The summer crowds have calmed, the weather is cooling off, and there’s something in Santa Fe the air that’ll leave you super charmed. Roasting chiles, vibrant art, bright balloons and changing leaves, full moons above the mountains, and incredible food are all in season.
There are must-sees in New Mexico that peak in Autumn, and whether you’re a first-time Santa Fe visitor or a local, you’ve got a short time to experience the wonder before the snow starts coming down.
We’ve collected a week’s worth of adventures—some day trips, half-day excursions, and some quicker outings.
For a dreamy, enchanting experience that’ll likely lurk in your mind forever, be in town in October 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.
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.
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 pop them in the freezer).
There are over 100 strains of the long green chiles in New Mexico alone. 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).
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 former resident/famous ghost featured on Unsolved Mysteries, Julia Staab. All tours are custom right now, so call for more info.
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.
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 6-people yurts in Hyde Memorial campground.
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.
Spend the rest of the day at the House of Eternal Return, where art meets jungle gym meets fantasy novel. Find your own path, climb through secret passageways, play, crawl, run, explore dozens of rooms, get engulfed by beauty and secrets, and collect inspiration. 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. and fall is a less busy time in the immersive art space in general, which means you’ll likely have a more intimate, exclusive experience where you can truly take in the details. Halloween is a pretty 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, so every journey is unique.
You can’t miss Marble Brewing's Day Ghost, a Japanese-inspired rice lager that is just as immersive as being at the House itself. You can make the drive to Albuquerque to see the mothership or sip this refreshing treat inside Float after a day exploring Meow Wolf Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Brewing Company is 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.
And if beer steins and a weekend full of German festivities are your thing, check out Red River Oktoberfest at the beginning of October.
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.
If you want a great breakfast burrito with a dog-friendly patio in the cooler weather, check out Tune-Up Cafe. House-made chorizo, eggs, home fries, cheese, and of course, get it smothered in red or green (or Christmas-style) chile. Definitely add a fried banana with crema on the side for just $1.
Less than an hour drive from Santa Fe, you can take a stroll or a hike to see cave dwellings, ruins of villages, canyons, and plenty of wildlife.
The Main Loop trail will take you around former community spaces and cave dwellings, where ladders can take you up for a closer look inside. If heights don’t bother you, climb three wooden ladders up to the Alcove House to catch great views and a taste of history.
The Tsankawai Trail is about 15 minutes down the mountain, closer to White Rock, and you will need your paid pass from the main site (good for 7 days so visit more than once if you can) to get in but parking for the trail is off the side of Highway 4. This short, moderate hike has beautiful views over the canyons, to the mountains in the distance. There are a couple ladders on this hike as well.
You can camp overnight if you want and bring your dogs to the campground but not on the trails.
The sunset is seriously a sight to see from anywhere in Santa Fe. Since the tallest building in town tops out at 5-stories, the expansive views of the sunset over the nearby mountains are never blocked.
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.
Relish the huevos rancheros at The Pantry—corn tortillas topped with eggs, chile and cheese, served with pantry fries and beans. Add the Stuffed French Toast to your order, unless you can resist this breakfast treat filled with cream cheese, covered in cornflakes, and topped with berry compote.
The must-visit contemporary museum in town is SITE Santa Fe. Tickets are free and new exhibits featuring paintings, weavings, sculptures, and so much more travel through very regularly.
Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort is a 70-acre paradise filled with gardens, hiking trails, spring-fed soaking pools, and puppies! Adoptable rescue dogs from Española Humane are running around at the magical place known as the Puppy Patch. Not into puppy breath? Pull up a chair and share your healthy snacks with some fluffy silkie chickens (not open for adoption but very open to snuggles).
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.
Fall in Santa Fe, New Mexico is filled with aspen leaves turning gold, the taste of freshly roasted chile, the smell of piñon wood burning in outdoor fire pits. With the shift in seasons, there’s no better time to take in Santa Fe and its surrounding sites.
You’ve got your list of wonder-filled trips and to-dos, now all you have to do is get here.