hiking in New Mexico

Best of Santa Fe, New Mexico, from a local's perspective

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Walking 200 year-old streets and dipping into art galleries, traveling to other realities in psychedelic museums, listening to the best operatic voices in the country as thunderstorms loom behind the amphitheater, roaming through groves of aspens: The oldest state capitol in the United States is a VERY interesting place indeed.  

Santa Fe is the oldest capitol in the United States because it was proclaimed the capitol of the Provence all the way back in 1610. So it is old and it has seen a lot of history!  Walking through downtown Santa Fe you pass along streets and buildings that are several hundred years old. Santa Fe has something to offer year round. Tourist presence seems to be heaviest in summer because of the fabulous music and art scenes, but the other seasons have special traditions that should not be missed either. 

The Santa Fe Plaza


The Plaza is the heart of Old Santa Fe. This is where you will find the oldest buildings, from the famously beautiful St. Francis Basilica to some of the renowned hotels on the plaza, such as La Fonda. (As a side note, my favorite hotel to stay at in Santa Fe is Las Palomas.) The picturesque Plaza is wonderful to stroll around, morning and afternoon alike, and offers numerous tempting art galleries and shops. Be sure to stop by the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, grab a breakfast crepe at my favorite French bakery in La Fonda, and rest under the old trees in the middle of the plaza, simply absorbing the historic vibes as the St. Francis church bells toll in the background.

Canyon Road


Canyon Road is an old street close to the plaza lined with marvelous art galleries. In the summer on Friday evenings, strolling Canyon Road and going into galleries for wine and art openings is an absolute favorite activity of locals and tourists alike.  On Christmas Eve, Canyon Road is lined with luminarias, the super-traditional New Mexican version of Christmas lights. People come from near and far to visit the area, drink mulled wine or hot chocolate, and listen to great music. My favorite thing is to get a decadent treat at Kakawa, a chocolate cafe near the entrance to Canyon Road, and then meander along the street. 

Eat New Mexican Food

There are so many fabulous New Mexican-food restaurants in this city. Some of my favorites include Tia Sofia's, Atrisco's, Tomasita's, La Choza, The Shed, and El Parisol.

Meow Wolf


This may be the hardest place to explain in Santa Fe. It is one of those places you just have to experience for yourself. But hey, I'll give it a shot: It's an arts collective that creates a unique journey and experience through an alternate reality fun house. For me, I kept feeling like I had fallen into one of the stranger Ghibli films. 

Ten Thousand Waves

Hidden among the mountains above Santa Fe is a peaceful retreat. This Japanese bathhouse is absolutely gorgeous, merging the simplicity of Japanese style and aesthetics with the wild nature New Mexico. I highly recommend renting a private pool for an hour with friends, but the communal pool is lovely too. I like it so much that I chose this place for my bachelorette-party spa night. 


Walk Among the Aspens

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There is a plethora of lovely hikes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe. My favorite in spring, summer and fall is to walk among the aspens in one of the groves that blanket these mountains. It is both eerie and beautiful to be surrounded by these white-trunked trees, to hear their leaves rustle like wind chimes. In winter, hit the slopes for some fabulous skiing.


Into the Sangre de Cristos a webbing of trails intersect offering views of stunning vistas, the southernmost peaks of the rockies, and the nice creeks and lakes that gurgle at astonishing altitudes. 

If you are looking for a gorgeous, but very challenging Sangre de Cristos day hike, I recommend Nambe Lake.

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Special Mention: Santa Fe Opera

I made this a special mention because it is mostly a summer activity. The Santa Fe Opera season is summer only, but they do offer various forms of musical performances in other seasons, so it is best to check their website before you come to New Mexico. This architectural marvel creates a unique opera experience. The open-walled amphitheater lets summer thunderstorms add epic notes to the sounds of the opera. During some shows they open up the back of the stage and use the New Mexico mountains and sunset as the backdrop for a scene. It is absolutely magical. Locals and tourists alike bring cheese and wine for tailgating in the parking lot before shows. 







A New Mexico Must-Visit: Jemez Springs

Red Rocks, Waterfalls, Lush Forests,  and Hot Springs... All in an Ancient Volcanic Caldera! If you are visiting New Mexico (or are local) you MUST visit Jemez Springs and the Valles Caldera.

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A bit over a million years ago a series of small volcanic eruptions in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico covered the Southwest in ash. A magma chamber in these mountains collapsed creating a caldera about 12 miles in diameter. To my slight horror, as I researched this, I discovered this volcanic area is still considered active. Fortunately, geologists estimate that the last eruption was about 40,000 years ago. 

