YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Destination: New Mexico : Santa Fe Trails : Three autumn rambles amid pine, pin~on and fresh air--and within minutes of the Southwest's culture capital

August 27, 1995|RICHARD KIPLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Kipling works in The Times' news personnel department

SANTA FE — I needed no introduction to this Southwestern capital of art, shopping, culture and cuisine. A recent visit would be my sixth in a dozen years. This time, however, all the things that have turned the town into an icon and a cliche, had to share a seat. I went--was pushed--to Santa Fe to hike.

My wife and kids knew I needed it; they escorted me to the door. "You're going to Santa Fe," they insisted.

I wanted my stay to be invigorating, but nothing that would prevent my middle-age muscles from hiking the next day or keep me from more civilized amenities. And it couldn't be expensive.

So I set some rules:

Lodging would be walking-convenient to downtown. Though renting a car was essential, I would choose no trail head that I couldn't reach in a 30-minute drive from my hotel. I would pack healthy food--fruit and raw vegetables, trail mix, bottled water, energy bars--for hiking and search out tasty but modestly priced restaurants for other meals.

I would try to take at least one, and sometimes two, hikes each day. I would start early--7:30-8 a.m. at the trail head--and hike only mornings or late afternoons, leaving the middle of the day for more typical tourist activity.

I discovered dozens of hikes in the region. Some require experience and a high level of fitness--don't forget that most of the area sits well above 7,000 feet and some trails ascend to 12,000 feet. Still, there are many accessible day hikes that offer transcendental natural beauty and test the muscles without overexertion. And fall is a great trekking season: The weather cools, the summer storms abate, the leaves change and the tourist flood, which can make downtown Santa Fe resemble a county fair, begins to ebb.

Here are the ones local folks recommended that I enjoyed:

Atalaya Mountain Trail

The first day out I just wanted to get going quickly, so I jumped in the car and 15 minutes later found the Atalaya Mountain Trail behind St. John's College on the city's southeast edge. This is a wonderful up-and-back hike that takes about three hours and winds through several microclimates as it ascends from 7,500 feet to its 9,100-foot summit overlooking Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Much of the trail is in shade, a blessing during summer and early fall , when temperatures can escalate into the 80s and the high-altitude sun can mean high levels of ultraviolet exposure.

Squat, dark-green pin~on trees--a signature of the Santa Fe area--dominate the lower part of the trail. After a half an hour's walk the terrain steepens and the flora changes to tall conifers with a sprinkling of wildflowers, such as yellow mountain daisies and brilliant red-orange Indian paint brush.

Parts of this trail are pretty steep--my heart was certainly pumping--but keep a leisurely pace and pause whenever you're out of breath. The exertion is worth it. Near the top, the trail levels out at a miniature natural amphitheater made of rose quartz. Five minutes later you're at the summit--a glorious escarpment guarding a spectacular vertical plunge and marked with a solitary Ponderosa pine thrusting up between the rock sentinels. This ridge affords a bird's eye look at all of Santa Fe, the desert to the west and several distant, frequently snow-capped mountain ranges to the north and east.

* Getting there: Take Alameda east from the center of town to where it turns right and becomes Camino Cabra. Remain on the road until Camino Cruz Blanca. Turn left and stay left when you see St. John's on the right. Continue up this dusty road until it turns right. After the turn there is an adobe entryway with a sign, Ponderosa Ridge. Park on the left, near the Santa Fe National Forest sign. Walk up the road about 50 yards to a gated street on the left, then follow that road until it dead-ends. There you'll find wooden steps, a wooden fence and a sign for trail No. 170.

* Afterward: That evening, I dined on a crisp chicken Caesar salad at my hotel, the venerable St. Francis. You can eat on the long veranda and watch nighttime Santa Fe come alive.

Tesuque Creek Trail

This is the perfect just-before-breakfast hike. A scant five miles from historic Santa Fe Plaza, with its centuries-old structures built around a charming block-square park, this civilized, three-mile stroll starts out as a fenced trail tucked between upscale residences. But it soon leaves enough of civilization behind to offer a beautiful, easy walk alongside rushing Tesuque Creek.

Heavy spring runoff kept me from crossing the creek, but fall hikers can use the logs and rocks in the stream bed as a bridge to the more verdant south side. This will allow them to walk a loop instead of an up-and-back hike. The north-side trail offers a profusion of pin~on, boulders and wildflowers on the open, red-soiled hillsides, a pleasant contrast to the dense vegetation along the stream bed.

Los Angeles Times Articles