Seasons in Santa Fe: Secrets Of The Region's Spectacular Environments
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Seasons in Santa Fe: Secrets Of The Region’s Spectacular Natural Environments

Valles Caldera

If you’ve never been to northern New Mexico, or have only spent brief periods of time here, you might not know about the diversity of outdoors environments and activities that the area has to offer — and in bountiful supply. We think the seasons of Santa Fe are unbeatable, so here’s our nod to each one.

Northern New Mexico is at high altitude with relatively low precipitation. Even so, the landscapes within this geography are extraordinarily diverse and often green and growing. From hiking and mountain biking to world-class skiing and water sports, our area is rife with opportunities to experience the great outdoors in ways many visitors haven’t yet discovered.

While many people know about Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, and the Taos Pueblo — all well worth visiting for their incredible beauty and historical richness—we thought we’d put together a compendium of some lesser-known opportunities to enjoy the singular nature of northern New Mexico’s exquisite natural environments.

Here’s a brief tour of some of the areas and activities we love in and around Santa Fe, organized by season:

Spring

Taos Gorge Bridge

Taos Gorge Bridge

Spring at times has heavy winds but there are still many things that we love to do outdoors, especially when the glorious mountain flowers begin to bloom. In Santa Fe, people are always up for a spring scramble up Sun Mountain on the eastern edge of town. The trail, which travels only about a mile to the top, gains almost a mile again in elevation in that short distance, giving hikers and runners a lot of aerobic and muscle-firming bang for the buck.

This is a go-to hike when you want to get a good workout in nature but don’t have a lot of time to drive to somewhere more remote. The 360 view from the top as well as the marvelous incremental views you take in as you climb are spectacular. Favorite time of day: late afternoon/early evening, so you can watch the sun start to set before you make your way down. Bring a flashlight in case you miscalculate and as always wherever you roam: plenty of water.

The trail head is about 1/4 mile from the intersection of East Zia Road and Old Santa Fe Trail, on the right side of Old Santa Fe Trail as you head toward town. Roadside parking available.

Here’s a tip from one of Meow Wolf’s most outdoorsy of outdoors people, Damian Taggart, our chief business development officer: “Diablo Canyon is a cool spot along the Rio Grande, also known by the formal name Caja Del Rio, that’s great for a short hike. It offers many climbing routes and there’s even a rocky cave that descends down into the mesa.”

On a breezy day you can climb into the Solar Cave to shield yourself from the wind and, from there, enjoy the solitude of this lesser-known trail. This 4.3-mile hike is a relatively easy one and is great for everyone, including kids and dogs. Wear a hat and sunscreen and bring water! To get there, take route 599 to the Camino La Tierra exit and head west on Camino La Tierra Road. After about four miles, take a right onto the unpaved Old Buckman Road. After about 7.5 miles you will reach the turnoff, on your left, used for parking for the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area. About 20 miles from downtown, much of Old Buckman Road is bumpy. A four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is recommended but not strictly necessary.


Summer

Seasons of Santa Fe

Options abound in summer. Some of our favorites: hikes in the 1.6 million acres of adjacent Santa Fe National Forest off of Hyde Park Road, lake excursions, hanging out by the Santa Fe River, and sunset rambles along the Rio Grande River Gorge in Taos.

The Santa Fe National Forest offers countless hikes that radiate off of Hyde Park Road. One of our favorites is the Borrego-Bear Wallow Trail hike, which forms a loop through the forest and includes traversing a mountain stream. This 4.5-mile excursion through aspen and fir woods, while regularly used, is almost never crowded.

The trail is an easy to moderate hike that puts you in glorious shade throughout while you hear the calls of many different kinds of birds as you make your way through the woods. The body of water you’ll find at the intersection of the trails is the clear-as-gin Tesuque Creek. Take off your shoes, dip your feet into the cold mountain runoff, and enjoy the sound of birdcalls and the smell of pine forest for a spell before you head back.

We guarantee that you will find this forest bath restorative. From Santa Fe, take Hyde Park Road / State Road 475 for eight miles. After passing Hyde State Park turn immediately into the paved parking lot on your left. There are spots available for about nine cars.

Water in Santa Fe, where and when we find it, is always a treat. The Santa Fe River runs only from time to time through our city, when water is sent down from our dams and spillways in controlled releases. When this happens locals celebrate in various ways. We wade into the river until our feet turn blue from the cold. We gather flat stones and skip them for hours. We picnic and have long, rambling conversations with friends by the river at any and every provocation.

In short, we spend as much time by the river as possible while the water is running to feel its extraordinary powers of renewal. The Santa Fe River runs through town and offers lots of access points, including many right downtown. One favorite is at the back of Bicentennial-Alto Park, just beyond the large cottonwood trees, a block in from West Alameda: 1121 Alto Street. The cottonwoods offer a great place to picnic under their shade and, conveniently, there are picnic tables dotted through the park.

While most of our lakes are dammed and therefore not exactly natural, they make for exquisite presences in our grassland and savannah landscape. My two favorite lakes nearby are Cochiti, about a 40-minute drive from Santa Fe, and Abiquiu, about an hour and ten minutes away.

What do I love to do at these lakes? Anything and everything. At Cochiti, local outfitter Sol Board Sports rents stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, windsurfers and other water crafts and its friendly proprietor, Gene, offers instruction for those who need it as well.

At Abiquiu Lake, people tend to hang out on the rocks and dip into the water for cooling-off swims. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet some friendly New Mexicans who will invite you aboard their boat to explore the lake more fully.

Local tip: The view of Ghost Ranch from the lake is spectacular. Make sure you ask your new boating friends to take you there. Stand-up paddleboard rentals can be procured at Origin, a resort about 35 minutes from Abiquiu, near Ojo Caliente.

