If you're looking for Santa Fe's fabled lost soul, what are you doing in the Plaza? Streets paved with Gucci, Prada and their ilk may hold aesthetic and gastronomic riches, priced to match, but they won't feed your deeper hunger.
My advice: Drool later over that $3,000 beaver-skin hat, Acoma pottery or brilliant Navajo weavings on nearby Canyon Road. Pry yourself (this is harder) out of your chair at Cafe Pasqual's or Coyote Cafe. The chicken mole will taste as sinful after dark. Then get off the pavement and onto a trail in the high Southwest desert. That's where you'll feel the power of a landscape that awed the ancients -- and legions of explorers, painters, scientists and writers since.
On the Tsankawi Trail by Santa Fe, take the 12-foot ladder one step at a time.
It worked for us this spring when my husband and I used a visit to our wilderness-crazy son, interning at Outside magazine, as an excuse to explore the area. The hikes we took, as a duo or a threesome, helped us find the magic we'd missed in the kitsch and glitz.
You could do worse than to follow our tracks this fall -- arguably even a better season for visiting the area. Here are three spectacular day hikes that will reward your senses and earn you that mole. All are within easy driving distance of Santa Fe and Taos, N.M.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
"Say now, hoodoo. Hoodoo you think you're foolin'?"
Apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, but this phantasmagorical canyonscape of striated conical rocks called hoodoos tends to make folks a bit slack-jawed and goofy. The tan, pink and gray volcanic rocks, some balancing a boulder atop their peaks like a ball on a seal's snout, are reminiscent of the ones at Utah's Bryce Canyon and Cappadocia in Turkey. Together, two connecting paths -- the Cave Trail and the Canyon Trail -- wind around the fragile fairy-tale formations, accounting for about three otherworldly miles. The Canyon Trail leads up to a promontory through a slot canyon.
Highlights: In Santa Fe, where we were based, the April day broke overcast and chilly. The antidote: an hour's drive south with the kid toward lower (5,500 feet), warmer Albuquerque. Go west off I-25 and eight miles or so past Cochiti Pueblo on an unpaved road and you're in another world.
The climber in our group (and the only one in sandals, natch) took one look at the crumbly three- and four-story rock forms that announced the start of our hike and ran gleefully up their sides. As an environmentalist, he should have known better, but there was no one around to chide him.
Then we set out on the Cave Trail, but not before I nervously eyed the clouds -- slot canyons are not good places to be in sudden storms. We wound past gnarled trees that practically screamed Georgia O'Keeffe and clung to vertical cracks in the rock walls. Above our heads, several high depressions worn by wind and water were big enough to hold a nimble-footed person (he confirmed it) or two.
The more dramatic Canyon Trail climbs up through the undulating canyon walls, which hold back surprises until you're upon them: petroglyphs, flowering cacti growing on hoodoo tops, red and gold clumps of Indian paintbrush and desert marigold.