New Mexico’s Dramatic Natural Scenery
When nature enthusiast Georgia O’Keeffe arrived in New Mexico, she quipped, “I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested and I don’t want them interested.” Well, the secret is out, and New Mexico’s natural and dramatic landscape plays out like a painting: vast skies with bright sunlight, and stark shadows leaving silhouettes on the desert’s wide expanse. Nature’s scene is set and you’ll certainly know why the artist came to paint in and around New Mexico.
Forty miles southwest of Santa Fe, you find the awesome, magical Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, a series of mind-blowing, conical sandstone formations that resemble indented ocean waves. Chose from one of two trails—one on ground level, the other through the slot canyons. Don’t forget your camera. Tip: There’s not much canopy in the high desert, so make sure to bring water, and pack sun lotion and a hat.
1100 Old Taos Highway
Driving is best described as poetic on this 56-mile day trip from Santa Fe to Taos. The High Road takes you through El Santuario, in the Spanish village of Chimayo — a small adobe chapel where people gather for mass and scoop up “Holy Dirt” with magic healing properties. Weave and wind through other small towns like Córdova (known for its woodcarving), Truchas (the summit town), Las Trampas, and Peñasco. Out your window, take in the dramatic peaks, valleys, and vistas. Take the “Low Road” back to Santa Fe with equally impressive sights.
I’m not sure at what age humans develop the skill to stand still and appreciate scenery, but based on a scientific survey of kids who live in my house, it’s not age seven. (On a trip to the Canadian Rockies, as my wife and I snapped photos of the relentlessly picturesque mountains, my son, Luke, investigated how quickly he could break his toy helicopter.) Luke expects Mother Nature to be his playmate. At Bandelier National Monument, about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she is. The visitor center offers kids a booklet of activities that, when completed, earn them a Junior Ranger patch. (You could call it a bribe. We prefer the term incentive.) The scavenger hunt sent us off on the Main Loop Trail in search of birds, trees, and bugs, as well as the feature that sets Bandelier apart and makes it perfect for kids: cave dwellings. Ladders of salvaged wood lead to rooms that the Pueblo people carved out of the cliffs here over 800 years ago. “I don’t want to go up, Daddy,” Luke said. “It’s too steep.” “You’ve got this, buddy,” I said. “Just take it slow.” There were no lines of impatient parents pushing their children to race up the ladder. (We saw no more than 20 people on the trail.) Luke could climb the rungs at his own pace. He paused in triumph at the top, then set off to wander the caves. While Mom and Dad squatted—“Watch out for your bald head, Daddy”—Luke could explore without even hunching. After about 45 minutes, we were walking back toward the visitor center. We crossed a nearly dry creek by hopping hand in hand from one downed log to another and were back in time for lunch, before hunger, fatigue, or boredom could set in. It was a parent’s—and child’s—dream hike. This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.
Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA
The popular Dale Ball Trails system offers 23.4 miles of interconnected high-altitude desert trails in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where piñon and juniper forest greet sturdy ponderosa trees as you ascend to higher altitudes. The system passes pretty close to town, and navigation is simple thanks to clear trail markers. If you’re so inclined, follow the steepest path along the ridge to the top of Picacho Peak. The reward for your hike is a breathtaking 360-degree view.
New Mexico 87529, USA
10 miles north of Taos (you head out of town and turn left at the “blinking light”), the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, recently renovated in 2012, will give you a dizzying sense of vertigo and the opportunity to take pictures that will make you look like you majored in photography. 565 feet above the river, the span is over 600 feet long. In the distance, Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico, stands over 4,000 meters tall. But the numbers fade away in the brilliance of high desert air, so dry that you swear your vision just improved, and given the spiritual vibes in Taos, may well just have.
New Mexico has the reputation for 364 days of sunshine every year. But occasionally it snows a lot, blanketing and softening the rocky scenery New Mexico is so famous for. Ghost Ranch is a conference center about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe, made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiu for many years and painted almost every formation with her unique style. You can stay at Ghost Ranch or nearby Abiquiu in one of several B&Bs. For more information, consult the Ghost Ranch website.
San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM 87506, USA
La Capilla de la Familia Sagrada sits at the base of Black Mesa, a sacred mountain on the San Ildefonso Pueblo reservation. It is one of the most photographed buildings in New Mexico. The little adobe chapel, against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, is dramatic in every season of the year. It can be seen from the road between Espanola and Los Alamos, but cannot be visited without permission from the Pueblo.
Espanola, NM, NM, USA
Georgia O’Keeffe called the grouping of weathered rock outcroppings near Abiquiu “The White Place” and immortalized it in paintings. The land is so arid, and so little changes in New Mexico, that the location and signature V shape have survived. A great hike, close to Abiquiu. Cowboys and Aliens was also shot nearby!
1800 Upper Canyon Road
The artist Randall Davey (part of the Santa Fe Art Colony) painted and worked at this former studio turned National Audubon Society on Upper Canyon Road. The land is now a preserved wildlife sanctuary (with a vast variety of birds like the goldfinch) with several trails and a cultural, educational and historical center. Take a hike with stellar views and later tour Davey’s home and art studio with various personal effects. Closed in the winter. And, make sure to call ahead for times when the house is open.
Atalaya Mountain, New Mexico 87505, USA
Starting from a trailhead at the small campus of St. John’s College, the Atalaya Mountain Trail begins simply and then rises to a steep and challenging 5.4-mile hike that’ll leave you grateful for having made the effort. (Shorten the trek by setting out from the Ponderosa Ridge trailhead, if you prefer). When you make it out of the ponderosa pines and achieve the summit, you’re rewarded with expansive views of the city 2,000 feet below, as well as of the iconic big blue skies of the Southwest.