into an alpine realm of wildflower-dotted meadows. And that's just one arm of the foresthead west to Tres Piedras and you'll be in lush, high-altitude plateau country, cut with cool, trout-filled streams and home to large animal species that include elk, bighorn sheep, and black bears.
Farther west, in the Rio Chama Valley area, is Georgia O'Keeffe's red-rock New Mexico, where amid the mesas are attractions like the Ghost Ranch, the naturally-resonant Echo Amphitheater, and the towering Brazos Cliffs.
Backcountry enthusiasts will find what they're looking for in the Wheeler Peak, Pecos, Cruces Basin, and Latir Peak Wildernesses areas. Whitewater boaters will enjoy the Chama River and, just outside of the forest boundary, the Taos Box section of the Rio Grande. Anglers will love the trout streams of both the eastern and western wings of the forest. Mountain bikers, horseback riders, and day hikers will find more than 300 miles of trails in the forest.
But best of all, Carson National Forest's recreational bounty is just part of the appealing tapestry of beautiful country, rich culture, and outstanding lodging, dining, and shopping that have made north-central New Mexico one of the world's most desirable travel destinations.
Rip it up at Taos
Taos Ski Valley has been one of the shrines of North American skiing ever since Ernie Blake opened the resort more than 40 years ago. And the mountain has fiercely stuck to its guns as a place where skiing, and only skiing, is celebrated. Snowboards aren't permitted, the trails and lifts have a decidedly old-school character, and the base village has a minimal number of divertissements. But that just shows that the Blake family knows exactly what makes Taos special—this is truly a skier's paradise. The huge bowls, crenellated steeps, and glades of the 12,000-foot Kachina Peak ridge are regularly buried under deep but featherlight loads of desert-dry powder; when it's not snowing, Taos is a sun-worshipper's paradise. If you're an expert skier with a taste for ski tans, you couldn't do better than Taos.
Bike the Sangre de Cristos
More than one mountain biker has called a traverse of the difficult high-country South Boundary Trail a "life changing" experience. It climbs steeply from Angel Fire and high-desert rangeland up into the fastnesses of the Sangre de Cristos, where it weaves through aspen and ponderosa forest over 25 miles of twisty singletrack before dropping through a pulse-pounding 13-mile descent and eventually wending into Taos. Sublime scenery, awesome views, a monster workout, and ample technical challenges—what more could a fat-tire biker ask for?
Ramble through Wilderness
Hard against the Colorado border in a lonely corner of Carson National Forest, the 18,000-acre Cruces Basin Wilderness doesn't receive a fraction of the attention received by more vertical plots like the Wheeler Peak and Pecos Wildernesses. But if you're looking to get yourself thoroughly away from it all and into some of the most pristine, lovely country imaginable, you couldn't pick a better spot. A lush land of wide-open meadows, rounded mountains, and clear stream broken here and there by granitic outcrops, the Cruces Basin is bursting at the seams with wildlife—there's a healthy elk population, along with bighorn sheep, yellow-bellied marmots, and streams full of brook trout. There are no maintained trails in the wilderness—you'll need to be totally self-sufficient in the backcountry and have excellent route-finding skills to handle a trip here.
Raft the Rio Chama
A major tributary of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, the Rio Chama flows through a multi-colored sandstone canyon that is at times 1,500 feet deep, and through designated wilderness. Towering cliffs, heavily wooded side canyons, and historical sites offer an outstanding wild-river backdrop for a raft trip; the most popular reach runs 30 miles from the El Vado Dam south to the Abiquiu Reservoir. Rapids are mostly Class II-III, a bit lower in summer when river flows are lower.
Fish the Red River
A pretty canyon stream, the Red River cascades frothily through steep-walled chutes, drops into deep, turquoise pools, and bounces through choppy pocket water on its journey toward the Rio Grande. The resident fish tend not to be sizable, but the stream gets a couple of runs of migrant trout from its larger sister. The appeal of the Red River is the solitude, the wild trout, and the fact that in the dead of winter, with snow all around on the Sangre de Cristos, fishing on the Red River can be a temperate, comfortable endeavor. Dry fly-fishing in winter, we might add.
Cycle the "Enchanted Century"
A trip round the "Enchanted Circle"—the loop around Wheeler Peak—is justly famous as a jaw-droppingly scenic road trip, further sweetened by the museums, ski areas, and other points of interest that dot the route. But here's the rub, at least for cyclists: These roads are plied by a few too many cars for our tastes. Far less popular but just as satisfying is a trip round the so-called "Southern Enchanted Century," which begins in Taos, climbs up into the hills on NM 518, runs east on a long, spectacular downhill all the way to Sipapu Ski Area, takes in some huge vistas of the eastern Sangre de Cristos near Holman Hill, and turns north onto NM 434 at Mora. From Mora, you'll face several brutal climbs but the surrounding wooded canyon scenery will keep your spirits up. The route mellows out as you roll through the broad Moreno Valley, eventually reaching Angel Fire. The home stretch follows US 64 back into Taos. This 104-mile ride isn't for everyone, but for those who've got the lungs and leg power it provides an unforgettable close-up of some of New Mexico's finest country.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication