The Best of Outdoors Santa Fe

Every month here at we try to introduce you to cool towns across the country that would fulfill any outdoor lover’s wish list. This month, it’s Santa Fe, N.M.:

Founded: 1608

Population: 68,000

Size: 37.4 square miles

Activities: camping, cycling, fly fishing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, scenic touring, skiing/snowboarding, wildlife observation

Why you should go: It’s hard to comprehend just how long people have lived in northern New Mexico. Pueblo Indians first settled the area circa 1000 A.D. and then the Spanish colonized it at the turn of the 17th century, before English settlements on the East Coast. But one trip into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, named for the blood-red hue they take at sunset, is all you’ll need to see why humans have clung to nature here for so long.

Santa Fe has an elevation of around 5,500 feet and sits surrounded by massive swaths of pine forest that comprise the 1.6 million acre Santa Fe National Forest. In summer or fall, use the parking lot of Santa Fe Ski Basin as your launching point to day hikes through aspen stands and high-alpine meadows. Wilderness campsites abound or you can car camp at the ski basin lot. The peaks reach up past 13,000 feet, and most are exposed up high, so get to the summits early before afternoon thundershowers roll in.

Rock climbers will find plenty of sport routes just outside of Santa Fe. Near Bandelier National Monument, White Rock offers a collection of basalt cliffs with sport and trad routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.12. Diablo Canyon is closer to town but arguably harder to find. With some 70 bolted routes, it provides year-round climbing when other areas are too hot or too cold.

And though the Santa Fe River has largely dried up, there’s plenty of watersport to be had on the Rio Grande and other high-mountain streams. The Rio Chama is a favorite among kayakers, who can navigate the whole 31-mile stretch of Class I and II rapids without much worry. Fly-fishermen head to the Pecos, San Juan, and Rio Grande rivers to try their luck with trout, pike, and smallmouth bass.

When You Should Go: Summer and fall are the primary seasons, but there’s not much of an off-season in Santa Fe. Winter temperatures do drop below freezing, but just barely, and the mountains get enough snow most years for good skiing. In autumn, the farmers’ markets come alive with the smell of roasted chile peppers.

Must-see/do: Eat. No matter what your preferred outdoor activity is in Santa Fe, be sure to sample the local cuisine afterwards. Almost everything is smothered in local red or green chile sauces, and this type of northern Mexican fare is something you just can’t get anywhere else in the country.

Off the beaten path: Make the two-hour drive to Jemez Springs west of Santa Fe. There you’ll find three developed hot springs resorts. More intrepid travelers can take the two-mile hike from the Battleship Rock trailhead to McCauley Hot Springs. These all-natural pools run alongside the Jemez River and are a great spot to relax.