Gold Rush

When the season turns, leaf peepers hit the road. First in a two-part series online.


About an hour into the ride, as we labored along the steeply graded, serpentine stretch of track that snakes over 10,020- foot Cumbres Pass, I caught a glimpse of jet contrails high in the sky above. It was the first reminder in several miles that I was still in the 21st century. Taking in the immense stands of bright-yellow quaking aspens and conical evergreens carpeting the valley walls around me, l saw the rugged Rocky Mountain landscape almost exactly as it must have appeared 130 years ago. What’s remarkable about the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad—which was inaugurated in 1880 as an extension of the Denver and Rio Grande rail network—isn’t just its meticulously preserved rolling stock of 1920s steam-powered locomotives and dignified, Victorian-era parlor cars. It’s that the twisting, vertiginous, 64-mile track from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado, passes so few vestiges of modern civilization—just a little-used, two-lane road for the first several miles, and a smattering of vintage and modern ranch houses.

This scenic railroad offers daily excursions through October 20, providing panoramic access to some of the most dramatic fall foliage in the Rockies—especially for fans of aspens, whose honey-golden leaves shimmer in the fall breeze. America’s highest and longest coal-fired narrow-gauge rail line is also one of the earliest spots in New Mexico to watch the leaves turn, with aspens in the mountains—as well as graceful cottonwoods and other broadleaf beauties around downtown Chama—beginning to change color as early as mid-September.

The C&T offers a few daily itineraries departing from Chama (100 miles north of Santa Fe). You can choose to ride the bus or take the train from there to Antonito, Colorado, and return by the alternating mode of transport. The Chama Station Inn, a 1920s adobe building across from the historic rail depot, has nine individually furnished, reasonably priced rooms. I’m partial to the option in which you ride from either town to the 1880s depot in Osier, Colorado; taking the train in both directions keeps me fully immersed in the pleasing sensation that, as this ancient locomotive chugs deliberately forward, it carries its cargo of wide-eyed passengers ever-further back in time. »

HIDEOUT IN THE GILA

Just eight miles north of Silver City, tiny Pinos Altos is a festive little ex-mining enclave with barely 200 residents and a tranquil alpine setting. It’s an idyllic choice for a relaxing weekend getaway. Stay at the Bear Creek Motel & Cabins, a secluded, pet-friendly compound of 15 two-story cabins, each with a fireplace. Guests can gaze at the treetops from their cabin’s private front porch or second-floor deck. In the evening, mingle with locals at the atmospheric Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, a convivial bar and restaurant with folk music many nights, and stick-to-your-ribs country cooking (green-chile–smothered rib eye, herb-marinated grilled quail). Here in the Gila’s mixed-conifer forest, a number of broadleaf trees—including aspens, willows, and Gambel oak—provide crimson, yellow, and burnt-orange contrast against the dominant canopy of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, white fir, and juniper. Drive north on N.M. 15 through the heart of this vast, forested wilderness for about 35 miles to reach Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where you can explore the early-1300s Mogollón village, its more than 40 rooms built inside five caves in a steep canyon. Free guided tours of these remarkably well-preserved dwellings are offered daily at 1 p.m., or you can visit them on your own any time during park hours (9 a.m.–4 p.m.).

COTTONWOODS AND CABERNET

The golden leaves of century-old cottonwoods dominate Albuquerque’s fertile North Valley. The area also provides access to the popular, multi-use Paseo del Bosque trail. Visitors can hike or bike this scenic route, which provides occasional glimpses of the Río Grande and Sandía Mountains. The North Valley is peppered with small farms, vineyards, restaurants, and produce markets. Get a taste of the area’s locavore-driven, seasonal American fare at Farm & Table, located on a 10-acre farm in a remodeled, 200-year-old adobe home. (See “To Market, to Market,” p. 44, for more North Valley recommendations.)

