The mountains above Santa Fe received their first snowy frosting on the first day of autumn, a timely reminder the leaves are about to treat us to their colorful autumnal appearance. Our city is renowned for its diverse visual arts, but Mother Nature herself manages to put on a pretty stunning exhibit at this time of year. With so much beauty nestled under the azure Santa Fe sky, it’s a good thing there’s more than one way to experience it.
Take the High Way
Looking up from the heart of downtown Santa Fe to see the 12,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains turn bright gold is pleasant, but wouldn’t you like to get closer … lots closer? Catch this fleeting fall drama by taking an upper-level tour of the mountainside on the Ski Santa Fe scenic chair lift service. This bird’s eye view is mesmerizing, as aspens leaves shake and shimmer below in all their glimmering glory. It may even entice you lovers of winter to return for a visit when the hillsides are covered with fluffy white powder, especially since season passes are now on sale. Just be sure your camera is fully charged, because you’ll be snapping away non-stop from this heavenly height.
Pedal Power Puts You at the Leading Edge of Color
A quick getaway may preclude bringing your own beloved mountain bike, but Santa Fe’s bike buddy Mellow Velo can quickly fill the gap for avid pedal pushers. With a unique collection of high-end people-powered vehicles on hand, this well-established rental and service shop will spend time getting you outfitted appropriately and send you off the trail they think will best suit you. Yes, you can bring your own pedals for them to install! And it’s not only the mountainsides that change hue – the city has some mighty colorful cottonwoods (one of Georgia’s O’Keeffe’s favorite trees) turning yellow each fall, so taking a trip around the city by bike is also an admirable autumn option.
Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now
Santa Fe Baldy is the mountaintop we locals scan to see what the weather has in store for us. Baldy is a rather jocular way to refer to being above tree line — altitude 12,631 feet, in case you were wondering — but a sense of humor is always helpful on an upward-bound hike. Located 15 miles northeast of the city, Baldy is the last tall peak in New Mexico, as the mountains slowly lower on their way down through the state. The well-marked trail climbs to a saddle about 1,000 feet below the summit, and the remaining distance is a steep trek up along the ridgeline. The walk 7 miles up takes you through golden aspens and stands of stately Ponderosa pines, until you pass the tree line at about 700 feet below the peak. Just don’t forget it’s also 7 miles back down.
Your companions? Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, published by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the maps in the wonderful High Desert Field Guides. Both are available for purchase at Collected Works Books. Your reward? Seeing dazzling Lake Katherine under the spotless sky of New Mexico.
Driving Around on a Santa Fe Day
Not a hiker or biker? No problem. Take in the scenery from the cozy comfort of the car and park for a pretty picnic when your appetite bests the outlook. The High Road to Taos winds through the plateau west of the mountains, slowly rising until it pops out at the Truchas Peaks, named for the trout (truchas) that have fed northern New Mexicans over the years. Along the way, you’ll see scattered villages and clusters of old adobe homes, no doubt at this time of year with a wisp of pinon smoke drifting from the chimney. This scenic byway takes you through Chimayo, with its famed Santuario, the villages of Truchas and Las Trampas, Picuris Pueblo and finally on into Taos via Talpa and Ranchos de Taos. Return via the Low Road before the sun sets, and you’ll see vivid yellow stands of old cottonwoods casting color over the waters of the Rio Grande.
Curious to know what happens to the landscape long after a volcano explodes? Point your vehicle westward and visit the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 13.7-mile wide crater created 1.5 million or so years ago. The massive scope of the Valles Caldera encompasses so much – archaeology, wildlife, history, geology – and autumn is a great time to see the grasslands turn gold and watch hawks soar overhead. Valles Caldera has miles of ranch roads, livestock and game trails, including a network of trails designated for horseback riding. The many outdoor activities are open to the public, but some require reservations, especially things like winter sleigh rides (definitely something to come back for).
Get Me a Guide Please
In such a pristine natural setting, you’d imagine there would be those who spend their lives out of doors, making their living doing it, and you’d be right. Having an experienced guide along to point out the things you might miss turns an autumn hike from interesting to incredible. The vast Pecos Wilderness encompasses almost a quarter-million acres to the east of Santa Fe, and that’s a lot of ground to cover on your own. The knowledgeable guides from Outspire figure it out for you with a 4-6 hour hike (don’t worry, lunch is factored in) through the mountains and valleys characteristic of this protected wilderness area spread across the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests.
A little closer to your home base of Santa Fe are the hiking trails of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, perched above the city on the way to the Santa Fe Ski Basin. Named by Catholic settlers) the mountains turn vibrant red and yellow at sunset, and the Sangres are a favorite destination for locals to fit in a hike that doesn’t consume an entire day. Santa Fe Walkabouts can get you out and hiking on a 4- or 5-mile roundtrip through the aspens as soon as you finish eating breakfast. These Santa Fe area hikes (and fun Pinzgauer tours) are always tailored to your ability, since Georges and Sue Mally want to leave their guests with magical memories, not sore knees.
Color Your Visit with Santa Fe’s Outdoor Hues
The sun shines over 300 days a year in Santa Fe, and autumn brings ideal weather for experiencing the crisp cool air and the bright blue skies of New Mexico. Lace up your shoes and pack a picnic, or let an outdoor specialist lay out an enticing plan for you, but make a visit to Mother Nature part of your visit to Santa Fe. She has so much to share, and it’s all waiting out there in the hills and valleys to enchant you.