Summertime day hikes in Santa Fe

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Summertime day hikes in Santa Fe

Summertime day hikes in Santa Fe
Question: My sisters and I will be visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico, in early August. Do you have any suggestions for a nice hike?

Dana Orebaugh
Edmond, Oklahoma

Rock formations in front of Indian pueblo ruins at Bandelier National Monument
Adventure Adviser: Yes, yes, by all means yes, but where to start? You’re certainly coming to the right place — Santa Fe is surrounded by national forests and hikeable terrain. Keep in mind that you’re dealing with higher elevations here, so don’t be surprised if your lungs feel punctured while hiking. Without having a clue as to what kind of hiker you are, what kind of scenery you’re after, or how far you want to travel, here are a few options:

Closest to town is the ever-popular Atalaya Mountain. The two trailheads — one at Ponderosa Ridge development, the other at St. John’s College, are just a couple of miles from the plaza, so it’s super convenient. Named after the Spanish word for watchtower, the Atalaya ridge rises east of Santa Fe and provides some pretty great vistas of town and the surrounding valley. Depending on where you start, Atalaya is either a 5.5- or 7-mile hike, with an elevation gain of 1,600-plus feet. The mostly shaded trail ambles through low scrub before heading uphill through forests of piñon-juniper, ponderosa, and Douglas fir. If you have speedy legs and strong lungs, you can do the hike in under two hours, but most people take their time and spend three to four. If the weather’s good (which it usually is), bring a picnic and lunch on the summit. This hike is also superb during sunset.

For a walk with a more historical slant, check out the Tsankawi Ruins, officially part of Bandelier National Monument near White Rock (about a 45-minute drive). The short, 2-mile loop trail and foot-carved pathway takes you atop a mesa and through the largely unexcavated village of Tsankawi, ancestral home to the Tewa-speaking Pueblo people, descendants of the Chaco Canyon Anasazi. Besides affording sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley, Jemez Mountains, and the Sangre de Cristos, the walk also gives you an opportunity to explore small caves, scramble up ladders, and generally imagine what life atop the mesa must have been like during the 16th century. These are some of the best pueblo ruins around, so don’t miss ‘em if you want to know for about the area’s history.

On the road toward Hyde State Park and the Ski Basin, there are plenty of trails leading into the Santa Fe National Forest. Of these, Chamisa is a relatively easy 5-mile jaunt into the wilderness. The narrow deeply forested trail switchbacks to a view of a nearby canyon before continuing on to a meadow (lunch spot) and the junction with the longer Winsor Trail. If your visit coincides with a hot spell, the Chamisa trail is a great option for a cool hike. And the deep forest, wildflower-covered meadows and rich bird life make you feel like you’re far from town.

Further from town and more spectacular is the Kitchen Mesa hike, which starts from Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keefe’s old haunt in Abiquiu, about a one-and-a-quarter-hour drive from Santa Fe. The 5-mile hike follows a river bank, then cuts through a colorful box canyon. After a short and steep rock scramble, you’ll be atop the large, flat mesa, surrounded by one of the best displays of red rock formations in the state. The trail is pretty exposed so, if it’s a scorcher, do it either early or late.

Two other suggestions, both southeast of Santa Fe: Glorieta Baldy, for a grueling but satisfying longer day hike (11-plus miles), and any one of the numerous hikes in the Pecos Wilderness area of the Santa Fe National Forest. With its Aspen groves, mountain streams and lush meadows, you’ll think you’re in Colorado. One last bit of advice: If you’re considering doing more than one hike (and you should), pick up a copy of Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, put out by the Sierra Club’s local branch. The map of the Mountains of Santa Fe (Drake Mountain Maps) couldn’t hurt either and makes for a nice souvenir when you’re back in flat Oklahoma.

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