TAOS, N.M. (AP) — To winter sports enthusiasts, Taos is best known for its challenging ski slopes. But this northern New Mexico town has plenty more to offer visitors year-round, on and off the slopes. A hipper little sister of sorts to Santa Fe, Taos is known for its diverse outdoor offerings as well as its funky town square packed full of history, art galleries and Hispanic and Native American culture. Whereas Santa Fe is known for its wealth, Taos is lower-key and tends to attracts a younger, more starving-artist-type crowd. It's a town where new-age nomadic hippies, (referred to locally as "sage monkeys") peacefully coexist with artists, natives, daredevil skiers and even wealthy Texan tourists. Here are five free things to do and see on your next trip to Taos.
RIO GRANDE GORGE BRIDGE
This steel deck arch bridge spans one of New Mexico's most scenic vistas. Located about 10 miles (17 kilometers) northwest of Taos along U.S. 64, the famous bridge sits high above New Mexico's mini-Grand Canyon, though just how high varies depending on whom you ask, with the state Department of Transportation saying 600 feet (183 meters). The adjacent park offers plenty of parking for those who want to walk across the bridge, visit vendors or enjoy walking trails that offer stunning views of the gorge and the river far below.
Also nearby are the Stagecoach Hot Springs, aka "hippie holes." About a 15-minute hike down a path at the end of Tune Road, the pools are located along the edge of the river in the ruins of an old stagecoach stop. With water temperatures of about 97 degrees F (36 C), they are a year-round favorite. Clothing is optional.
SAN FRANCISCO de ASIS
Just 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south of Taos, in the village of Ranchos de Taos sits in what is arguably one of the most painted and photographed churches in the world. Built between 1772 and 1816, the traditional adobe, mud and straw Spanish mission structure is synonymous with New Mexico, made famous by painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographers Ansel Adams and Paul Strand. O'Keeffe described it as "one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards." The church is a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage church.
Called simply Seco by locals, this village is about 7 miles (11 kilometers) east of Taos on the road to the ski valley. On warm days, you might find local potters working on their wheels along the main street. Just off State Road 150, north of the Abominable Snowmansion hostel, you'll find a traditional, colorful northern New Mexican neighborhood cemetery (photography is frowned upon). Each Fourth of July, you can join thousands of locals from surrounding areas to watch one of New Mexico's homegrown Independence Day parades, complete with Western themes, horseback riders, even a popular grill-themed float that tosses out hundreds of pre-cooked and dressed, foil -wrapped hot dogs to the eager crowd. After the parade, the street party continues with live music and general revelry along 150.
Just a little more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) up the road from the gorge is Tres Piedras, home to a colony of self-sustaining homes that look like spaceships embedded in the scenic landscape. There are about 70 homes in the 633-acre (256-hectare) subdivision, all made from all recycled materials. There are no water lines, power lines or sewer lines and lot owners are not allowed to drill wells. All water comes from the rain and snow that land on the roof. And sewage systems are self-contained. The community is also the headquarters of one of the early leaders in the sustainable building movement, Earthship Biotecture. There is a center where visitors can learn more about the movement, as well as nightly rentals for those who want to experience truly sustainable living.
MABEL DODGE LUHAN HOUSE
Walk through the home of the unofficial founder of Taos' artistic and intellectual community. A salon hostess married to a Taos Pueblo Indian, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved to Taos in 1919 and is credited with luring writers and artists to the Land of Enchantment by sending invitations to people she barely knew. O'Keeffe and Adams were among those who accepted and came to hang out at the now historic inn, along with novelist Willa Cather, painter John Marin and writer D.H. Lawrence. From the outside, look up at the bathroom windows, colorfully painted over by Lawrence.