The City Different is home to countless world-class museums and galleries, distinct and iconic Pueblo Revival architecture, and some of the best culinary offerings anywhere on the continent. So it’s understandable that most visitors come to Santa Fe looking to experience it as the arts and culture capital of the Southwest — and only then do they find out about its exquisite outdoors.
Situated in the high desert of New Mexico, pristine nature and public lands surround the city. Not only that, but Santa Fe itself is a natural oasis, with lush city parks and a tree-canopied downtown fed by the Santa Fe River.
While there’s plenty of high-octane outdoor fun for adults easily accessible from the city — whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking — there’s also no lack of kid-friendly options to uncover. If you’re planning a trip to The City Different with the little ones in tow, seek out these multi-season outdoor activities in and around Santa Fe that the whole family can enjoy.
1. Birdwatching in Santa Fe National Forest
Santa Fe’s renowned Canyon Road — home to 80+ incredible galleries — isn’t just about art. The road extends from downtown up into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (changing its name to Upper Canyon Road along the way), where you’ll find the Randall Davey Audubon Center. This sanctuary for local birdlife covers 135 of the chirpiest, squawkiest acres of the sprawling Santa Fe National Forest.
In addition to the visitor center, where educational events like bird talks are held, the sanctuary features numerous gentle hiking trails. Slowly wander the 1.5-mile Santa Fe Canyon Preserve loop trail looking for hawks (nearly a dozen species!), terns, swallows, shorebirds, swifts, and even the goofy greater roadrunner. There are nearly 200 species to spot — download a checklist and see how many you and the fam can recognize.
Note: The visitor center is closed at the time of publication, but the trails and gardens (and restrooms) are open.
2. Exploring 18th-century Santa Fe
No matter where you are in Santa Fe, the past is an evident, often tangible presence. The City Different predates the United States by a good century and a half, meaning you can catch a glimpse of bygone eras more easily here that practically anywhere else in the country.
One place where the past comes into perfect focus — and where you can give the kiddos a taste of international travel on a domestic budget — is El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, or Ranch of the Swallows. An important paraje (stopping place) on the Camino Real in the early 1700s, it comprises historic buildings including a water mill, adobe houses, and a church, as well as some 200 acres of gorgeous grounds. Explore on your own or via a guided tour.
Actors dressed in traditional period garb bring the rancho to life, showcasing skills like blacksmithing, weaving, and bread baking that were practiced here. Encourage the kids to ask questions — places as historic and authentic as this come few and far between.
Note: In 2021, El Rancho de Las Golondrinas is open from June 2 to October 3.
3. Darting between hoodoos and through slot canyons
Make sure to bring your camera to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument to capture the kids’ faces when they first lay eyes on the park’s namesake rock formation: the hoodoo. These towering conical spires, remnants of a volcanic explosion six or seven million years ago, are sure to widen their eyes.
Kasha-Katuwe is a little less than an hour from the Santa Fe Plaza. Once you arrive, you can reach the best viewpoints by following the Canyon Trail through a narrow slot canyon before making a steep ascent to the hilltop. The last portion of the hike can be tiring for young ones; a good alternative for those with tiny feet is the relaxed 1.2-mile Cave Loop Trail. Either way, you’ll get to wander through steep canyons of colorful banded rock, marveling at those tent-like cones.
Note: At the time of publication, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it’s safe to reopen, it will likely be via a day use reservation system. Check back for details as you plan your visit.
4. Wandering the Santa Fe Botanical Garden
After devoting ample time to the world-class art museums located on Santa Fe’s aptly named Museum Hill, head across the street to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden for a different kind of artistic inspiration. The Botanical Garden at Museum Hill is made up of a handful of distinct gardens and attractions. You’ll enter via the Orchard Gardens, populated with flowering fruit trees. Don’t miss the Ojos y Manos (Eyes and Hands) Garden, featuring plants with a utilitarian heritage, from sustenance and medicine to weaving and dyeing. There are also walking paths and a bicycle trail for further exploration of the property.
Created and maintained by dedicated local volunteers, the various exhibits at the garden are home to both native and non-native plant life, allowing visitors to see the wide variety of flora that can survive — and thrive — here in the high desert.
5. Pedaling the city bike paths
Until recently, if you mentioned cycling on a trip to Santa Fe, it was assumed you were talking about mountain biking outside of town. Over the past few years, however, Santa Fe has transformed the city itself into an extremely bike-friendly environment, with new urban bike paths connecting different neighborhoods, ecosystems, and points of interest.
You can rent bikes from Mellow Velo — just steps from the Plaza — and head off on paths through Railyard Park, along the Santa Fe River and the arroyos that cut through town, and through desert hills and the surrounding countryside. The routes are paved and safe for daytime cycling, and you can stop at shops or cafes (local favorite: Iconik Coffee Roasters) along the way for refreshments during the ride.
6. Experiencing the autumn glory of golden aspens
Out West, fall foliage is all about the aspen. And if you ask any Santa Fe local for a recommendation on where to experience this tree’s dramatic golden hues, they’ll likely direct you to Aspen Vista. The picnic area sits just off the road up to Ski Santa Fe (Hyde Park Rd, also Highway 475) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. You’ll have views of the aspen-blanketed mountains as soon as you step out of the car.
After enjoying a leisurely lunch or snack at one of the picnic tables, take a walk along the Aspen Vista Trail. It’s a forest service road that climbs all the way to the summit of Tesuque Peak, but just going for a quick out-and-back that matches your family’s time and endurance constraints will be enough to feel fully immersed in the aspens.
7. Hitting the slopes at 10,000+ feet
You’ve seen the Sangre de Cristos mentioned multiple times already on this page, and for good reason — the subrange of the Rocky Mountains rises to elevations of 10,000+ feet just east of Santa Fe, an omnipresent compass for your urban exploration. Come winter, these mountains are the setting of the area’s premier outdoor activity, bar none. Ski Santa Fe sits at the top, its intimidating 10,350 feet of elevation balanced by its abundance of family-friendly beginner and intermediate trails.
Take particular note of the family ski packages — there are different options for different skillsets — that include a private three-hour lesson, rentals, and lift tickets for your whole crew at a bundled rate. When the ski day’s over, head to the on-mountain Totemoff’s Bar for one last challenge: tackling a pile of green chile cheeseburgers.
Note: The Ski Santa Fe season runs from late November to early April, but it’s still worth a visit in the warmer months, when you can head up to the area for spectacular hikes.