By Beth Whitman, on August 18, 2014

Hiking near Santa Fe

The Santa Fe area is high on my list of favorite places to hike in the United States. Surrounded by the stark natural beauty of the desert, spectacular landscapes straight out of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, and dozens of trails close to the city center, the region practically begs you to head outdoors. Many hikes are easily accessible. Better yet, there are hikes for all skill levels: short evening tromps after a day of sightseeing or longer and more difficult journeys that take up an entire day.

(Many of the Santa Fe residents I know are avid outdoorspeople, and it’s not uncommon for them to leave work and go straight to the mountains for a hike before heading home for dinner.)

Whatever kind of hikes you like to do, if hiking is part of your itinerary, I suggest staying at a hotel near the Plaza. From this central location, you’ll have access to plenty of trails of varying lengths and difficulties. You also can take advantage of proximity to downtown and cap each day with a nice dinner.

Here are my top five hikes in and around the area.

Santa Fe Canyon Preserve

If you’re looking for a short and easy hike close to the city, consider heading out to the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, just about 3.5 miles from the Plaza.

All told, the preserve boasts 525 acres of green space protected by the Nature Conservancy, meaning you’ll be able to see tons of local flora and fauna. Wildflowers, ponderosa pine trees, deer, and beavers are plentiful. The Preserve sits next to the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, which is the state’s educational center for the Audubon Society.

Beth hiking near Santa Fe

A well-indexed trail map can be downloaded from the Nature Conservancy website so you can choose a route that fits with your schedule. The 1.5-mile interpretive loop trail is perfect for an overview of the preserve, but if you’d like more of a challenge, hike through the preserve to the Dale Ball Trail System.

Dale Ball Trail System

The Santa Fe Canyon Preserve is the starting point for this network of trails. Some of the trails are pretty easy, while others provide a formidable challenge for more advanced hikers. Within just a mile or so from the parking lot on Hyde Park Road, you’ll reach views.

But don’t turn around too quickly. This trail system comprises more than 22 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails with connector trails between paths. These connectors allow you to vary the length of your hikes. Elevation gains are not too severe, so you might see lots of runners and mountain bikers around. Maps of the trails are available from the Santa Fe Visitors Center either in person or online.

Atalaya Mountain Trail

One of the most challenging trails in the area is the Atalaya Mountain Trail, which tops out at 9,121 feet. A bonus of this trail is that it’s super easy to access; you get there right from the parking lot at St. John’s College downtown. Because it’s so easy to access, it’s a very popular (think: crowded) trail.

Atalaya is just seven miles round-trip. It starts out pretty easy. As the trail nears the summit, you’ll get a pretty good workout. If you can hack it, you’ll be rewarded by amazing views from the top (keep that in mind as you’re huffing and puffing your way to the apex).

A lake near the Santa Fe Baldy trail

Aspen Vista Trail

The most popular trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is the Aspen Vista Trail. Again, due to the popularity of this tromp, you’ll see other hikers (or cyclers) frequently. The scenery more than makes up for the madding crowds. In fall, this area is just spectacular with the beautiful colors of the changing Aspen leaves. In winter, the cross-country skiers take over.

The climb is gradual enough that most people are able to hike (or ski) this trail with little trouble. The trail does get steeper further along. If you make it to the top, near the ski lift, you’ll want to spend a bit of time to enjoy some excellent views.

(Also, take note that mountain bikers have the right of way, so while they are supposed to adhere to certain biking rules, you’ll need to watch out for them.)

Viewfinder Tip: Always carry plenty of water when hiking in the Santa Fe area. You’ll be at high altitude and your body will require more water than usual to stay hydrated.

Santa Fe Baldy

The highest peak in this part of the Sangre de Christo Range (it tops out at 12,600 feet), Santa Fe Baldy is one of the more difficult hikes in the area. It also is one of the most rewarding local hikes, with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains—the Jemez Mountains to the west, Sandia Mountains to the south, and the Truchas to the north.

Though the trail on Baldy is not technically difficult, the hike to the summit is seven miles one-way, so you’re in for a long round-trip if you’re doing it in a day. I say this because I learned the lesson first-hand; I recently took on Santa Fe Baldy in preparation for my hiking adventure in Bhutan, about which I wrote here.

This trail is open year-round for skiers. And in case you’re wondering, the trailhead is located in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Ski Area, about 30 minutes from downtown Santa Fe.

Where do you hike in your hometown?