"The more I carve, the more I love it," says Isabro Ortega of Truchas, New Mexico, as he works on an elegant yet rustic door fit for a small castle. He is one of roughly 100 artists who open their studios (which are usually open by appointment only) for the annual High Road Arts Tour.
Descendants of Spanish settlers, wood-carvers like Ortega craft furniture, sculpture, and religious art much as their ancestors did. With fall color starting in the mountains, joining the tour to learn about the state's wood-carving tradition makes a perfect day's outing.
First stop from Santa Fe is Chimayo. With its venerable cottonwood bultos (statues) of San Rafael and San Jose, the recently restored Santuario de Chimayo church (Santuario Rd.; 505/351-4889) is a 188-year-old source of artistic inspiration. The nearby High Road MarketPlace (4 Santo Niño Place; 505/351-1078) showcases both contemporary and traditional work.
Turn off the High Road (State 76) again at the village of Cordova, where six generations of carvers are represented in the studio of Sabinita Lopez de Ortiz (9 County Rd. 1317; 505/351-4572). The town has a half-dozen galleries that feature the ascetic, unpainted statues of saints for which the village is famous. A little farther up the High Road in Truchas is the studio of Isabro Ortega (16 Camino Laddera; 505/689-2581), who expresses his spirituality in carvings that adorn his magnificent doors and the architectural elements of the studio.
You'll be hungry by the time you reach Peñasco. Stop at Sugar Nymphs Bistro ($$; closed Mon; 15046 State 75; 505/587-0311) for the grilled lamb with apple-chile jelly and fresh-pressed cider that highlight the seasonal menu.
After lunch, visit the home workshop of traditionalists Andrew and Lorrie Garcia and their daughter AnnaRose (1325 State 75; 505/587-2968). Andrew is a furniture maker, AnnaRose creates retablos (religious paintings on wood), and Lorrie is a santera (saint-carver). "My work is a prayer," says Lorrie, whose exquisite depictions have won awards. "I always offer a prayer for the person who is ultimately going to end up with each piece."
High Road Arts Tour weekends are Sep 18-19 and 25-26; most studios will be open 10-5 (free). Visit www.highroadnewmexico.com for a map and a list of this year's participants.