Come late September, when fall ramps up in Santa Fe, New Mexico so does the magic—the sound of the wind quaking through the bold gold aspen leaves, the taste of freshly roasted chile, the smell of the white sage in the cooled-off breeze. There are must-sees in New Mexico that peek out in Autumn, and whether you’re a first-time Santa Fe visitor or a local, you’ve got a brief window to get in on the wonder.
We’ve collected a week’s worth of thrills—some day trips, half-day excursions, and some quicker outings—that you can sprinkle around as you choose. Setting out into the greater New Mexico from The City Different, no itinerary should be the same, so make yours magic.
Float on to the Fiesta
For a dreamy, enchanting experience that’ll likely lurk in your mind forever, be in town between October 6-14 for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. It’s the world’s largest hot air balloon fest and it happens just an hour drive from Santa Fe. To avoid the biggest crowds (especially on weekends), grab a morning session pass (for $10) to see Dawn Patrol.
At 5:45 a.m. about a dozen balloons begin a choreographed inflation set to music for a launch time typically around 6 a.m. The hot air balloons illuminate the early-morning darkness, resembling floating lanterns, and are an indicator of the day’s flights. Then, when it’s light enough for the balloonists to see their landing sites, they come back down.
If you’re at the fiesta for a weekend, 7 a.m. kicks off Mass Ascension, when all 500 bright balloons (with striking patterns and colors, some in the shape of bumblebees, ladybugs, a high-top sneaker, and even two bears hugging) launch in less than two hours. The quick waves of floating balloons are enough to give you chills, and the early morning and evenings may, too, so be sure to wear layers.
If you don’t make the early shows, you can still see inflated balloons glowing in unison in the night sky at the Balloon Glow event, but they don’t launch like they do at Dawn Patrol. If the thought of interesting shaped balloons, like the ones mentioned above, gets you excited, attend the special shape events.
In town for a longer spell? Spending more than a half day at the nine-day fiesta makes sense, and if it’s in the budget and on your bucket list, you can hop in a private hot air balloon basket, for about $400 per person.
When fall hits in Santa Fe, there’s a smoky, roasted, vaguely spicy smell that lingers through town. Roll down your car windows or give yourself a pause while walking the Plaza and take in it. It’s chile roasting season from the end of September through October, an indicator of fall in New Mexico, the start of school year and sweater weather.
In parking lots and farmers markets across town, barrel roasters turn their fresh chile-filled drums. These are the spots to buy a pillowcase-size sack of roasted chiles—a souvenir for the entire year (just freeze and pace yourself).
There are over 100 strains of the long green chiles in New Mexico alone, and the region’s soil and climate are what makes them taste so dang good. Some people prefer the green’s smokiness and lingering warmth, and others like the sweet, heavy undertones of the red, and some choose both (what the locals call, Christmas). While you’re here this fall, decode your chile pick.
The dimly lit interior of The Hotel St. Francis, the oldest hotel in Santa Fe, struts Franciscan missionary style, earthy tones and rustic décor. Grab a seat at the Secreto Lounge outdoor bar and get cozy while sipping the Spicy Secreto, made with cachaça, jalapeno and a chile rim.
Santa Fe is the second oldest town in America, followed by St. Augustine, making it easy to get into the spirit(s) here. In the words of Original Santa Fe Ghost Tour owner/storyteller Peter Sinclaire, “Many souls have lived here and some are still here.” On Sinclaire’s guided walk, you can expect a combination of street theater, paranormal, Santa Fe history, and a trip to La Posada de Santa Fe to catch a glimpse of famous ghost and former resident, Julia Staab. Tours are on Friday or Saturday evening, and if you’re hoping to book close to Halloween (the busiest time for the tours), there are more frequent tours throughout the week.
Go Aspen Peeping
There’s a short period of time when the aspen leaves become bright golden yellow. From town, you can peer up at the Sangre de Cristo foothills and see the sprinkling aspens in clusters. Take the ski lift (for $16 roundtrip) or hike the Aspen Trail in Hyde Memorial State Park. Changing aspens are a Santa Fe site to see and hear—as the wind blows through the leaves, the melody is said to sound like spirits whispering. New Mexico’s called the Land of Enchantment for a reason.
Fun fact: A group of aspen trees is considered one organism, with one root system, according to the National Forest Foundation. They’re even called clones because each tree is a genetic replica of the other.
Stay the night: Nature lovers can book one of the three 6-people yurts in Hyde Memorial campground.
Knock back some Tortilla Flats
For lunch, head to the spot where you’ll find a slew of locals, Tortilla Flats. Grab a burger served on a tortilla with grilled onions, bacon, avocado, green chile and cheese. Or go for the restaurant’s family favorite, the red chile pork ribs baked with a spicy red chile barbecue sauce and served with pinto beans and a sopapilla.
Get lost at Meow Wolf
Spend the rest of the day at Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, where art meets jungle gym meets fantasy novel. Once inside the 20,000-square-foot space, it feels like a blanket of explorable art swaddles you. Find your own path, climb through secret passageways, play, crawl, run, explore dozens of rooms, get engulfed by beauty and weirdness, collect inspiration—all until 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. And if you’re checking out an event in the venue space, many weekend music acts play until 2 a.m.
Crowd traffic in the House seems to decrease between 4:30-5 p.m. But fall is a less busy time in the immersive art space in general, which means you’ll likely have a more intimate, exclusive experience because you can truly take in the details solo. And since Halloween is a big deal to Meow Wolf, they have something special up their sleeves for the season, so stay tuned.
The House of Eternal Return was created by over 100 local artists, and everyone who explores the exhibit seems to get something completely unique back from their experience, come see what sticks with you.
Drink local brews
Beer lovers be sure to tour Santa Fe Brewing Company on Saturdays at noon to see where the microbrewery magic happens. It’s about a 15-minute drive from downtown and the perfect time to taste the flagship brews and seasonal swills, and you can even grab a growler of your fave tastes to go. This is the time of year for their Oktoberfest, a clean-finishing beer that blends crisp meltiness and Bavarian hops—it’s enough to make you want to grab a salty pretzel. And the word Oktoberfest makes you want to grab a stein, check out Red River Oktoberfest from October 5-7.
Burrito for Breakfast
This local, counter-only spot, open since 1958, may be home to your favorite breakfast burrito in town. El Parasol’s version combines egg, potato, cheese, chile, and your choice of meat, smothered with chile. While you’re here, grab some homemade biscochitos for dessert, the New Mexican cookie is the perfect end to a savory meal.
Feel the white sands between your toes
If you have time in your itinerary, the 233-mile south schlep to White Sands National Monument is worth the otherworldly experience. A sea of wavy, snow-white dunes from the Tularosa Basin creates the world’s largest gypsum dune field. And sunset here is more New Mexico magic to throw in the cauldron, especially the moment when the sand and sky turn to various shades of pink.
Visiting in the fall weeks, when temperatures aren’t topping 100 degrees, makes a ton of sense. While hiking the dunes, be sure to pop off your shoes and feel the gypsum on your feet, it’s the second softest mineral in the world (followed only by talc), and even in the dead of summer, it’s cool to the touch. Even though it doesn’t absorb heat, it does produce a mean surface reflection though, so be sure to pack your hat and sunglasses (the glare is real).
Park Ranger Kelly Carroll recommends making your way to a dune that’s high up and watching the sunset behind the mountains. We say, come for the sunset and stay for the Full Moon Hike. There are six total per year and two in the fall months (one September 23 and one October 23). The mile-long Full Moon Hike is a leisurely one, good for families, but you’ll want to treat tour reservation like Beyoncé tickets, there are only 40 tickets and they go on sale one month before and sell out fast (set a reminder for yourself).
Stay the night: You can camp on the dunes, as long as you get a permit, or you can stay at the Super 8 in nearby Alamogordo (it’s about a 20-minute drive).
