It’s not a stretch to say that having a connection to nature is a prerequisite for living in or visiting Santa Fe. Although predominantly known for its art and culture, the City Different is also an outdoor activities epicenter for North Central New Mexico. Whether you’re a lifelong resident, a newcomer or a visitor, there are countless outdoor options in and around Santa Fe.
Mountain lovers delight in the fact that Santa Fe is hugged by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Jemez Mountains, although farther away, draw attention with their hot springs and dramatic sunsets. Desert dwellers are equally gratified by the region’s vast high-desert topography. This guide lays out suggestions for outdoor destinations and activities, whether you have an afternoon, a full day or the luxury of an entire weekend to enjoy them.
A lack of time doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality of experience. A scenic drive can be as wonderful a way to enjoy the mountains as a hike. Highway 475 is the Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway. Starting near downtown Santa Fe, the curvy road ascends from the high-desert foothills to Ski Santa Fe, at 10,390 feet. Shortly before you reach the ski basin, you’ll see a roadside parking area that has benches where you can sit and take in the mountain scenery, scents and sounds.
If high elevation and strenuous hikes aren’t a problem for you, you’ll find that Alamos Vista fills the bill. Also situated off Highway 475, its trailhead is accessed from the Aspen Vista parking lot. This short but steep three-mile out-and-back hike will give your legs a workout. On the way up, your calves, heart and lungs may scream at you, but you’ll forget about it once you reach the top and take in the panorama. The trail concludes at the western edge of the Ski Santa Fe boundary. Here, Alamos Vista lives up to its name, rewarding you with grand views of our beloved aspens and down below, in the distance, the City Different. This iconic view is stunning in any season.
Know before you go: Dogs are allowed. Some years, invasive tent caterpillars can be an annoyance on the trails in June/July.
Read more: Design Editor Avery Pearson’s Trail Photo Essay on Alamos Vista Trail No. 381.
If you’re not acclimated to the high elevation but still want to get out of the car and explore on foot, try Diablo Canyon. It offers an easy, flat arroyo hike between striking canyon walls, and the trail leads to the Rio Grande. It’s a thirty-minute drive northwest from Santa Fe, much of which is on a dirt road but doesn’t require an AWD vehicle. The canyon is a haven for climbers, and the most scenic part of the trail is at the beginning. It’s a pleasant spot to explore and wander around if you don’t have the time to complete the whole hike or don’t want to.
Know before you go: Dogs are allowed. The dry summer heat can be brutal, so bring sunscreen and plenty of water. Also, check the weather forecast before going: you don’t want to get caught here during a monsoon thunderstorm as it can wash out the road.
Another great lower-elevation trail, one that’s gentle enough for small children, is the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve Trail. The short 1.3-mile trail loops around Two-Mile Reservoir, once a main source of the city’s drinking water. The nature preserve features benches and shady spots. It has been seeded with native wildflowers, and beavers have reclaimed the ponds.
Know before you go: Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
After completing the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve Trail, you can continue along Upper Canyon Road for a half mile to the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary. As of the Santa Fean publication date, the center’s buildings were still closed, and bird walks and tours cancelled because of COVID-19 restrictions. However, the Audubon Center trails are open during regular business hours. This means you can enjoy birdwatching and nature walks amid the 135 acres of critical habitat for birds and other wildlife adjacent to the Santa Fe National Forest.
Know before you go: Dogs are not allowed.
If you have a full day in Santa Fe, you can pack in lots of nature-filled activities. You can enjoy some nature-related attractions in town first, or head directly to the mountains for a day hike.
The Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute, situated in the city’s foothills, fuses Southwestern elements with Japanese zendo. It’s an ideal place for meditation, nature walks and retreats. Co-director Henry Shukman says the Institute’s Mountain Cloud Center “is threaded with trails where we can bring a deeply receptive frame of mind to bear on the natural beauty of the place and give ourselves time to connect with it deeply.”
If you want to sample Santa Fe’s triad of arts, culture and nature, you can enjoy all three at Museum Hill. Visit the museums and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, which showcases exceptional landscape design using both native plants and drought-tolerant non-natives appropriate for this region. Additionally, you can head across town to the Santa Fe Railyard Park, an award-winning urban park that features community food gardens and nature-based projects for all ages.
In New Mexico, water is life. It is the desert, after all, but our water-scarce state does have some lakes. They aren’t enormous like the ones in the Midwest, but our small desert and alpine lakes are something to write home about.
It’s not often one gets to see a river’s source, but the hike to Nambé Lake checks that box. Close to Santa Fe, the hike is a favorite of local nature enthusiasts. The seven-mile out-and-back hike has a steep, challenging final stretch just before you reach your heavenly alpine destination: 12,408-foot Lake Peak. It rises above the lake basin, the starting point of the Río Nambé. Snowpack that collects there in winter melts to form the river’s headwaters.
Know before you go: This hike is recommended for experienced hikers. Dogs are allowed on the trail.
