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When Did A Historic Cultural Hub Turn Into A Premiere Outdoor Destination?

Story by Anna Callaghan

Three and a half years ago I left Manhattan to take a job at Outside magazine in Santa Fe, sight unseen. I drove my navy blue Honda Civic into town for the first time, charmed by the adobe sprawl and the absence of tall buildings.

You could actually see the sky, and I’ll tell you what, it’s bigger here. I thought I’d have left by now (and I did, once, but came back pretty quickly), but this place is hard to shake. Ask almost anyone who wound up here about how it happened and you’ll likely get some variation of my story: came for a temporary job or drove through on a road trip and never left (or tried to leave and ended up returning). It’s less a cautionary tale than a characterization of how this place gets under your skin. Maybe it’s the 300+ days of wide open blue skies and sunshine, or the fact that you can skin a lap or rip a trail before breakfast, or the crowd-free everything, or the fact that you can totally forget what a traffic jam is. Maybe it’s all of that, but the truth is you just have to feel the magic for yourself. I’m telling you, once you move through this landscape you’ll understand.

Often your destinations will lie at the end of long dirt roads and your cell service will have dropped out miles ago. Put down the map, get a little lost. Chances are you’ll find things you’ve never seen photos of and experience something that feels like true discovery. They don’t call this state the Land of Enchantment for nothing.

A Haven for the Arts

The country’s oldest capital city (founded in 1607) is home to just over 80,000 people and is nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos at 7,200 feet, where the Rocky Mountains begin. This sleeper of a mountain town is best known for its art and turquoise and silver jewelry more than anything else, and that reputation holds up. The city has some 300 art galleries, with almost 100 of them clustered on a one-mile strip called Canyon Road. Santa Fe attracts art collectors, cultural tourists, and those looking for spiritual healing––it offers a down-to-earth vibe. An old city ordinance requires structures to maintain a Pueblo Revival-style adobe (or adobe-looking) architecture. 

You’ll find an array of healing retreats, spa resorts, yoga classes, Zen centers, Tibetan shrines, churches of every denomination, and even a UDV (ayahuasca) temple. The open-air Santa Fe Opera attracts high caliber theater productions and has a strong pre-show parking lot tailgate scene. There’s SITE Santa Fe, a renowned contemporary art space that just reopened after a renovation. And Meow Wolf, a 100+ member arts collective that opened their first wildly popular permanent exhibition, The House of Eternal Return. It’s a whimsical interactive experience that resembles something out of a science fiction novel. Visitors enter a to-scale Victorian-style house and travel through portals into different rooms built up in the 20,000 square foot space. The space also doubles as a music venue and has started to bring great acts town. The food is New Mexican, not Mexican, and is frequently topped with red or green chile (you’ll want both, though, so ask for “Christmas”). To sample the fare, head to a local favorite, the Tune Up Cafe. 

Miles of Singletrack & Technical Descents

Santa Fe has more than one hundred miles of easily accessible trails that offer a variety of riding, from desert singletrack to technical descents through alpine forest. The Santa Fe Ski Basin, 15 miles NE of town, is the starting point for a bomber downhill ride. Grab a lift up on the blue RTD bus or arrange to shuttle cars beforehand. From the parking lot (which sits at 10,000 feet), ride the 10-mile Winsor Trail––through alpine forests, grassy meadows, and splashy stream crossings––as it descends some 3,300 feet. For a real endurance challenge, ride the trail in the opposite direction. You’ll wind up in the nearby town of Tesuque, but before heading back to Santa Fe, grab a bite and ridiculously strong margarita from Tesuque Village Market. 

The 24-mile Dale Ball trail system weaves through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos and can be accessed just three miles from town. New junction signs were recently put up so the system is easy to navigate for first-timers. From the Sierra del Norte trailhead, look to the 9-mile outer loop for fast, flowy singletrack with some rocky technical sections. The 25-mile La Tierra trail system features smooth singletrack, large rollers, and a fun pumptrack and jump course. The system’s outer loop has some gap jumps and tabletops, too. About 25 minutes from town is the Galisteo Basin Preserve, which has dozens of miles of exposed singletrack that meanders through the high desert landscape. The system sits at a lower elevation which means the trails stay snow-free all year and are a great option for riding (except perhaps on a scorching summer day). 