QUAKING ASPENS

Winding through one of the world’s largest aspen stands, the aptly named Aspen Vista Trail, just 13 miles from downtown Santa Fe, is a magnet for foliage watchers in autumn, when the glossy-green leaves of these tall, white-barked trees turn a golden shade of yellow. The trailhead is located up Hyde Park Road, at the Aspen Vista Picnic Site, near the Santa Fe ski area. The drive up here is itself mesmerizing—as you ascend higher into the pines, the Río Grande Valley’s fiery-yellow cottonwood trees come into view. Only hardy trailblazers should attempt the full six-mile trek to 12,000-foot Tesuque Peak, a vigorous route with a vertical climb of about 2,000 feet. The best viewpoint for admiring aspens is only three gently graded miles along this popular, well-marked trail. From here, you’re also treated to expansive views of the aspen-streaked Jémez Mountains, about 30 miles west. Top off your adventure with a stop at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style spa where you can unwind in a gorgeous private or communal hot tub, or perhaps repair your worn muscles with a hot stone massage. Many of the resort’s 13 serene casitas and bungalows have fireplaces and private gardens or courtyards. Watch for the property’s new restaurant, Izakaya Izanami, tentatively scheduled to open in October.

ALOFT IN CLOUDCROFT

Home to the juried October ArtFest the first week of the month and the family-oriented Fall Harvest Fest on October 27, the high-mountain village of Cloudcroft is one of the top spots in southern New Mexico for aspen admiration. You’ll see plenty of fall color as you saunter among the gift shops and saloons along the rollicking main drag, Burro Avenue, but for the best foliage viewing, head just up the road to the storied Lodge Resort & Spa, a red-and-blue-trimmed, Bavarian-style wedding cake of steep roofs and dormer windows built in 1899 by the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway, and anchored by a dramatic six-story lookout tower. Gaze at the countryside from Rebecca’s, the refined restaurant and lounge that contains a vintage bar once owned by Al Capone. Or shoot a round of golf on the nine-hole course—at 9,000 feet, one of the highest in the nation—that meanders through groves of pines and aspens.

See the second part of this series

NEED TO KNOW

ALBUQUERQUE/NORTH VALLEY
Farm & Table (505) 503-7124; farmandtablenm.com
Paseo del Bosque Trail bit.ly/bosquetrail

CABALLO
Caballo Lake State Park (575) 743-3942; bit.ly/caballolake

CHAMA
Chama Station Inn (888) 726-8150 chamastationinn.com
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad 500 S. Terrace Ave.; (888) 286-2737;cumbrestoltec.com

CHIMAYÓ
Rancho de Chimayó Hacienda (505) 351-2222; ranchodechimayo.com
Rancho de Chimayó Restaurant (505) 351-4444; ranchodechimayo.com

CHLORIDE
Pioneer Store Museum (575) 743-2736; pioneerstoremuseum.com

CLOUDCROFT
The Lodge Resort & Spa (800) 395-6343; thelodgeresort.com

ESTANCIA 
Manzano Mountain Retreat (505) 384-4467; manzanomountainretreat.com

HILLSBORO
Hillsboro General Store Cafe (575) 895-5306; hillsborogeneralstore.com

KINGSTON
Black Range Lodge (575) 895-5652; blackrangelodge.com

MOUNTAINAIR 
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (505) 847-2585;nps.gov/sapu
Shaffer Hotel (888) 595-2888; shafferhotel.com

PINOS ALTOS
Bear Creek Motel & Cabins (575) 388-4501; bearcreekcabins.com
Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House (575) 538-9911; buckhornsaloonandoperahouse.com

RUIDOSO AREA
Inn of the Mountain Gods (800) 545-9011; innofthemountaingods.com

SAN PATRICIO
Hurd–La Rinconada Gallery (800) 658-6912; wyethartists.com

SANTA FE
Aspen Vista Trail Mile marker 13, N.M. 475
Ten Thousand Waves (505) 982-9304; tenthousandwaves.com

SILVER CITY
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (575) 536-9461; www.nps.gov/gicl

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch (575) 772-5157; geronimoranch.com
Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway (575) 894-1968; geronimotrail.com
Geronimo Trail Visitor Center 529 N. Broadway; (575) 894-1968
Riverbend Hot Springs (575) 894-7625; riverbendhotsprings.com