Santa Fe Favorites
Maybe we’re not Colorado, but Santa Fe offers no shortage of rewarding day hikes, from easy to challenging, depending on terrain, altitude, and one’s wilderness experience and level of fitness. For a comprehensive description of 60 terrific hikes (including maps), check out the sixth edition of Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, authored by the Northern New Mexico Group of the Sierra Club. What constitutes a satisfying outdoors experience is highly subjective, but here are ten hikes of varying grades of difficulty, and varying degrees of beauty and remoteness. From high desert mesas to rugged peaks, dense stands of conifers to riparian woodlands, they offer a mosaic of one of the southwest’s most pristine hiking environments.
This gentle, two to three hour walk/hike through riparian woodlands is the perfect intro to a bucolic Santa Fe only ten minutes from the historic Plaza. The eponymous creek, which usually runs year round, affords multiple places to picnic, read, snooze or contemplate whatever needs contemplating. Joggers and dog walkers also favor this sylvan escape so it can get busy in the summer. If you’re visiting Santa Fe for the first time, and want to take on some altitude before scaling one of the “Baldys” (Santa Fe, Pecos or Glorieta), this is a respectable warm up.
Moderate hiking (maximum altitude gain is less than 1,000 feet) in the foothills east of the city, these meandering, well-marked paths weave between piñons, ponderosas and junipers. You can climb up to 8,500 feet year round, but in winter the north facing trails are icy, and good boots or even crampons are recommended. The two trailheads are in the heart of Santa Fe—off Hyde Park Road and off Upper Canyon Road (by Cerro Gordo). There are lots of loops and intersecting trails, including to Atalaya Ridge and the Dorothy Stewart Trail. Mountain bikers and leashed dogs are allowed, so it’s not always as tranquil as some purists would like, but you can’t beat the convenient location. Plan one hour to half a day here, and bring a picnic basket if the weather’s right.
About 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, near Cochiti Pueblo, this is an easy, captivating hike of one to two hours through a beguiling wonderland of sculpted tent-like rocks (slightly resembling Bryce Canyon in Utah), made millions of years ago from volcanic deposits of pumice, tuff and ash. Designated a National Monument in 2001, Tent Rocks can be enjoyed year-round but is best in spring and early summer before the weather turns hot. Administered by BLM, there is a $5 parking fee, and dogs are allowed on leashes. Once you’re in, Cave Loop Trail follows a series of cliffs, then drops through manzanita bush to Canyon Trail, which loops you back to the parking lot.
This is a moderate, spring-through-fall hike in the Santa Fe National Forest that traces the banks of the Jemez River. A well-marked trail runs through a canyon of blue spruce, pines, aspen and volcanic cliffs. The trail can be steep at times, crossing the river at several log and rail bridges. Ultimately, the river enters a gorgeous box canyon, before you head up on a switchback trail to a ridge with views of Redondo Peak. About fifty miles from Santa Fe, at an elevation of around 8,000 feet, this is an ideal introduction to the beauty of the National Forest.
This strenuous but rewarding trek through the Tesuque and Aspen basins ends above the tree line (elevation over 12,000 feet) with rapturous views in all directions. About half an hour drive up Hyde Park Road, the Winsor Trail starts by the Santa Fe Ski Basin parking area. Go about twenty minutes to a fence that borders the Pecos Wilderness, turn right, and head up an unmarked trail called Raven’s Ridge. For the uninitiated, a map is helpful. This is a scenic, sometimes steep climb that introduces you to wonderful peaks, knife-edges, cornices, and lulling vistas. Allow eight hours round trip if you want to tag all three peaks and take some scenery breaks. An alternate hike is to Santa Fe Baldy (follow the Winsor Trail straight up), a 3,600 foot elevation climb topping out at 12,600 feet. Weather can be unpredictable on both routes so bring proper gear, water and food. This hike is best enjoyed from late spring through early fall. Be mindful of afternoon thunder storms in late summer around Baldy, and strong winds at Lake and Penitente peaks.
For peak-baggers, the highest mountain in New Mexico (13,161 feet) is best approached from Taos. An early morning start from the Taos Ski Area will get you to the top of this non-technical but strenuous mountain by noon. From a densely forested basin to the thin air above the tree line, this alpine trek is defined by stunning vistas, scented conifers and wildflowers, and a genuine sense of accomplishment. Williams Lake (11,080 feet) is an optional, shorter route down but involves about 1,800 feet of loose rock and scree (hiking poles advised). The avalanche chutes on all sides are a reminder that this is a June to October trek. Proper gear includes plenty of water, energy bars and Advil.
On the rim of the spectacular Valles Caldera, with jaw-dropping views of the Valle Grande and beyond, the Cerro Grande peak is the highest point in Bandelier National Monument. A forty-five minute drive from Santa Fe, through Los Alamos, takes you to the trailhead at West Jemez Road. A map is useful. The moderate hike to Cerro Grande takes about 90 minutes and crosses a saddle of grass and wildflowers (in season) before climbing to the 10,200 foot summit. Listen for herds of bugling elk interrupting this unworldly silence. Dogs, ATV’s and hunters are not allowed.
For a high desert experience, this isolated mesa south of Otowi Bridge marks the entrance to White Rock Canyon with its dizzying views, sun-blazed sky, and boulders scarred with petroglyphs and pictographs. About twenty miles outside of Santa Fe, you endure a washboard road to reach the end of Buckman Road. Near the Rio Grande River, the trailhead is relatively easy to find but the dusty trail to the Mesa is unmarked except for cairns. It’s an hour to the top, and walking across the mesa, you can visit Otowi Peak, the remnant of a once violent volcano. Then you can go on to explore White Rock Canyon. Summer heat can be brutal, so go in the morning.
While nearby Glorieta Baldy is a strenuous, straight-up climb (six hour round trip), Pecos Baldy, in addition to offering hikers the same aerobic benefits, boasts a beguiling mountain lake, grassy meadows, and a population of friendly bighorn sheep. This is a true high country experience, and summiting East Pecos Baldy Peak leaves most hikers rubber-legged. It’s an hour and a half drive from Santa Fe, and another nine hours up to the peak and back. If you want to climb just to Pecos Baldy Lake, you can knock two hours off the round trip. The trails around here are deceptive and often unmarked. This is definitely a summer only experience and for seasoned hikers. Jack’s Creek Campground at the base of the mountain has adequate facilities.
This is a grinding, five to ten hour round trip that wanders through some of the most spectacular high meadows of the Pecos Wilderness, with views of Truchas Peaks, Pecos Baldy, and Lake Peak to the east. This is not recommended for the inexperienced, nor for a winter hike, as trails are not always well marked and signage defaced. You’ll need a map or explicit directions to reach the trailhead, the Iron Gate Compound, which is about an hour and a half from Santa Fe, and then to continue to the falls. Firs, aspens, iris and mariposa lilies (early summer) greet you on the trail, which tops out at 10,200 feet. The Pecos Falls can be reached at the six mile mark. They’re most spectacular during the spring runoff. You’ll inevitably run into equestrians and serious backpackers, who make this a weekend odyssey.