Winter Hikes in the Santa Fe Area

Original Article written for Tumbleweeds, a Quarterly Newspaper for Santa Fe families, by Katie Macaulay.
November 2017.

For even the most avid snow-sports enthusiasts, sometimes you just want a break from the snow in the winter. Or perhaps you are not a snow-lover in the first place, and you are waiting out winter in your house. Or maybe the kids are driving you crazy as they bounce between rowdy house play, spending too much time on their beloved screens, or tearing apart your living room to make forts. (Actually, fort building is one of my favorite indoor winter activities for kids, but I digress.)

If any of these scenarios ring true for you, I have a few favorite spots for winter fun to get everyone filled with nature-bliss endorphins and happily tired. These are places that are often too hot to enjoy in summer heat, but are perfect for winter outings when a little extra sun and warmth is key.

The first is Ghost Ranch, which is just over an hour from Santa Fe on highway 84. You can tell your kids that dinosaurs once lived here and that they might even get to see one! The Paleontology Museum is worth a stop (Open Mon-Sat 9-5 and Sunday 1-5) to get a get a glimpse of our State Fossil, the Celeophysis, found right at Ghost Ranch, and see some bones and a large dinorsaur diorama. On the way, be sure to stop at Bodes General Store in Abiquiu to pick up lunch for the trail – burritos and burgers are family favorites!

There are three awesome hikes/adventures to choose from at Ghost Ranch: Chimney Rock, Kitchen Mesa, and Box Canyon. In the winter there will be almost no one else here, so you can get your awe and solitude in one fell swoop. Stop in at the Welcome Centre to pay a fee and get a map of the hikes.

The trail to Chimney Rock is behind the museum, and is a steady climb up to a dramatic view of the towering orphaned rock. A steep section at the beginning of the trail gives way to a more gradual climb, with a few steeper sections on the way up to the mesa top. The view is spectacular, spanning the colorful rocks of Ghost Ranch, the Chama River valley, Abiquiu Lake and Pedernal Peak. While here you can also impress your friends, and possibly your kids, by telling them what the three layers of rock in this area are. (See the end of this article for the cheat sheet.)

One caveat is that there is a significant drop from the viewpoint, with no safety railings, and a plaque for someone who presumably lost his life here. (Current mythology is that he was trying to “climb down.”) My rule of thumb with Mountain Kids! and my own kids is to stay two body lengths away from the edge. You can use your judgment, but a minimum of one body length is recommended. If you don’t trust your kiddos to stay away from the edge, save this for another year, and choose Box Canyon instead. Chimney Rock is a challenging climb for little people, and an exciting challenge for older kids and adults wishing to get big views, a workout, and great rewards.

The Kitchen Mesa Hike is also not for the faint of heart, but so worth it if you are not afraid of heights. (My mother sat down in the middle of the climb up the mesa and refused to budge.)

That said, it is not mandatory to get up on top of the mesa to be in awe. The hike meanders amongst some profoundly massive red boulders with towering mesas on either side. If you are up for the climb to the top of Kitchen Mesa, the views are well worth it. It is exhilarating to explore this giant rock and take big cleansing breaths while on top of the world.

The Box Canyon hike is perfect for people who prefer to look up instead of down. It is relatively flat compared with the others, so great for little legs and feet. In the summer there is a creek flowing here, but in winter it is a dry riverbed. The trail begins on a dirt road and then crosses the riverbed and meanders upriver on rocky terrain. Just when your kids decide they are done, push a little bit farther to the box canyon, because it is so worth it.

You’ll know when you have arrived, as the giant semi-circle of overhanging rock is awe-inspiring. Your arrival will no doubt be accompanied by shouts of “Echo!” and a sudden surge in your child’s energy to scramble and explore the sloping rock. You might want to insist they eat and water themselves first. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a giant raptor nest on the cliff above the trail. I have seen adults and babies in these nests. It is quite awesome to witness their wingspan if you get lucky enough to see them fly.

If you want a shorter drive, Tsankawi is another awesome winter hike, only 45 minutes from Santa Fe via Hwy 84, 502 and 4. Tsankawi is the smaller, lesser known cousin of Bandelier National Monument without handrails and concrete steps. At Tsankawi you can pretend you are explorer discovering this place for the first time, with waist deep grooves in the paths and a myriad of caves to explore. Pick up a map for $1 at the entrance to learn more while you hike.

The loop trail involves a few ladders, so be prepared to navigate these. The first one is short (and can actually be avoided), the second can be missed entirely by taking a slot trail, and the third, at the far end of the mesa, is the longest, and unavoidable. I like to do the trail “backwards” with younger kids so they can climb up the ladder instead of down which is easier for them. To do it this way, stay right and walk along the edge when the arrow points up to the left. You will also avoid the second ladder this way. There is a drop-off on part of the trail, but the path is wide enough to avoid heart-palpitations, for the most part.

