As the rolling foothills and forested peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains lie between 15 and 30 minutes from downtown Santa Fe, getting outdoors doesn’t require a full-blown expedition. It can mean a two-hour hike after you hit the museums, or an hour-long ramble before dinner. If you’re looking for challenging terrain, you can find that too, with peaks in the surrounding areas towering at 12,000 feet. Within a couple hours’ drive, you’ll find even more outdoor playgrounds, from the tufa-carved Pajarito Plateau to a field of conical rock formations.
The weather can be quite different in the mountains than the city, so be prepared. The peaks can be windy and exposed during summer thunderstorms, while the high elevation and dry desert air calls for more water than you might expect.
Atalaya Mountain Hiking Trail
This 5.8-mile out-and-back trail climbs above the city from the foothills near St. John’s College. Though slightly obstructed, the views at the top are quite picturesque. The trail reaches nearly 1,800 feet in elevation, and the last 30-minutes or so are particularly steep and rocky.
Aspen Vista Trail
This out-and-back, 5.9-mile forest path cuts a wide swath through the pine-studded peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to a ski area. It's tradition for many Santa Fe families to hike this steadily climbing trail in the fall, when the aspen copses along the route blaze golden. As the season shifts into winter, the stretch becomes a snowshoeing route.
Regardless of the season, Hyde Memorial State Park in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains offers great hiking trails. Set in the forested terrain along Little Tesuque Creek, the state park has a handful of mostly easy loop trails. The Waterfall Trail leads to—you guessed it—a waterfall, though it may be dry if the high desert is short on rain that season. In winter, however, the trails here receive deep snow, which makes for excellent snowshoeing.
East Circle Trail, 1 mile; West Circle Trail, 2.2 miles; Waterfall Trail, 0.3 mile
Rightfully so, Bandelier National Monument is best known for the cliff dwelling in the Pajarito Plateau. The ancestors of today’s Pueblo people dwelled in the cliffs some 700 years ago—but evidence of human presence here dates back 11,000 years. As you hike the trail through the canyon, you'll occasionally come across ladders leading into the residences. The path will eventually take you to the Alcove House, home to a reconstructed kiva 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon.
The national monument also offers up 33,000 acres of backcountry, with 70 hiking trails. Many of the hiking trails lead to equally significant Ancestral Pueblo sites. The monument is an hour’s drive from Santa Fe.
Tsankawi Ruins Hike, 1.9 miles
The Dale Ball Trail system offers a 22-mile trail network in the foothills. The terrain here is more high desert than forest—think piñon- and juniper-dotted rolling hills. Because of its proximity to Santa Fe, the trail system is one of the quickest ways to get outdoors. The variety of trails here suit both beginning and advanced hikers, as well as trail runners and mountain bikers. These trails connect to other systems, including the Atalaya Trails.
Dale Ball Trails North, 4.4 mile loop; Picacho Peak Trail, 3.9 miles
Climbing from 8,500 to 11,000 feet, this nine-mile trail is one of the most popular with locals. It passes through aspen groves and wildflower meadows—they’re at their peak in July and August—before leading into the Pecos Wilderness. The upper reaches of this trail receive snow, so be prepared for snowy or icy climbing November through March.
The Pecos Wilderness protects more than 220,000 acres in the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests. It’s the second largest wilderness in New Mexico, boasting a high concentration of peaks over 12,000 feet tall, including Santa Fe Baldy and South Truchas Peak. All that adds up to a nearly unmatched outdoor playground for hiking. There are dozens of trails fit for day hikes or extended backpacking trips. The landscape is carved with mountain streams and the Pecos River, which fly fishermen favor. Many Pecos trailheads can be reached within a 30-minute drive of Santa Fe.
Cave Creek Trail, 5.6 miles; Lake Katherine, 13.1 miles
Cappadocia, Turkey, isn’t the only place in the world with conical rock formations. Two routes meander through this popular hiking destination in central and northern New Mexico. The 1.2-mile-long Cave Loop Trail is an easy route through the high desert. If you're looking for a bigger challenge, the Canyon Trail travels 1.5 miles on a steep, out-and-back path up to a mesa top. It’s worth the more than 600-foot ascent for the views of the tent rocks and Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains. Wear shoes with good tread to climb the slick paths through the canyons. The monument is an hour’s drive from Santa Fe.