Taos casts a lingering spell. Set on an undulating mesa at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it's a place of piercing light and spectacular views, where the desert palette changes almost hourly as the sun moves across the sky. Adobe buildings—some of them centuries old—lie nestled amid pine trees and scrub, some in the shadow of majestic Wheeler Peak, the state's highest point, at just over 13,000 feet. The smell of piñon-wood smoke rises from the valley from early autumn through late spring; during the warmer months, the air smells of fragrant sage.
The earliest residents, members of the Taos-Tiwa tribe, have inhabited this breathtaking valley for more than a millennium; their descendants still live and maintain a traditional way of life at Taos Pueblo, a 95,000-acre reserve 4 miles northeast of Taos Plaza. Spanish settlers arrived in the 1500s, bringing both farming and Catholicism to the area; their influence remains most pronounced in the diminutive village of Ranchos de Taos, 4 miles south of town, where the massive adobe walls and camposanto (graveyard) of San Francisco de Asís Church have been attracting photographers for generations.
In the early 20th century, another population—artists—discovered Taos and began making the pilgrimage here to write, paint, and take photographs. The early adopters of this movement, painters Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein stopped here in 1898 quite by chance to repair a wagon wheel while en route from Denver to Mexico in 1898. Enthralled with the earthy beauty of the region, they abandoned their intended plan, settled near the plaza, and in 1915 formed the Taos Society of Artists. In later years, many illustrious artists—including Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and D. H. Lawrence—frequented the area, helping cement a vaunted arts tradition that thrives to this day. The steadily emerging bohemian spirit has continued to attract hippies, counterculturalists, New Agers, gays and lesbians, and free spirits. Downtown—along with some outlying villages to the south and north, such as Ranchos de Taos and Arroyo Seco—now support a rich abundance of galleries and design-driven shops. Whereas Santa Fe, Aspen, Scottsdale, and other gallery hubs in the West tend toward pricey work, much of it by artists living elsewhere, Taos remains very much an ardent hub of local arts and crafts production and sales. A half-dozen excellent museums here also document the town's esteemed artistic history.
About 5,600 people live year-round within Taos town limits, but another 28,000 reside in the surrounding county, much of which is unincorporated, and quite a few others live here seasonally. This means that in summer and, to a lesser extent, during the winter ski season, the town can feel much larger and busier than you might expect, with a considerable supply of shops, restaurants, and accommodations. Still, overall, the valley and soaring mountains of Taos enjoy relative isolation, low population-density, and magnificent scenery, parts of which you can access by visiting Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, one of the park service’s newest properties—it’s was designated in March 2013. These elements combine to make Taos an ideal retreat for those aiming to escape, slow down, and embrace a distinct regional blend of art, cuisine, outdoor recreation, and natural beauty.