What these eruptions left behind thousands of years later, is a gorgeous landscape; red rocks rise into dramatic rock faces as you climb higher into the Jemez Mountains. Lush (by New Mexico standards) forests, waterfalls, plentiful streams and hot springs, and alien rock structures greet you at every turn. 

There are many great camping spots in the Jemez and it is a lot of fun to camp there. Once you get there it's easy to drive around until you find your perfect campground. It is also a fabulous day trip, one that I try to make at least once a year. 

Mural on the side of Bad Ass Coffee

Mural on the side of Bad Ass Coffee

To get there take I-25 to Bernalillo, then exit west onto 550. I always love to stop in Bernalillo for some java at one of my favorite coffee shops in NM, Bad Ass Coffee. Once you reach San Ysidro, turn north on highway 4. This takes you all the way through Jemez Pueblo, the village of Jemez Springs, and into the Caldera. If you want to veer off and explore a small lake, Fenton Lake, take 126 about 10 miles past Jemez Springs. There are countless hiking trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, and cool places to stop along the route into the Caldera.


In Jemez Pueblo you will see some vibrant red rocks, and tucked up into the red rocks some little stalls where you can buy some yummy traditional pueblo oven bread. This delicious, flaky bread is great to take farther along your journey for a picnic. I think it is especially scrummy with butter and local honey. 


In Jemez Springs, there are a couple little restaurants, an Inn, and the Bodhi Mandala Zen Center. My favorite restaurant is the Stage Stop Cafe. They serve some delectable blue corn pancakes. There are great picnic spots leading up to Jemez Springs snuggled in close to the river and cliffs. These can be quite hot in the summer, so I tend to explore these picnic spots in the spring and fall. 

Soda Dam

Soda Dam

Beyond Jemez Springs right by the side of the road is Soda Dam. A waterfall has carved a ragged drop through the middle of these rocks creating this lumpy, mushroom shaped structure. I've even slid down this waterfall, which is exhilarating, cold, and a bit painful on the rump. 

A couple miles after that you will come upon Battleship Rock picnic area. You can't miss it: it is a giant battleship-shaped rock formation plowing out of the cliff side. This is my favorite picnic area but unfortunately it is crowded on the weekends. If you happen upon it during a non-busy time, explore up the east side of the stream, going north along some little trails, and you will come to a little waterfall about a half-mile walk from the picnic area. 

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In the distance, you can see the scars left from a massive forest fire that occurred several years ago. Another reminder, to be respectful and cautious while camping and adventuring in the wilderness.

In the distance, you can see the scars left from a massive forest fire that occurred several years ago. Another reminder, to be respectful and cautious while camping and adventuring in the wilderness.

Hiking: There is a lot of fabulous hiking and that is one of the only ways to get to the best hot springs. The easiest hike is Jemez Falls, about a mile, to one of New Mexico's bigger waterfalls. Las Conchas is my current favorite hike. It is 19 miles from Jemez Springs just off the side of the road. The first part of the trail is a rock climber hot spot, but if you continue on it becomes a peaceful walk following a little stream though lush meadows for about 2 miles.


Our puppy prefers to swim this hike instead of walking.

Our puppy prefers to swim this hike instead of walking.

Small waterfall at the end of Las Conchas trail

Small waterfall at the end of Las Conchas trail

There are many hot springs you can hike to dotting the Jemez mountains. McCauley Hot Springs, San Antonio Hot Springs, and Spence (which is not as beautiful now due to over use and lack of respect by people) are some of the better known. Many people enjoy the hot springs in the nude, so if nudity makes you uncomfortable, I don't recommend going to these hot springs.  My only Jemez hot spring experience was from the Jemez Falls trailhead. I went west on the East Fork Trail and stumbled upon some hot springs. To this day I can't figure out which hot springs those were. All I know is we hiked about 10 very challenging miles that day, so I don't think I'll be trying to rediscover those hot springs.

One of my first memories, from when I was two years old, is of my father taking my family 4-wheel driving in the Caldera for a fun day adventure. My dad, being the explorer that he was, tried to ford one of small rivers in the caldera with our Isuzu trooper. The trooper trucked along to the middle of the river and then promptly began to flood and float down the river.  We had to quickly evacuate and make our way to shore. For the rest of the night, in my two year old mind we were playing survival by searching for firewood and sleeping on the ground under the stars, cuddled up for warmth.  We were found by some local kids exploring late into the night. They informed the police and we were rescued early the next morning. This is my earliest, fun adventure story, though my parents remember it being much more stressful than I do.

As long as you don't sink your car, Jemez is a wonderful area to visit and an absolute must if you are traveling in New Mexico, with its diverse scenery, dramatic history, and wilderness adventuring.

Did this inspire your marvelous wanderings? Let me know!