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By Whitney Spivey
Pro tips for visiting these iconic New Mexico sites with children: Pecos National Historical Park, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, Tsankawi at Bandelier National Monument, Sulphur Springs at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to tear its way through New Mexico, getting our family outside became a key to staying sane. Every afternoon, I’d find a trail in or around my hometown of Los Alamos and hike for about a mile with my husband and 3-year-old twin daughters. The hikes were slow, but we soaked up the sunshine, stopped to look at the budding flowers and filled our pockets with rocks and acorns. One awesome thing about Los Alamos — and many places in northern New Mexico — is that we could go on a different hike every day.
But we looked forward to returning to some of our favorite — and more popular — hiking trails. Here are four of our most-beloved excursions, with some of our favorite places to refill our tanks on the way home. Some of these sites are still closed or open only on a limited basis, but they may reopen on at least a limited basis later this summer.
Pecos National Historical Park
Located southeast of Santa Fe, Pecos National Historical Park offers several great trails, and the Ancestral Sites Trail is a great place to start (especially since it begins right behind the visitor’s center). The 1.25-mile (round trip) trail winds around ancestral sites — including room blocks and kivas — of the Pecos Pueblo. The most notable structure is a massive Spanish mission church that dates to 1717. Despite the crumbling adobe, our girls kept calling the church a castle (perhaps they watched a few too many Disney movies during their quarantine?) and enjoyed scampering about in its large plaza-type area.
If time allows, check out the 2.25-mile (round trip) Glorieta Battlefield Trail for a glimpse into the Civil War in New Mexico. If you’ve had your fill of hiking, fishing is allowed on the Pecos River inside the park (check the park website for details).
Pro tip: Leashed dogs are allowed on most trails in this park, so make this a family outing with your pup.
Refuel: Harry’s Roadhouse, on the south side of Santa Fe, is a neighborhood restaurant with a huge menu that features everything from pizza to traditional New Mexican fare.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Located on Cochiti Pueblo just southwest of Santa Fe, the hiking-only Canyon Trail in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument winds through and then above a slot canyon formed by ancient volcanic ash that spewed from the Jemez 6 to 7 million years ago. The first time I hiked there, a decade ago, I felt like I was walking through a giant sandcastle — the giant cone-shaped rocks (called tent rocks or hoodoos) formed towering, majestic spires unlike anything I’d seen before. The top of the 1.5-mile (one way) trail offers incredible views of the Jemez, Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountains. It’s a great place to orient yourself if you’re new to New Mexico or simply haven’t left your house since March.
For a little extra mileage, take the Cave Trail back to the parking lot (it connects to the Canyon Trail). The Cave Loop Trail is super mellow and features an impressive cave.
Pro tip: The Tent Rocks website (which is a Bureau of Land Management site) offers a downloadable Junior Ranger Activity Guide and a student workbook that will keep older kids focused as they hike.
Refuel: Take the scenic route back to Santa Fe. Instead of going north on 1-25, cut over to the Turquoise Trail (NM 14) using County Road 57A. Stop at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid for a post-hike meal. The pub fare and old-timey atmosphere don’t disappoint.
Tsankawi at Bandelier National Monument
The main loop trail at Bandelier National Monument is always a winner, but I’d like to recommend Tsankawi, which is basically a satellite park just down the road on Highway 4. Not only is Tsankawi closer to Santa Fe than Bandelier proper, but it has everything that the main park does: Ladders! Caves! Petroglyphs! Amazing views! The 1.5-mile trail is just the right length for little legs, and it offers just the right amount of climbing up and down ladders and rocks to make it challenging and fun. The trail is almost entirely exposed, so please wear sunscreen, and remember to check the weather—you don’t want to be on top of the mesa during a summer monsoon. Tsankawi does not have a visitor’s center, so those wanting to learn about the history of this Ancestral Puebloan village should do so online before visiting.
Pro tip: Because Tsankawi is part of the national park system, you will have to pay an entrance fee ($25). However, purchasing an annual parks pass ($80) will get you into as many national parks as you can visit in one year. In fact, if you only visit the four parks mentioned here, you’ll have paid for the pass.
Refuel: The Pig + Fig Cafe in White Rock has a great selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner items that are ethically sourced and incorporate high-quality, seasonable ingredients.
Covid status: Starting on June 8, Bandelier National Monument will begin a phased reopening of Frijoles Canyon, however the Tsankawi area will remain closed. If you’re itching for other ways to explore the park, check out backcountry options such as the Cerro Grande and Burnt Mesa trails. Pig + Fig is open for take out and patio dining, and the dining room is open at 50% capacity.
Sulphur Springs at the Valles Caldera National Preserve
Whether you’re watching prairie dogs from the visitor’s center, listening to the elk bugle from a pull off on Highway 4, or fishing in the backcountry, the adventuring is always good in the Valles Caldera. Recently, though, we tried something new. We drove north up Sulphur Creek Road (off Highway 4) until we reached a closed gate that marks a western entrance to the Caldera. We parked at the gate and hiked about half a mile up the road. There, we reached Sulphur Springs, a geothermal area that was acquired by the National Park Service in January. You’ll find sulfuric-acid hot springs, volcanic fumaroles and steaming mudpots — features that are found nowhere else in New Mexico and in very few other places around the country. You’ll also find the (somewhat creepy) ruins of an early 20th-century bathhouse. Sulphur Springs is “New Mexico weird” at its best.
Pro tip: The Caldera is fairly remote (the nearest towns are Los Alamos and Jemez Springs, both a good 30 minutes or more away. Make sure to fill up on gas, snacks and water before you go.
Refuel: Swing by Fleur de Lys in Los Alamos on your way back to Santa Fe. The French cafe, owned and operated by a real French couple, offers to-die-for pastries, sandwiches and crepes. The coffee is free (yes, you read that right) and comes from Santa Fe’s own 35 Degrees North.
Covid status: As of May 6, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is open, although the road to the Caldera’s main visitor’s center is closed. The trail to Sulphur Springs remains accessible to the public. Please maintain at least six feet of physical distance from other explorers. Fleur de Lys is taking online orders for take out.