If Nambé Lake is a sight for sore eyes, then Ten Thousand Waves is a sight for sore muscles. Pairing your hike with a soak afterward is the best combo. Inspired by Japanese hot springs resorts, this spa is located on the way back down Highway 475 from your hike to Nambé Lake. It features both indoor and outdoor hot tubs, spa services, bodywork and Japanese cuisine. Izanami, its full-service restaurant, is also known for its extensive saké menu. Blue Heron Restaurant at Ojo Santa Fe, on the other side of town, is a bit of a drive, but worth it for the excellent fresh, creative fare. A long soak in the outdoor Repose Pools, surrounded by giant cottonwood trees, is sure to soothe those achy joints after a steep hike. So, take your pick — either choice will be the right one.
If you love lakeside time but aren’t a hiker, Abiquiú Lake makes for a glorious day trip. You don’t have to love fishing and you don’t need a boat to enjoy this desert lake, especially if you’re a swimmer. Just an hour north of Santa Fe, Abiquiú Lake is perfect for spending a sweltering summer day diving off cliffs and swimming to your heart’s desire. This turquoise lake is surrounded by mesas, including the Cerro Pedernal, made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe in her paintings. Abiquiú Lake is fed by the Río Chama, a major tributary of the Rio Grande that flows through a multi-colored sandstone canyon before reaching the lake. Exploring the wild and scenic river area is a high-desert indulgence to consider. It features hiking trails, picnic and camping sites, and rafting.
If you’re lucky enough to have an entire weekend to explore North Central New Mexico, you’ll find choices abound. The Taos area is a key region to sightsee. Because scenic drives can bring you in touch with nature as much as a hike can, the drive alone is half the pleasure. Both the High Road to Taos and the Low Road are scenic gems. While in Taos, you’d be remiss if you didn’t visit the Gorge Bridge, which spans a breathtaking geologic marvel: a tectonic chasm carved by the Rio Grande over the last several million years. Hold on to your hat — literally — because it’s always very windy there.
Spending a relaxing night at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa is a serene treat. The resort offers communal and private pools, spa services, lodging and the Artesian Restaurant. It’s one of the country’s oldest natural healing destinations, and its waters have been held sacred by the surrounding Pueblos for some 3,000 years. The mineral pools are enclosed by picturesque sandstone cliffs and nearby hiking trails. There are also campsites available for those on a budget or who just prefer sleeping outside under the stars.
For the more rugged, outdoorsy types who are seeking serious solitude, the Latir Peak Wilderness is an optimal outing. North of Taos from the Cabresto Lake Campground, you can hike 4.5 miles to Heart Lake, or you can trek even farther to reach the area’s highest point, Venado Peak, at 12,733 feet. This hike is not for the faint of heart, but this challenging excursion is well worth the effort. It can be a long day, so plan accordingly and be sure to get an early start.
Last, don’t forget about the Jemez Mountains, about an hour and a half west of Santa Fe. Since 2000, several intense wildfires have decimated parts of this mountain range, and it’s evident along the drive. Even so, the remaining trees stand tall and proud.
Jemez Falls Campground has a hiking trail that connects downstream to the Battleship Rock Picnic Area. This is a relatively tough hike, so it’s best to start at Battleship Rock and trek uphill first. After two miles you’ll pass McCauley Warm Springs, but resist the temptation to soak until you head back. Instead, continue making your way to Jemez Falls, where you can enjoy a long lunch break and then cool off in the river. There’s also an overlook from which you can view the falls below. Hiking back to Battleship Rock is an easy downhill trip. You’ll once again come to McCauley Warm Springs — this time, indulge. The springs are ideal for summer as they’re indeed warm, not hot, springs. A series of terraced pools among conifer trees provides a perfect place to relax after the hike.
Know before you go: The water is home to little fish that enjoy nibbling on your skin, exfoliating you as you soak. Although fascinating and safe, this experience may not appeal to everyone.
Also in the Jemez Mountains, the spectacular Valles Caldera Natural Preserve, known locally as the Valle Grande, is sacred to the region’s Ancestral Pueblo peoples. More than a million years ago, volcanic activity created this nearly fourteen-mile-diameter caldera (crater), with vast valleys and meadows that today teem with elk and other wildlife.
Finally, you can visit nearby Bandelier National Monument, also sacred to Pueblo peoples. The monument features ruins and a series of hiking trails, notably the Cerro Grande Trail. It’s a short, four-mile, somewhat strenuous hike that leads to a magnificent aerial overlook of the Valle Grande.
Know before you go: Dogs are not allowed in Bandelier National Monument or the Valles Caldera Natural Preserve.
Regardless of how much or how little time you have, you can enjoy outdoor destinations and adventures in and around Santa Fe. Before heading out, be sure to check for up-to-date reopening information.
Quita Ortiz is a native New Mexican who resides in the Pojoaque Valley. She’s a writer, photographer, maker, herbalist and avid hiker. Follow her on Instagram to see more Northern New Mexico scenery and learn more about the region’s culture.