Pooch perk: If you’re traveling with your pooch, bring them along, this is one of the most dog-friendly parks you’ll find and the cool sand won’t hurt dog paws.
Stay in Santa Fe for the Sunset
The sunset is seriously a sight to see from anywhere in Santa Fe. And with the tallest building in town topping out at 5-stories, the expansive views of the sunset over the nearby mountains is never blocked. In the fall, the crisp air and fall leaves add a newness to the experience.
For a view of the whole city, take a 5-minute walk northeast of the downtown Plaza, up the brick walkway to the Cross of the Martyrs. Here you can see the warm sun ending another day over earth-toned Santa Fe. Or for a more private sunset site recommended by locals (think Santa Fe’s own make out point), check out the tucked away viewing spot on the corner of Calle Dorthia and Camino Francisca.
Meet at the Pantry
Relish the huevos rancheros at The Pantry—corn tortillas topped with eggs, chile and cheese, served with pantry fries and beans.
See the SITE
The must-visit contemporary museum in town is SITE Santa Fe. When in town this fall, take a walk through SITELines Casa tomada, which opened in August, closes in January, and features 23 artists from eight countries. From weavings to films to sculpture to dioramas to large scale pieces on the side of the building, this will be an exhibition you won’t want to miss.
Soak at Ojo
Your body will appreciate the healing powers of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, with soothing spring fed pools, a dry sauna and full resort. This is worth the 45-minute trip to Espanola. The property is surrounded by hundreds of thousands acres of hike-able public land, including the P’osi Pueblo Ruins Trail, a little over a mile roundtrip to pueblo ruins where P’osi generations lived for over a thousand years. While hiking, keep your peepers pooped for pottery shards and ruins. The nearby Joseph’s mine trail and mica mines leads to caves and a vista worth seeing.
Heading to the Ojo in the evening? It could save you a few bucks if you pop in after 6 p.m., but rates are reasonable all day long. Post soak, take in the stars and stare at the flicker of an outdoor fire—you’ll feel healed.
Stay the night: This fall, Ojo Caliente has plans to open eight, fully-renovated, vintage trailers with a full-size bed, full bath and kitchenette. They’ll line the campground area near the epic cliffs—sign me up.
Soak in Santa Fe
If you’d prefer to stay in town, melt into the Japanese-inspired Ten Thousand Waves. Here you can take a dip in an outdoor hot tub among the junipers, book a scalp massage, or lean back in an underwater recliner built for two. If you find yourself hungry while here, Izanami has mouthwatering small plates, such as the wagyu steak with miso truffle jus, tori no karaage (swanky fried chicken), and smoked pork ribs with ginger pineapple red cabbage slaw, along with a full tasting menu.
Stay the night: For a gorgeous room, wood-burning stove and private courtyard, spend the night in their lodgings, Houses of the Moon.
Pooch perk: All lodging rooms are pet-friendly with dog beds, food/water bowl, and dog-proof courtyard access.
Day trip+ (or Day 5)
Explore the Caves
If you find yourself with plenty of time to head south, a 273-mile away stop at Carlsbad Caverns National Park for the candle-lit lantern tour could be a fun way to see the local caves. It’s a moderately difficult, 2-hour tour on dirt and rock trails, and hiking boots are recommended because of the uneven and slippery surfaces. While you’re visiting be sure to check out the Bat Flight Program, where thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the cave in search of dinner.
Fun fact: According to the National Park Service, September is a good time to see boatloads of bats because this is the time when summer-borne baby bats join the flight along with migrating bats from colonies further north.
Your fall trip is calling
With the shift in seasons, there’s no better time to take in Santa Fe and its surrounding sites. The summer crowds have calmed, the weather is cooling off, and there’s something in the air that’ll leave you super charmed. Roasting chiles, vibrant art, bright balloons and changing leaves, full moons and wavy dunes, and food like no other—you’ve got your list of wonder-filled trips and to-dos, now all you have to do is get here.