The powerful simplicity of Ranchos de Taos

Southwest travel guide
Jeanie Puleston Fleming

Some of the best of Taos is not in Taos but can be found just 4 miles south in the tiny community of Ranchos de Taos. Best known for its church--a soul-stirring example of adobe architecture--Ranchos also offers good shopping and dining opportunities.

As you drive into Ranchos de Taos on State 68, you'll see San Francisco de Asis church from the back. No matter: At any angle the church is beautiful, its smooth, windowless curves and angles making a remarkable canvas for changing light and shadows.

This powerful simplicity has made San Francisco an architectural icon that inspired some of the best art of the Southwest, notably works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams.

The church was built by Franciscan friars around 1816 and remains an archetype of adobe construction: The back buttress alone contains some 10,000 adobe bricks. Walk around to the front and you'll see an enclosed garden that frames the entrance; go inside for a view of the colorful altar screen and the high, narrow vault spanned by vigas.

At the parish office and gift shop (#58 St. Francis Plaza; 505/758-2754), you can watch a 15-minute video on the history and art of the church; afterward you'll have the opportunity to view a church-owned painting that mysteriously glows in the dark. The small gift shop offers retablos and santos by local artists.

On a more secular note, Ranchos has long been known for high-quality shopping. Among the old adobes that now house businesses, don't miss the Leo Weaver Jewelry Gallery (#62 St. Francis Plaza; 751-1003), with the work of 40 local artists, who encompass the three distinct cultures of Taos. As counterpoint to the traditional atmosphere cast by the church, Jaquelin Loyd Contemporary (#68 St. Francis Plaza; 758-1967) has made the inside of her old adobe into a light-filled showcase for contemporary art. Next door at Los Ancestros (#66 St. Francis Plaza; 737-5053), you'll find colorful trasteros (cupboards) and dining tables set on iron car chassis. Colors vibrate from all sides in Big Sun (#2 St. Francis Plaza; 758-3100), a folk art gallery known for Navajo carved and painted animals and for beaded, carved, tin-clad, and painted crosses. Across the road, a longtime Ranchos gallery, R.B. Ravens (4146 State 68; 758-7322) is the place for pre-1930s Navajo textiles, pottery, and Taos Founders' paintings.

After shopping, continue around the plaza for lunch at Ranchos Plaza Grill (#8 St. Francis Plaza; 758-5788), where a plate of tasty green chile enchiladas will only set you back $6.50. Another tasty option is the Trading Post Café (4179 State 68; 758-5089), in, yes, a historic trading post. Then you can drive into town to see the rest of Taos.

WHERE: St. Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos is 4 miles south of Taos on State 68.