When Georgia O’Keeffe first set eyes on the New Mexican landscape around Santa Fe, she wrote, “I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air — it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested and I don’t want them interested.”
O’Keeffe was right about this place, and she was right about us: We’re interested. Now more than ever, we crave the fresh air, the fresh experiences, the wide-open spaces, the sky and wind, the soul reawakening that only a place like The City Different and its surroundings can offer. We need to reinvigorate our senses and start over. Here’s how to uncover your different in Santa Fe.
Note: All businesses, state and national parks, and monuments should be contacted prior to visiting to ensure accessibility and safety.
1. Hiking the wilds of Santa Fe National Forest
At nearly 1.6 million acres, with hundreds of miles of trails, alpine lakes, mountain streams, aspen groves, hot springs, and elevations from five to 13,000 feet, Santa Fe National Forest has an incredibly diverse catalog of hikes. The trek up to the 12,600-foot Santa Fe Baldy is widely regarded as the top choice, a 14-mile journey you could easily turn into a two-day backpacking adventure. Either start ahead of the sun or stop at Puerto Nambé, a level meadow area about five miles in, to set up camp and take your time with the views.
Nearby Lake Katherine has its own incredible 360-degree alpine vista, while Jemez Falls and Rio En Medio Falls are accessible via easy and moderate hikes, respectively. Most agree that the golden hues of the quaking aspen make autumn the time to go, though this national forest is truly a four-season destination.
2. Soaking in the McCauley Hot Springs
Santa Fe National Forest is also home to a dormant volcano, and natural hot springs remain here to remind us that New Mexico’s heat-churning days aren’t over.
The 3.4-mile steadily uphill hike to the McCauley Hot Springs has great views the whole way, starting with the towering Battleship Rock — near the trailhead — and ending with small waterfalls and pools large enough for 15-20 people to have a soak under normal conditions (so if you and a few friends can score it all to yourself, you’ll have plenty of space).
3. Exploring tent rocks and fairytale hoodoos
Some six or seven million years ago, a thousand-foot-thick blanket of pumice, ash, and volcanic tuff covered this swath of north-central New Mexico. Over time, the rock layers have weathered and eroded, turning Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument into a fairytale land of tent-shaped cones, hoodoos, and slot canyons you can wander through, around, and between.
The 1.5-mile Canyon Trail is a one-way hike into a gorgeous slot canyon, and at the top of the steep 630-foot climb, you’ll summit a mesa and look out to three mountain ranges — the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia — and over the Rio Grande Valley.
Note: To avoid crowds, go early.
4. Rafting the Rio Grande
Around half an hour from Santa Fe, you’ll find both the roaring Rio Grande and the somewhat calmer Rio Chama, one of its tributaries. One day you’re navigating Class IV rapids in the Taos Box, a remote, cliff-lined chasm with 60-some rapids — the next, you’re lazily floating to the tune of rippling water.
The Rio Chama is a designated Wild and Scenic River, and a three-day float takes you along 30+ miles of water — some stretches with Class I–III rapids — much of the ride underneath high sandstone walls. Both Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe found inspiration in this area, and that should tell you all you need to know.
As for the Rio Grande, opt for a day trip through the Lower Gorge, tackle the Taos Box if you’ve got the confidence, or go for a 24-hour overnight trip in the scenic Orilla Verde section to catch twilight on the water. New Mexico River Adventures can hook you up with all of the above.
5. Mountain biking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
This southerly subrange of the Rocky Mountains extends well into New Mexico, peaks jutting into the sky just east of Santa Fe. The Sangre de Cristos are crisscrossed with mountain biking trails, most nearing a description not too shy of the word “difficult.” Here are a few to check out:
- Dale Ball Outer Limits – Winding through Santa Fe County, city proper, and Santa Fe National Forest, the Dale Ball Trails are some of the most accessible. The 9.4-mile North and Central Loops, which link to form the Outer Limits, ascending and descending some 1,200 feet with a max grade of 21%, weed out the beginners.
- Jagged Axe – If you’re a fan of high-speed corners, chutes, rock-rolls, and hike-a-bike sections, the 2.7-mile “Jagged Axe” — near Glorieta — will give you a run for your money.