Once you reach the caves, be sure to stop and sit in one together. (Be careful to tread lightly, as it is easy to kick up dust inside, which makes sitting inside no fun.) In the cave, have a snack, tell a story, break out your long lost flute or recorder, or just imagine what life would have been like for the kids who lived here. Would your kids like to live here? Why? Why not? These are fun ideas to ponder with your kids and can provoke conversations for days and weeks to come. Next time you take away their screen time, they can pretend they live in a cave and need to find their own fun!

My last suggestion is the closest to Santa Fe – Diablo Canyon Recreation Area via 599, Camino La Tierra and Old Buckman Road. It is not far as the crow flies, but the washboard road makes driving slow and tedious (45 minutes or so). The wonderland of rocks, cliffs and sand make it worth it though, as you enter another world.

As you being your walk, you might see some little dots on the sheer rock cliff face above you. These dots are people who climb this behemoth of a rock: remarkable and inspiring, and for those of us who prefer to stay close to the ground, downright scary. Luckily, you will be on solid ground, and it makes climbing the big black boulders below seem very safe by comparison.

With little ones you will prefer to stay in the sandy, beach-like wash that navigates between the sheer face on your right and the pile of boulders on your left. The canyon narrows and then opens up, widening and eventually reaching the Rio Grande. You can walk down as far as you desire, which is often not too far with kids who love to create their own games and play, jumping off the big rocks.

If your kids are a little older and you have confidence scrambling over big rocks with them, you can walk up the black rocks on your left and go as far as you feel comfortable. I have been to the tippy-top of the mesa with some confident climbers in the 9-11 year-old range. If this is your cup of tea, it’s a blast – inspiring, confidence-boosting and memorable. If you are a nervous mom or dad, you may want to keep the kids on the down low.

I have seen rattlesnakes here and at Ghost Ranch, but that should not be a concern during the winter months.

So there you have it. You have no excuse now for not getting outside with your kids this winter. Even if you hate the cold, all of these places can be quite warm on sunny winter afternoon, and will inspire even the most-curmudgeonly hiker to get some nature-inspired endorphins pumping.
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Ghost Ranch Cheat Sheet

Red – Chinle layer, from the Triassic period about 220 MYA, full of dinosaur bones, including Celeophysis, our state fossil.
Yellow – Entrada layer – sandstone – these are petrified dunes from a vast desert, 161-165 MYA
White – Todilto layer – from a salty inland sea about 50 mya.

Tsankawi Cheat Sheet
The rock here was created when the Valles Caldera blew it’s top, and ash and lava flowed down to form what is now called volcanic tuff. It is a soft rock that the pueblo people dug into to make the caveates. Caveates are human made caves that were a part of the pueblo peoples settlement. (They built additional rooms outside of the caves. Look for holes in the rock that held beams for a roof.) Grab a map of Tsankawi for $1 at the trailhead and stop at the numbered markers to learn more!

Digging into the Past, Week 2: Arroyo Hondo (both groups)

We are so lucky to have such a wealth of knowledge in our community. Jay Shapiro is a retired archeologist who did his PhD thesis on the Arroyo Hondo site.  This the second year he has given our kids a private tour.  His comment about our campers is that “They ask better questions than adults do!”  He is always impressed with the level of engagement of our campers.  We found lots of pottery shards, several matates used for grinding corn, and a couple of arrow heads.

We learned that we never, ever take things from an archeological site, and that it is best to leave things where they are found, not collect them in one place.  By collecting them, they lose their value to archeologists, because the place they are found is a significant part of the story.

After our tour we had lots of time for lunch and play!  A great end to a fun week of digging into the past!

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Digging into the Past, Week 2: Ghost Ranch (both groups)

Ghost Ranch is an amazing resource near Santa Fe, and Alex Downs, the now-retired Paleontologist, is a true gem!  He came out of retirement to spend time with the kids making plaster casts of dragons, T-rex teeth and claws. Afterwards he gave them a tour of the paleontology museum, answering their questions, sharing some of his wealth of knowledge, and showing them what a paleontoligist does. His great sense of humor and silliness combined with his knowledge provides the perfect recipe for engagement of the kids.

After lunch, some of the campers chose to go for a hike up to the dry river bed, while others did an archeology activity, painting their own miniature pottery replicas, followed by a scavenger hunt in the archeology museum.  The hikers came back covered in mud, as they had found a little bit of water in the river, while the others left with another sweet momento of our learning and fun-filled day at Ghost Ranch!

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Digging into the Past Week 2, 8-12 Year olds, Abiquiu Lake Campout

While our young Megalodons explored the Beaver Ponds, the Peregrine Falcons were setting up camp at Abiquiu Lake for the night. With thunder and lightning swirling around the area, swimming was cut short in favor of safety and lots of games under our group shelter.

We made a delicious dinner of bean and cheese burritos, sausages, carrots, and s’mores over the campfire.  After dinner, the threat of lightning had finally subsided, so we digested our food and then headed down for a little night swimming. So fun! Swimming in the early evening is such a treat!  It was still light out, but the heat of the day was gone and we had the place (almost) to ourselves!