Taos is about an hour and a half from Santa Fe and here hikers, mountain bikers, and river rafters can indulge in any of these activities with a great variety of terrain and possibilities. Whatever you choose to do, at the end of the day take a sunset walk along the Rio Grand Gorge West Rim Trail, which offers spectacular primeval scenery and will allow you to listen in to this area’s exquisite silence.

If you are moved to do so, hike down into the gorge to either Manby or Black Rock Hot Springs to enjoy a natural mineral soak alongside the exquisite Rio Grande River.

Fall

Hyde State Park, Fall

Hyde State Park, Fall

We all know about the extraordinary fall colors with which New England is annually ablaze but did you know that northern New Mexico has forests full of spectacular color-changing trees that announce themselves boldly in autumn as well?

The Aspen Basin of the Santa Fe National Forest contains literally thousands of aspen trees, the leaves of which turn a gorgeous shade of yellow-gold as they twinkle like coins in the fall breezes. Our mountain air is clean and fresh and the golden, multi-layered aspen vistas are a truly spectacular sight at this time of year—beginning at some point in mid-September.

As the Aspen Vista Trail tends to be overrun with autumn revelers on weekends after the leaves start to turn, try to head up during the week if you can. Another possibility in a different ecosystem: visit the stand of maples lining the trails of the Fourth of July campground in Estancia, New Mexico, about a two-hour drive from Santa Fe, to enjoy the brilliant oranges and reds more typical of an east-coast autumn.

Here again, try to visit during the week rather than on weekends to avoid the crowds.

Chris Stahelin is a native New Mexican and one of Meow Wolf’s excellent visitor services staff and he offers this fall-season insider’s tip: Head to Valles Caldera National Reserve, the remains of a 1.25-million-year-old volcano in the Jemez National Forest.

“The Caledera is the most beautiful piece of land I have ever seen,” Chris says. The preserve covers more than 89,000 acres and is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in winter. Busy season runs from May through October.

This vast landscape is home to the second-largest elk herd in the state and also the habitat of bears, coyotes, golden eagles, and many other forms of wildlife. You can explore 54 miles of hiking trails, 30 miles of trout streams, and many additional miles of meadows and tracks conducive to mountain biking, horse-back riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sleigh riding—considerable opportunity to enjoy nature in a variety of ways across all seasons.

Overnight accommodations and ranger-led tours are available as well. The main entrance is about an hour from Santa Fe, located at mile marker 39.2 along NM Highway 4. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Winter

Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley

Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley

Northern New Mexico enjoys over 315 days of sunshine per year and so winter is a pleasurable place to be outdoors even when at its coldest. While there is plenty of snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and sledding available during snowy winters, what you might not know is that we have some of best downhill skiing anywhere in the country.

Ski Santa Fe is a great mountain for beginners and experts, though it has more limited terrain for experienced intermediate skiers who prefer groomers and bumps to tree skiing. Ski Santa Fe, which aims to open the Friday after Thanksgiving, is the ideal choice for those who want to stay in the city and still ski, as the lifts are just 30 or so minutes from downtown—one of the only such resorts in North America so close to so much culture.

The 67 well-groomed trails cover about 660 acres of often fluffy powder. The mountain enjoys an average of 225 inches of snow each year and has plenty of snowmaking capability. About 80 percent of the runs are intermediate and expert trails, with a few, such as the Columbine and Parachute trails, breathtakingly steep. Seven modern lifts keep lines to a minimum even on holiday weekends.

Chipmunk Corner is a full service learning complex that offers top-notch instruction for your kids and peace of mind for you while you are out on the slopes. Between drop off and pick up, your kids will learn to ski and ride in an area just for them. A day in Chipmunk Corner includes lesson, rentals, lunch, and a kids-only ski slope with conveyor lift.

At Ski Santa Fe, the whole family is assured sunny skiing most days, along with hundred-mile views from the 12,000-foot summit, one of the highest of any ski area in the nation.

Taos Ski Valley has a lot of choices for both experienced intermediate and expert skiers, and plenty of nice beginner and basic intermediate runs as well. Taos has 1,200 skiable acres and about 300 inches of annual snowfall, with a decidedly European feel at its base due to its authentic French and German auberges at the foot of two different parts of the mountain.

Anyone who knows Taos will tell you that there’s something strange and magical about it and skiing here is a truly joyful experience due the resort’s customer-friendly staff and the beautiful sun that accompanies skiers most days. The groomed runs are never over-groomed, leaving plenty of deep stuff on the sides to satisfy powder lovers, and the ungroomed steeps offer little slices of heaven for expert skiers willing to get up extra early to make their own elegant tracks.

Taos Ski Valley is about two hours from Santa Fe and a must-ski destination for lovers of skiing and snowboarding. Check out the new Blake Hotel, named for the resort’s founder Ernie Blake, for an elegant ski-in, ski-out stayover, as well as its new restaurant, 192, for an apres-ski cocktail and eclectic menu.

Local’s tip: February and sometimes even March are typically the best snow months.

That’s our brief introduction to the seasons of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico. There is so much more, from golfing and fishing to horseback riding, petroglyph trails, and whitewater rafting. Did we mention stargazing? Santa Fe at 7,200 feet, with no major cities for miles all around and an ordinance prohibiting light pollution, offers jaw-dropping starfield majesty year round. You don’t have to go very far from Meow Wolf to see all this and more.

We’ll be back each season to spotlight some more special places for you and your family–and when at Meow Wolf, feel free to ask!

Happy Trails!

For more information on these locations visit the New Mexico State Parks page.

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