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.
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.
Lore: "Silverado" and "Lonesome Dove" were both filmed here. President Clinton declared the ancient land formation, formed millions of years ago, a national monument in 2001.
Bragging rights: None to speak of. It's not that challenging a trail. But wait. Was that a golden eagle soaring above the canyon? Could have been. (Could also have been a hawk or a kestrel. Check your bird books before you brag.)
Uh-ohs: Keep to the trail as you climb, warns a small sign, to avoid encounters of the slithery kind. We needed no further convincing. Watch your footing on the way down: Crumbled volcanic rock called tuff offers poor traction. And you probably don't need to be told, but take a hiking partner and go well before sundown. Bill Hinsvark, an artist we met at our Santa Fe bed-and-breakfast, told us about a sometimes hiking partner who got herself stranded here one night and had to be helicoptered out.
Sunscreen and a hat are strongly advised -- the rocks don't afford a lot of cover. Take water, even if you wouldn't for a hike of this length back east.
Getting There: Take I-25 south from Santa Fe about 40 miles to the Cochiti Reservoir exit. Follow signs west. Info: www.nm.blm.gov/aufo/tent_rocks/tent_rocks.html.
Fees, Notes: You're on the honor system. Deposit your $5 per car in the box and go. There's a bathroom with running water at one side of the parking lot.
Tell people you're going to Santa Fe and everyone will tell you that you have to visit Bandelier National Monument, the Frijoles Canyon site of ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings 48 miles northwest of the capital city. But when they say Bandelier, they mean the heavily visited main section, not this separate, quieter part 12 miles out of the way.
By all means, go to the main section. The scale of the ruins, some as much as 1,000 years old, and spectacular setting, hugging the base of a cliff alongside a stream-fed forest, rightly inspire wonder. Go despite the crowds, the paved walkways, the handrails on the steps. Just don't think of it as a hike. For a trek, and a more private -- even spiritual -- experience, head to Tsankawi (sank-ah-WEE).
Highlights: This 11/2-mile loop is not particularly challenging, though to see the best part of it, you do have to get yourself up and over a sturdy 12-foot wooden ladder. To the halfway point, you're on a mellow trail; then the footing gives way to natural stone walkways that skirt cliff edges. From the entry gate, we walked up a dusty trail, alone and quiet, as befits an entrance into the past.
The Pueblo people, or Anasazi, settled Tsankawi in the 1400s, farming the arid mesa and canyonland as long as the rain and soil held out. The area they picked, ringed by the Jemez Mountains to the west, the Sangre de Cristo to the east and the Sandia to the south, was formed by eruptions of the Jemez volcano more than a million years ago. The dust under our feet was tuff.
We walked past the rocky foundations of a village, with a large rectangular structure that once rose two or three stories and contained as many as 350 rooms. Here and there, pottery shards of varying patterns and colors lay on the ground.
But the biggest wonders came with our descent along the southwest side of the cliff: cave dwelling after cave dwelling, into which we clambered like children, calling to one another in excitement and staring at the soot-blackened ceilings. Narrow runnels worn eight to 12 inches deep in the rock by generations of use as footpaths connect the caves, and remnants of some toehold trails are still visible in the rock. Petroglyphs adorn some rock faces; we liked the stick figures with arms extended to the elbow and forearms raised to the sky.
Lore: The so-called mystery about why the inhabitants abandoned their agricultural settlement sometime in the late 1500s has been overplayed. A drought, depleted soil and exhaustion of natural resources such as wood all appear to have played a role, and the villagers interspersed with other groups in the area.
Bragging rights: There's that 12-foot ladder, occasionally narrow footing and a trail that flirts with a crumbly cliff edge on the way back.
Uh-ohs: The trail's position relative to the drop-offs wouldn't faze most adults (the cliff isn't much more than 20 to 30 feet high, but it's on a rim of rock 1,000 feet above the snaking Rio Grande so it feels more dramatic) except for the fact that you can see where portions of the cliff have collapsed. How long ago? How suddenly? There's no telling.
Getting there: If you're not looking for it -- and even if you are -- you could easily miss it. A few miles past the highway turnoff from Route 502 onto Route 4 for Bandelier, and just before the north fork veers off to Los Alamos, keep your eye out for a nondescript gated fence on the left and space along the shoulder for several parked cars. There's a sign saying Tsankawi, but you have to get out of the car to read it. Info: 505-672-0343, www.nps.gov/band.
Fees, notes: To park, you're supposed to display your national park visitor's tag, available for $10 per car at the visitors center, or just feed $10 to a fee-processing machine at the gate. We took a chance, hiking first and paying the fee later. General elevation: 6,600 feet.
Devisadero Loop Trail
This steep five-mile loop overlooking the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo and the Rio Grande Gorge offers view upon eye-popping view of snow-capped Wheeler Peak and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Plus it boasts an evocative bit of history. Devisadero is Spanish for "lookout point." The Taos Pueblos used to send scouts up to the peak along this trail to watch for Apache raiding parties coming down from Taos Canyon.
Highlights: Heading north from the access trail, we took the trail's steeper right fork to Devisadero Peak, choosing to exert ourselves first and reap the reward later. There was gratification almost from the start in mountain views, through the pinons, juniper and gambel oak, of a drama and number rarely afforded by Eastern trails. On the darker, cooler north side of the mountain, these continued, this time through taller Douglas and white firs.
We set no time records on the hike. We spent nearly 31/2 hours all told, allowing for breaks to: eat a cookie, scout for arrowheads (no luck), examine quartz and volcanic rock, and dissect the flat arm of a small cactus after scrubbing off the needles with a rock. (John Wayne movies notwithstanding, don't bet your life on quenching your thirst this way. The plant's innards proved a moist lurid green, but nothing oozed when cut.)
Lore: Local detective writer Tony Hillerman tells, in a short story, how in 1994 a man's sudden illness and death after hiking in the region triggered an epidemiological mystery. The cause of death: the Plague. As in Bubonic. The virus still lurks in several Western states, including New Mexico, where it breaks out in isolated occasions from rodents to humans. Antibiotics defeat it these days, as long as the diagnosis is made in time.
Bragging rights: There's a 1,125-foot elevation gain in the first mile and a half or so to 8,304 feet.
Uh-ohs: Flatlanders and lowlanders (Washingtonians, that means you) alert: This hike is more taxing than the others. Allow a few days to acclimate to the high elevation first. (If you're flying in just for the day, skip it.) Take plenty of water; figure three bottles or more per person.
Go early on a spring or fall weekday and you may have the trail virtually to yourself. Otherwise, during peak summer season and weekends, company could descend upon you in the form of mountain bikers (have death wish, will launch off rock ledges) and horseback riders. Occasional yellow signs bearing the silhouette of a hiker remind them to watch for you. On our descent, we yielded to one cyclist taking the narrow rocky switchbacks on fat tires. The rest of our way down, each time we crossed talus fields or stretches of boulders, we'd ask, "He went over this?"
Getting there: From Taos, take Highway 64 about three miles east of Taos. Park along the shoulder at the El Nogal picnic area. The trailhead is across the highway. Info: www.fs.fed.us/r3/carson/html_trails/trail_devisadero.html.
Fees, notes: No fee, no facilities. Identified as Trail No. 108 in the Carson National Forest. An info sheet is available from the Taos tourist information center. Don't let the "expert" ranking scare you.
Susan Morse will be online to discuss this article Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.