We closed out our evening with a campfire where we told stories, and riddles.  It was a great spontaneous sharing by many of the campers and brought lots of laughs. A perfect wind-down to a fun day!

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Digging into the Past Week 2: Petroglyph Site & Fossil Hunting

We started our week with an archeological dig at Alto Park, where we sectioned off a 10×10 patch of park, just like archeologists do, to see what we could find.  We found a lot of trash, which is certainly telling about our society!  We discussed what archeologists do, and how they essentially are also looking for ancient trash, called artifacts. We talked about how archeologists work together with geologists, paleontologists and paleobotanists to dig into the past.

After games, art, circle, and snack we headed out to the petroglyph site on airport road to see some authentic evidence of our past. It was fun decipher the pictures to try to figure out what they were trying to say about their lives. Afterwards, the older campers (who had decided to be Peregrine Falcons this week), headed to Base Camp to make their own petroglyph tablets, do some archery, and run through the sprinkler to cool off!  The Megalodons, our 5-7 year old group, went back to Alto Park to play games in the shade. It was a hot and fun day to start our week of Digging into the Past!

Day 2 took the Megalodons to the Beaver Ponds to go fossil hunting. We found a lot of fossils in the rocks there and discussed on how they got there.  We hiked onward to the Santa Fe River to cool off and play in the water. Katie arrived to lead us in a game of Eagle Eye, a fun game of hiding and sneaking. Back at the park we wrapped up the day with a game of Frog Detective. Another fun day of digging into the rich past of the Santa Fe area!

Please enjoy the photos below of the 5-7 year olds.

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July 6th: Digging into the Past, Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument

Tsankawi is always a magical place to visit, even on a hot, hot day like today!  Days like today make us all appreciate water, and it’s importance, especially in light of visiting the former homes of the pueblo people who lived here 600-800 years ago. What hardship they must have endured to survive in this raw, beautiful land!

The caves we awesome to cool off in, eat our lunch, listen to a story and some flute music by Katie.  After lunch we had a blast exploring all the caves, the amazing “stairs” and the grooved paths, worn down by hundreds of years of use.

What a great way to finish off our week of Digging into the Past!  Thanks to a great group a kids for a wonderful time exploring a bit of New Mexico’s fascinating history.

Enjoy the photos of our great group of Mountain Kids!

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July 5th, 2017: Digging into the Past, Week 1: Base Camp

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This morning after games and clay, we gathered up to learn about Pictograph stories. We started by “reading” a Native American story that was made with pictographs. It was fun to guess what the pictures meant, and when we read it in words, we realized we were pretty close! While we ate snack, we came up with our own Mountain Kids! pictograph story, by each adding one sentence and 1-3 pictures. It was fun and we were glad that the story had a happy ending!

Then we went to Mountain Kids! base camp where we were planning to make paint with the rocks we had collected and try our hand at archery. We all gathered round the fire pit, sang some songs and played a game before Katie demonstrated how to make paint with our colorful rocks. It was quite fun and relaxing to grind up the rocks using the “manos and matates” and then sift and make paint.  We each made a different color and then painted our own special pot or a rock.

Archery was a great challenge for everyone. Morgan carefully instructed each of the kids on how to be safe on an archery range and how to shoot a bow and arrow. Hitting the target alone was a great achievement! We learned how skilled the ancient peoples must have been and gained a lot more respect for their lifestyle.

After lunch, some tried out the slack line and others climbed trees then we played Mountain Lion-Deer Chase in the forest which was exciting and fun, running through the forest, sneaking and hiding. Afterward, Morgan taught us a fun game called Zip Zap Zop! when it started to rain hard enough that we took cover under the portal.

Back at Alto Park, we played Park Ranger for even longer than we should have because we were having so much fun! Thanks all, today was a splendid day for Mountain Kids!

~ written by Page Bancroft

July 4th: Digging into the Past, Week 1: Pecos National Monument

Tuesday was enjoyable and very informative for everyone! We had a calm morning of making clay sculptures, playing a few games, a snack, and then started on our journey to Pecos National Monument.

Pecos is impeccably beautiful, and contains the history of the Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and a Civil war site.  Amazing! Though it was hot, there were lovely clouds all day long that provided perfect relief!

We went through the main trail and stopped at every point to read, talk, and listen to the speculations and facts about the area. We learned what a descendant is, what a kiva is, and what the ancient people who used to live there were like. It was fascinating to climb into the Kiva and see the ruins and the old church built by the Franciscan monks.

After hiking the trail, we had the great treat of watching a very short film about Pecos and its history over the last few thousand years. Then we fully explored the museum and noticed many wonderful objects and beautiful art. 

We finished up our last bits of food in some nice shade and listened to a Native American story. Then into the van we went, listening to James and The Giant Peach all the way home. Arriving back at Alto Park we played Park Ranger until everyone had to go home. What a sweet day outdoors for all!

~ written by Page Bancroft