Highway 64: New Mexico

Ship Rock at sunset

Ship Rock, at the northwestern tip of New Mexico, is sacred to the Navajo people and prized by travelers on 64. In its shadow, Highway 64 reaches the end of its journey ... or the beginning.

Highlight: Taos Pueblo

Hidden Treasure: Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad


Video: End of the Road (QuickTime, 880K)

New Mexico

The westernmost state on 64’s route brings a change of scenery for travelers who have stuck with the road since its beginnings. Southwestern colors and textures take over the land and plant life as the road rekindles its friendship with the mountains. 

The dinosaur theme that started at Black Mesa continues at Clayton Lake State Park. Imaginative paleontologists have done their best to decipher the dozens of footprints that crosshatch an ancient creekbed here. Visitors can themselves attempt the mental gymnastics involved in guessing where a particular dino hesitated, decided which way to turn, then set off with its tail acting as a balancing aid.

Thanks to its National Monument status, Capulin Volcano draws crowds of visitors. The windy walk around the crater puts the dormant volcano in perspective; cows graze and ranchers make a living on land marked by ancient lava floes.

Watch for coyotes and cop cars on the next stretch of the road. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are pulling 64 toward Taos, but there’s still more to see. In Cimarron Canyon State Park, the air smells like evergreens. In Eagle Nest, a memorial honors Vietnam veterans. Aspen trees line the road as it climbs, then descends into Taos Canyon.

Taos draws skiers, artists, eccentrics, and, during the week of my visit, motorcycle enthusiasts. The bikers raised the volume level of this quiet, inspiring town, not to mention the room rates. Fortunately, they had roared off into the sunset by the time I headed through Taos on the way back east.

For one of the most authentic brushes with history on all of 64, step inside the walls of Taos Pueblo, where Native Americans maintain their ancient ways. The buildings remain as smooth and photogenic as they were when Georgia O’Keefe came here to paint. Inside the cool clay rooms, vendors sell snacks and high-quality handicrafts. The pueblo chapel presents the merging of ancient religions with Catholicism.

On its way west, 64 crosses the Rio Grande, here a muddy ravine traversed by a trembling bridge and surrounded by hippies selling trinkets. Hippies live all over the place, some of them in bizarre eco-friendly dwellings that look like 21st-century updates of the sod houses back in Oklahoma.

Back in the mountains, 64 passes through the mountain town of Chama, the embarkation point for the Cumbres and Toltec narrow-gauge scenic railroad. A lack of state funding delayed the train’s season in 2003; check for availability in future summers. I placed a geocache near the station. Chama also attracts fishing enthusiasts from everywhere. One woman, a widow and mother of 11 from New Jersey, told us that fly-fishing was the sole reason she moved to Chama.

The 13,000-acre Navajo Lake offers more recreation opportunities near the town of Dulce, capital of the Jicarilla Apache reservation. Around here, rocks start appearing in formations worthy of Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Ship Rock, the final landmark before 64 crosses into Arizona and ends.

Before that, though, visitors would be foolish to skip two sites of cities built by the mysteriously lost Chaco people. One of them, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, lies well off 64, about 30 miles down U.S. 550 and another 16 down an unpaved side road that feels like corrugated tin. Still, it’s worth the drive, because the Chaco legacy remains. Archaeologists don’t know why the Chacoan people flourished for a few centuries, then departed. They left behind intricate buildings, some five stories high, arranged in arcs and spotted with ceremonial kivas.

Chaco ruins are also on view at Aztec Ruins National Monument, located just a few miles off 64 in the town of Aztec. This partially reconstructed site is much more accessible, making it good for people physically unable to enjoy the Chaco Culture park.