Santa Fe National Forest Overview

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Bracketing the hugely popular cultural attractions of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Santa Fe National Forest is often overlooked by visitors to the region. For locals, on the other hand, the exquisite alpine wilderness and first-class fishing, hiking, and biking encompassed by this forest are some of the best reasons for living here.

Santa Fe National Forest's 1.5 million acres include landscapes ranging from the open cattle country of the Glorieta Mesa in the southeast, to the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range (the Truchas Peaks exceed 13,000 feet), to the still-active volcanic lands of the Jemez Mountains in the west.

While Santa Fe and points south have a characteristically Southwestern high-desert feel, most of the national forest will remind you of the Colorado Rockies—jagged peaks, glacial cirques, scree slopes, dramatic rock cliffs, meadows that bloom with wildflowers in July and August, and magnificent vistas. These landscapes are treed with Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, white fir, corkbark fir, ponderosa pine, limber pine, bristlecone pine, and aspen. Wildlife includes elk, deer, bear, turkey, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

The greatest treasures of the Santa Fe National Forest are its wilderness areas. These include the Dome Wilderness, replete with cliff dwellings; the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, lush, green, and thick with fish and game; and the Chama River Canyon Wilderness, with many-hued sandstone bluffs. But the topper is the huge Pecos Wilderness in the Sangre de Cristos, one of the best—and most popular—hiking destinations in the Southwest.

Day Hike the High Country
Literally overlooking the city of Santa Fe is some of the finest high-country hiking terrain in the Southwest—the Pecos Wilderness. There are trailheads along Hyde Park Road on the way up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin as well as on NM 63 around Cowles. Whichever trails you take, the backcountry destinations are enticing: There's 12,600-foot Santa Fe Baldy, which offers stunning 360-degree views; there are icy-cold mountain lakes such as Lake Katherine and Spirit Lake; there are gurgling brooks like Cave and Windsor Creek; and there are innumerable, ineffably beautiful patches of aspen groves and wide-open vistas.

Mountain Bike the Windsor Trail System
There's a lot of great singletrack in the eastern half of the Santa Fe National Forest, but one trail stands out as an all-time classic. The Windsor Trail is a fat-tire epic suitable for both old-school riders who like to earn their descents and decadent downhillers and balk at climbing—you can either ascend from the base of the trail or shuttle a car to the Santa Fe Ski Basin parking lot, and drop in from there. And it's an awesome ride down—hard-pack singletrack with occasional technical sections, passing through gorgeous forest that changes from spruce and aspen to pines and finally to high desert scrub. This trail's only problem is its popularity; save it for a mid-week ride.

Backpack the Pecos Wilderness
The Pecos Wilderness is the gem of the southernmost tail of the Rocky Mountains. The Sangre de Cristo Range runs northeast to southwest across the wilderness, separating broad mesas to the east from rugged canyons and ridges to the west. Packing your way through this backcountry will take you into a realm largely above treeline, with vast views and alpine meadows packed with Indian paintbrush, iris, lily, monkshood, gilia, lupine, penstemon, and columbine. There are numerous multi-day loops available to backpackers that take in attractions such as Mora Flats, Hamilton Mesa, the Santa Barbara Divide, and the Truchas Peaks. Trailheads are at the Iron Gate Campground near Cowles, Aspen Vista near Santa Fe Ski Basin, and Santa Barbara Campground to the north near Penasco.

Fish the Jemez Mountains
The Jemez Mountains, northwest of Albuquerque and west of Santa Fe, are blessed with several small rivers and medium-size streams with all types of water. You will find high mountain meadows, fast riffles, tight banks, deep runs, and moderate canyons with classic pocket water all within a short drive of each other. Choosing which water to fish presents a challenge. Do you walk along the Rio San Antonio, the Rio Cebolla, the Rio Guadalupe, or pull out the float tube and bob on scenic Fenton Lake? Regardless of where you go, the fishing is likely to be fine. And even if you get skunked, like the old cliché goes, a bad day of fishing among this kind of scenery is always better than a good day at work.

Hit the Slopes at Ski Santa Fe
While Taos to the north gets most of the national attention, locals have skied the chutes, glades, and open slopes of Santa Fe Ski Basin for more than 50 years. It's a gorgeous, if smallish, ski hill with views of Santa Fe Baldy and the same brilliant sunshine and bone-dry powder snow that Taos is famous for. Although its lifts may be on the slow side and its vertical isn't on par with what Taos offers, this area has the historic and cultural charms of Santa Fe. If skiing is just one of the things you want to do on a winter vacation, Ski Santa Fe is worth a serious look.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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