By Mel A. James
It’s actually rather difficult to miss the historic district of Taos. Unless you intentionally drive all the way around town on a meandering back highway, you’re going to drive right through the heart of it. What comprises the historic district is Taos Plaza itself, which can be found at the intersection of U.S. 64, where it heads east, and State Road 68, which continues south.
The street names for these highways are Kit Carson Road and Paseo del Pueblo, both Norte (north) and Sur (south). Once you find yourself anywhere near this intersection, go ahead and look for a place to park.
Just about any street near Taos Plaza is also part of the historic district, and street parking is available on Paseo del Pueblo, Bent Street and on the Plaza. Kit Carson Road has street parking, and there’s a free lot just a few blocks up. Camino de la Placita, which runs just along the other side of Taos Plaza, has a metered lot right by the John Dunn House Shops. Another free lot sits just across the street by Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Please note: Bent Street is a one-way street and will take you from Paseo del Pueblo Norte to Camino de la Placita.
The old, authentic adobe walls of downtown Taos once housed residences, drug stores, a movie theater, hardware store, the doctor’s office (now Doc Martin’s Restaurant at the Taos Inn), the old courthouse and even the county jail (featured in the movie “Easy Rider”). What makes this area so interesting is its mixture of shopping and stories – it’s history and retail all rolled into one.
These days, downtown is bustling with modern commerce: art galleries, clothing boutiques, gift stores, restaurants and an abundance of culture. Other services include salons, tattoo shops, yoga studios and tour guides. You can find several historical hotels, bed-and-breakfast establishments, as well as multiple private rentals if you’d like the convenience of being right downtown for your stay.
For those looking for culture, you can find five museums within a few blocks of the Plaza. There is the Kit Carson Home and Museum on Kit Carson Road, the Harwood Museum of Art and the Blumenschein Home and Museum on Ledoux Street, the Governor Bent House and Museum on Bent Street, as well as the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House on Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Each of these is a unique look into the history and art of Taos, and all of them are housed in historical buildings. Directly across the street from Kit Carson’s former home is El Rincón (“The Corner”), the first official Taos trading post.
If you’re hungry, you can find at least a dozen restaurants, from New Mexican (yes, we have our own cuisine) and traditional Mexican to Peruvian, Middle Eastern, pub fare, soups and salads and more. There are two wine tasting rooms from local wineries and three taprooms/pubs featuring the beers of Taos and New Mexico. You can also find a few sweet shops, including bean-to-bar chocolate handmade at Chokola, located in between Taos Plaza and the John Dunn House Shops on Bent Street – or just let your nose be your guide.
Looking for a spot of tea? There’s a tea shop called Tea.o.graphy tucked in a courtyard up Kit Carson Road. You can also find a selection of loose teas at Wabi-Sabi on Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Need coffee? There are three coffee shops in the historic district, but many of the restaurants also serve espresso drinks.
For the shopper, you can find fabric, leather, jewelry, pottery, fine art, clothing, outdoor gear, gems and minerals, crafts and much more. While most of this sounds like fun for the adults, if the children are getting restless, you can take them over to Twirl Play and Discovery Space, a fun nonprofit venture where the kids can burn off some energy and get a souvenir of their own to take home. If they need more space to run, Kit Carson Park is just two blocks from the Plaza on Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
Right next door to Twirl is The Alley Cantina. Specific areas in the popular bar and restaurant can claim to be part of the oldest building in Taos proper – more than 400 years old. As Alley literature states, “It was built in the 16th century by the Pueblo Indians and served as an outpost along the Chihuahua trail.”
One trick to navigating the historical district is to peek around corners. While there are still some residences and private buildings in this area, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open to the possibilities down a hidden alley. Just be sure to look for signs – there should be an indication that there is more to see, and sometimes the coolest places are just a little bit out of the way.
For example, the John Dunn Shops is a bustling part of downtown, but it is a pedestrian mall and could be missed if you’re not looking carefully. Bent Street takes you right to it. It is a link between the John Dunn House Shops and Taos Plaza. The John Dunn House, which sits amid the independently owned shops and eateries, is on the National Historic Register.
Better known around these parts as “Long John” Dunn (1857-1953), this lovable rascal came to New Mexico from Texas in the late 1880s. Before arriving in Taos, by his own admission, Dunn had spilled the blood of several men and was a horse thief, smuggler and gambler.
“But although his life was a rough one, there was always a thread of nobility in his actions,” wrote Cindy Brown for The Taos News. “He first killed a man when involved in a fist fight with his brother-in-law, who had been abusing Dunn’s sister. One of his main purposes in making money by whatever means possible was to send it back home to his mother to support the family. Dunn’s father was a Civil War veteran and died shortly after the war due to his injuries, leaving the family constantly poor.”
Of this colorful Taos character, Dunn’s friend and biographer, Max Evans, once said, “He lived, in his 90 or more years, one of the most incredible lives of any of the old-time Westerners. … John was one of the best gunfighters, gamblers, bronc riders, ropers, stagecoach drivers, trail-herd drivers, saloonkeepers, outlaws and, ironically, hardheaded businessmen.”
While you’re walking atop some of the same paths as folks from the past, make sure to bring along a map and don’t hesitate to ask for directions or suggestions to find what you’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to wander a bit.
Another fun way to experience the historic district is on a ghost tour. If you are not faint of heart, there are various paranormal places to “haunt.” For more, contact Ghosts of Taos at (575) 613-5330 or visit ghostsoftaos.wordpress.com.
Let the adventurous spirit of Taos guide you as you explore this unique area – it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before.