When most people are in search of “fall colors” they think of heading to New England, but nobody does fall better than the Rocky Mountains! When the aspens turn to gold against those mountain backdrops…that’s the chef’s kiss!
Sure, sure you’ll see other fall foliage in New Mexico, but the aspens are my favorite. They’re so dramatic. The aspens turn from green to gold pretty quickly (in about a week before they fall) and your window is late September to mid October. Of course it’s impossible to predict exactly when it will happen in any one specific place, but a general rule of thumb is that the higher the elevation, the earlier the leaves will turn. So depending on when you’ll be in New Mexico during that window may determine if you want to head to a higher or a lower elevation. And of course…flexibility is key! It’s hard to change dates for a trip last minute, so it’s a lot easier to be flexible with your location.
Fall in New Mexico
Keep reading for my favorite places to experience fall in New Mexico:
Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway
On my most recent trip to New Mexico, I spent some time in a place I’d never been before. I’d heard of Taos and even Red River, but I didn’t know about this “Enchanted Circle” they’re a part of.
It turns out…the Enchanted Circle is New Mexico’s “Colorado.” This is New Mexico’s high country and if you didn’t know you weren’t in Colorado…you wouldn’t know.
The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is an 80 mile route that circles Wheeler Peak (the state’s tallest mountain) and connects towns like Taos, Red River, and Angel Fire. The whole area is part of the Carson National Forest so you’re guaranteed jaw dropping vistas (including plenty of aspens!) at every turn. The area is so beautiful that it’s served as the backdrop for plenty of movies, but most notably Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider.
Start wherever you’re staying, but I’ll do a breakdown section by section starting in Taos and going clockwise around the circle.
The journey begins in Taos where you’ll head north on Highway 64/NM 522 through Arroyo Hondo (part of a Spanish land grant in 1815) to Questa.
The next stop is Questa, situated among wonderful hiking and camping places, including Cabresto Lake, Mallette Canyon, and Midnight Meadows. Questa has great camping and hiking options if you’re looking for a little diversion or to extend the trip.
From Questa you’ll take NM 38 east to Red River. Established as a mining town in the 1800s, the industry has long gone but the trails remain. Red River is one of the best places in New Mexico for Jeep and ATV offroading. The town sits down in a gorge so the mountains seem so much closer than any of the other towns along the Enchanted Circle.
The road continuing along NM38 from Red River to Eagle Nest goes through Bobcat Pass which is one of the prettiest parts of the whole loop. Coming through Eagle Nest you’ll pass the spectacular Eagle Nest Lake and then into Angel Fire.
The part of the route from Angel Fire to Taos is one of my favorites. It’s a somewhat sizable pass with plenty of vistas, aspens, and winding roads, but it never feels too scary.
You’ll close the loop back up in Taos where there’s plenty of shopping and dining, the Taos Pueblo (the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the US), and pretty awesome hiking and fishing.
RELATED: Shopping in Taos
If you’re doing this drive early in the season and you’ve found that the aspens haven’t quite turned yet, you should drive up to the Taos Ski Valley. The higher altitude means that they’ll start turning before just about anywhere else.
Other Places to See Fall Colors in New Mexico
High Road to Taos Scenic Byway: The road from Santa Fe to Taos is probably one of the most culturally significant drives in New Mexico and the fall foliage in the Carson Forest is just a bonus really. A stop in Chimayo is a must.
Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway: Start in downtown Santa Fe and drive 15 miles northeast up to Santa Fe Ski Basin. The hills along this route are filled with aspens.
Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway: This road that connects Albuquerque and Santa Fe is a much more scenic option than the interstate. Part of the Cibola National Forest, besides fall colors, you might just spot bighorn sheep, black bears, mule deers, and other critters. It’s also the scenic highway with the highest elevation in the southwest. Also don’t miss the ghost town, Cerrillos!
Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway: About an hour north of Albuquerque and an hour east of Santa Fe, the Jemez Mountains have a lot to offer (hot springs, a caldera, 13th-century Native American dwellings, and an atomic museum) besides epic fall foliage. The scenic byway is 66 miles and begins in San Ysidro.
US 64 Taos to Chama: I’m not sure if I’d want to tackle this road in the winter, but the fall is perfect. Pass through the Carson National forest for plenty of views of fiery aspens.
Sunspot Scenic Byway: At the southern end of the state not far from White Sands National Park there’s a 16 mile stretch of road surrounded by aspens. Start in Cloudcroft and go south to Sunspot along the Sacramento Mountains.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: If you’re up for an all day adventure, book a trip on this scenic railroad that makes roundtrips between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO every day. Their season is late May through late October.
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