Great Drives: The Enchanted Circle

The Enchanted Circle sounds like the title for a young adult, fantasy novel where good witches battle evil ones, in an attempt to save their coven. The Enchanted Circle I’m talking about is definitely magical, but you won’t be burned at any stakes. The moniker belongs to a loop in Northern New Mexico that often earns a spot on scenic drives lists.

The route is 85 miles long and provides stunning views of alpine meadows, crisp streams, wildflowers, and wildlife such as birds and elk. Despite sticking my head out of the car window like a dog, I didn’t personally spot an elk. Lane offered to hold a pair of antlers over her head, but it wasn’t the same.

We began the drive from Taos, NM. As the road grew more remote we began placing bets on which of the many branches belonged to Julia Roberts. “Pull over,” I shrieked, nearly causing us to wreck. I leaped from the car before it was in park and plunged down a slope. It was my first opportunity to try out my river shoes— a purchase from REI that the salesperson claimed would enable me to hike and trot along swift-moving rivers without face-planting. Wading into the water, I began striding upstream, trying not to kick up silt in the clear water. Trees hugged each riverbank, forming a natural arch where they met in the middle. Patches of sunlight glinted through the gaps in the leaves, creating dappled patterns in the water. The shoes did as promised: I remained upright, if undignified.

I was persuaded back into the car and we continued our ascent. Pretty soon, the land flattened out into a lush, alpine meadow. Any moment, I expected to see Heidi skipping along beside us. Sadly, she proved as elusive as the elk. To our left, the white-crested summit of Wheeler Peak towered over us. A lot of people don’t realize that the Rockies start in Northern New Mexico. Wheeler Peak soars to 13,161 feet and is the tallest mountain in the state. You can score bragging rights by hiking to the summit. Choose between two hiking trails (Bull-of-the-Woods or Williams Lake) but, if that’s your main goal in visiting the area, it’s best to drive the Enchanted Circle in a clockwise direction, as both trailheads are accessible via Taos Ski Valley.

The Enchanted Circle is also great for skiers. A short detour onto the 434 takes you straight to Angel Fire. Aside from having an awesome name, the town offers a plethora of winter activities, including night skiing, ice fishing, sledding, snowmobiling and sleigh rides. Wait, sleigh rides? Guess that solves the mystery of the AWOL elk. Angel Fire receives an average of 210 inches of snow per year, which probably means something to those of you coordinated enough to strap a wooden board or two onto your feet and avoid death.

The next stop on the circle is Eagle Nest Lake, situated in the Moreno Valley. Lane got an evil gleam in her eye and suggested I test out my river shoes in the lake. The dark, blue water looked inviting, so I scampered along a dirt path, ran in up to my knees then screamed. Ever camped out in a freezer? Me either, but I suspect the temperature would be comparable. Lane was gasping with hysterics when I staggered back to the car. I hoped one of the Eagles that gave the town and lake their names would divebomb her, but there’s never an eagle around when you need one. However, there are plenty of fish in the 2,400-acre Eagle Nest Lake, which is renowned for its rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. You can fish from the warmth of the lake’s banks or rent a boat in the village of Eagle Nest. Allegedly there are frequent sightings of bear, mule deer, eagles, wild turkeys and those devious elk around the lake.