In May 2017 the Big Mountain Enduro kicked off in Santa Fe at Glorieta Camps on miles of brand new trails with some 6,000 feet of rocky descents. The trails are currently accessed by permission only, but the local IMBA chapter, the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, is working on fundraising for an access trail that will open the trails to the public. There are a number of bike shops in town that have anything you could need, try the Broken Spoke or Bike N Sport.

An Underrated Ski Paradise

Most people don’t associate New Mexico with great skiing (jokes on them), which means locals get the goods and don’t have to wait in lift lines. There are eight ski areas in New Mexico, including Ski Apache, the southernmost ski area in the country. The primo resorts lie at the beginning of the Rocky Mountain range: Ski Santa Fe and Taos Ski Valley. Just the parking lots of those ski areas sit at 10,000 feet.

At Santa Fe, just 35 minutes from town, you can look out from the top of any chair at sprawling sage-covered mesas. The mountain has 83 cut runs, closely accessible backcountry, and low-angle side country where descents weave through aspen groves. Inbounds you’ll find a mix of fun, cruiser groomers (like Gayway), a handful of glades, and even cliffs to huck (Big Rocks); the lower mountain is full of easy beginner runs. The uphill culture is growing rapidly, and you certainly won’t be alone for a pre-work skin up the mountain. Pro tip: if you’re up for a nighttime lap, aim for the warming hut at the top of the Roadrunner Chair for a scenic happy hour. During operating hours, head to the mid-mountain restaurant Totemoff’s for a hot drink next to the fire and a green chile cheeseburger. The area averages 225 inches of snow per year.

Two hours north of Santa Fe is Taos Ski Valley, an underrated gem on the Mountain Collective pass. The highest peaks in the state loom over the valley and offer steep slopes that get pummeled with more than 300 inches of snow per year. Founders Ernie and Rhoda Blake founded the ski area in the 50s and built it from the ground up while living at the base out of a camper––you can still feel the local flavor and the area’s history. Half of Taos is expert-only skiing, with steep couloirs, open bowls, and gladed tree skiing, but a designated beginner area means newcomers will feel equally welcome. With 1,300 skiable acres and 3,200 vertical feet of skiing, it’s pretty hard to get bored. 

There’s incredible hike-to terrain from the top of Chair 2––a 15-minute hike will get you to the Highline and West Ridges. Traverse the West Ridge and pick your way down any of the steep chutes, or explore the wider runs that splice the Highline Ridge. A lift now services the formerly hike-to terrain off Kachina Peak. Nothing beats it on a powder day, and there’s no better place to practice moguls when it hasn’t snowed recently. Fuel up midday on the patio at the Bavarian, a German eatery that features lederhosen-clad wait staff, with a stein of beer and a pretzel.

A Home for Dreamers

The joke is that Santa Fe “midnight” is 9 pm, but that’s okay since you’re getting up early for dawn patrol anyway. The thing I love about this place is that, while it may be a little sleepy, the resident’s are anything but. I find people here to be dreamers (and doers, for that matter). There’s a strong sense of community here. And since Santa Fe is not necessarily one of those places you move to for some random job, it’s full of people who have made the decision to come here and been intentional about sticking around. That means you’ll encounter a population that’s deeply invested in making it a better place to live. And in addition to world-class skiing and mountain biking, there’s also rafting, fly fishing, trail running, and some pretty stellar outdoor climbing (head to Diablo Canyon, El Rito, or the White Rock Overlook for that). But what I love most, perhaps, is that it’s not a one-dimensional mountain town. There’s so much art and culture and history around that there’s a good balance of everything. When I left New York City I thought for sure I’d go back––I was devastated to leave––but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Santa Fe tends to have that effect on people. Spend a little time here and you’ll see just what I mean.