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Fall is the perfect time for trip to New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. -- Fall is the perfect time to explore the secret treasures of northern New Mexico, and not just because of its art colonies, colorful history or monumental vistas.

While most people know about Santa Fe's art galleries and museums and Taos' arty environs, they don't hear much about the fall colors, cliff dwellings dating back 900 years or the unpretentious artists you can visit in their own studios.

Starting in Santa Fe, with its more than 200 art galleries, you can prowl the adobe Palace of the Governors, multicultural museums and memorable restaurants, but there's also a bountiful farmer's market near the railroad tracks, open Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Each morning Native-American craftsmen display their wares on blankets on the north side of the central plaza. Here you not only find jewelry, carvings and other crafts, but great stories, if you have the time to listen.

Hotels in Santa Fe include the elegant Inn of the Anasazi, the Inn and Spa at Loretto and the Plaza Real.

For the best in New Mexican cuisine try the Pink Adobe on Old Santa Fe Trail, in a building dating back 400 years or Los Mayas on Water Street. A favorite of locals is La Choza, and the kids dig Tomasita's.

You can't overlook a local heroine, artist Georgia O'Keeffe, and the museum and archive dedicated to her. Access to the archive is by appointment, but the gallery, on Johnson Street, is open; admission $10.

And for a little gaming, 15 minutes north of Santa Fe sits the Hilton's Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino. Sculptures by the chief of the Pojoaque Pueblo, George Rivera, are stunning. Rooms run $139-$209. (877) 455-5555.

About an hour north of Santa Fe lies Bandelier National Monument, where you can view the marvelous cliff dwellings from a leisurely trail. There are 75 miles of hiking trails, camp sites and thousands of archeological remnants.

Just north of Bandelier rests the historic town of Los Alamos. Famous as the site of the Manhattan Project (where scientists developed the atomic bomb), it's still the location of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where classified research carries on and security guards meet you at the highway entrance.

Los Alamos averages the highest IQ per capita in the nation and to validate that claim, you can try to decipher the equations on the chalkboard at Central Avenue Grill. They were the original formulasdesigned to bring the Manhattan Project scientists up-to-date when they arrived. The largest employer in town is still the lab.

There are 19 pueblos (or Indian reservations) in New Mexico. East of Los Alamos sits the San Ildefonso Pueblo 505-455-3549. Visitors are welcome, but bringing in a camera will cost $10. It's well worth it because San Ildefonso harbors one of the most beautiful churches in the area, circa 1930, complete with a little graveyard in front. It's here, too, that you can meet Kreig Kalava who, along with his sister, continues the traditional pottery of their mother.

North of Los Alamos you'll find the village of Abiquiu, onetime winter home of Georgia O'Keeffe. The artist lived part of the year at nearby Ghost Ranch, where you can still spot many of the geological inspirations for her paintings. Take the Georgia O'Keeffe and the Ghost Ranch Landscape Tour, which compares her renditions with the actual sites. Tours are available at 505-685-4333, $25.

Another gem found north on New Mexico 84 is Los Ojos and the master weavers at Tierra Wools. You can watch them dye the local churro wool and weave tapestries based on ancient designs. They offer casitas, where you can stay, and classes throughout the year. 888-709-0979.

Across the street, in this almost-deserted little town, is Robert Archuleta, a craftsman in his own right. He weaves old tires into floor mats, decorating them with colored beads. A large mat runs $25.

Continue north to the old western town of Chama where you can stay overnight at the rustic Elkhorn Lodge, 505-756-2105, and waken to a real outdoor cowboy breakfast. Here you can board the Cumbres & Toltec steam railroad, a narrow gauge train that serpentines 64 miles through the Rockies, displaying prisms of fall colors. Round trip runs $83 to $148.

Southeast of Chama is Taos, with scores of colorful boutiques, historic estates and art tours. The estate of socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan is here. Luhan collected the works of such artists as Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, Georgia O'Keeffe, Thornton Wilder and Thomas Wolfe.

If you have time, visit Ranchos de Taos, located south of Taos, where the famous San Francisco de Asis Church rests. Built in the 18th century, it is one of the most painted and photographed churches in the Southwest.

A short jaunt south to Cordova takes you to master wood carver Gloria Lopez Cordova, (follow the signs to Gloria's Shop) a fourth generation carver who boasts items in the Smithsonian and still works out of her humble home

Take the picturesque High Road -- the backcountry route -- to Chimayo where you can visit Lisa and Irvin Trujillo at Centinela Traditional Arts. Irvin is a seventh generation weaver.

Accommodations in Taos include the elegant El Monte Sagrado, the cozy B&B (with individual casitas), the American Artists Gallery House, perched on the quiet edge of town 800-532-2041, and the city's oldest hotel, Hotel La Fonda de Taos on the plaza.

For restaurants try Lambert's, Doc Martin's and Graham's Grille.

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