Santa Fe, N.M.: Destination of the week
Bring your appetite for good food and fun, but leave your car behind.
Wed, Apr 25 2012 at 6:17 PM
Despite its small size and modest population statistics (less than 68,000 inhabitants in the city itself), Santa Fe, N.M., is a city of superlatives. It is the oldest capital in the U.S., founded in the early 17th century. The center of the city sits 7,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest capital in the country as well. Santa Fe is arguably the most attractive tourist destination in its state and one of the most interesting places to visit in the Southwest. Much of Santa Fe's popularity is thanks to its well-preserved history, colorful local culture, well-known art scene, and high concentration of world-class restaurants.
Green-minded travelers will find plenty to love in this artsy, high-altitude town. Santa Fe is a compact place, so it is highly walkable. Local, organic and fresh ingredients are the norm in many of the city's most notable eateries. Trails and nature are easy to access without getting behind the wheel (or even on a bus or other gas-powered vehicle). Small-scale sleeping spots dominate the hospitality scene, with many overtly environmentally friendly options among the high number of hotels, haciendas and B&Bs.
One of the best aspects of Santa Fe is its walkability. The compact downtown holds many sights and walking is the best way to take it all in. Locals and visitors alike stroll through the central Santa Fe Plaza until late in the evening, creating an atmospheric, buzzing scene. Because parking is severely limited in downtown during the summertime, taking the bus is a good option for those seeking both eco-friendliness and convenience. The Santa Fe Trails bus service is limited, as it is in most American cities of Santa Fe's size. However, it is useful, with 10 routes running during the week and most also operating on an abbreviated schedule on the weekends. For those who want to explore further afield, the New Mexico Rail Runner has a station at the Santa Fe Depot. The train stops at the South Capital and runs through Albuquerque.
Loretto Line tour company runs regular tours on open air buses around the downtown area. Tours pass between the Old Santa Fe Trail and the Plaza and last for more than an hour. Santa Fe is a reasonably bike-friendly city with trails and paths making pedaling from one place to another relatively easy (for those who are able to cope with the altitude).
The Nambé Lake Recreation Area is one of the many outdoor attractions in the Santa Fe region. This recreational area sits in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a short drive outside Santa Fe. The area's waterfall, Nambé Falls, and namesake lake can be reached via short hiking trails. In all, the area encompasses 19,000 acres. Day passes to the park and all hiking trails cost $10 per car, with camping available for an additional $15.
Another nature-themed option is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Located on the city's Museum Hill (see below), the garden’s focus is horticulture, though anyone who appreciates nature will enjoy the Arroyo Trail that winds through an 8-acre landscape. The facility’s main area, dubbed the Orchard Garden, features fruit trees, while meadow gardens, dry gardens, a contemporary “naturalistic” garden, and themed courtyard gardens are also found inside this venue.
Museum Hill boasts a unique menu of museums, with four history and culture-oriented exhibit halls located within walking distance of one another. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, and Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian all tell the narrative of Santa Fe and the surrounding region from different historical and cultural perspectives. The exhibits make this a good stopping point for any New Mexico visitor, and the convenient location makes the Hill a good itinerary addition for visitors hoping to spend a car-free day in Santa Fe. A more hands-on experience of Native American culture can be found each August at the Santa Fe Indian Market. This annual event features cultural exhibitions and educational events in addition to a large market featuring Native American arts and crafts.
For many visitors, the most attractive aspect of Santa Fe is its adventure activities. During the warmer months, rafting on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama is popular with both adrenaline-seekers and scenery junkies (who can opt for slower paddles). In winter, Ski Santa Fe, located in Santa Fe National Forest about 15 miles from the city, is a popular place for people who want to experience the wintertime nature and mountain scenery while swooshing down the slopes. Even non-skiers can enjoy Ski Santa Fe. The resort runs its chairlifts in the autumn so that people can enjoy the fall colors of the mountain.
Santa Fe Plaza is the heart of the city. This is a pedestrian-friendly area that holds some memorable events, including a Christmastime celebration that includes thousands of luminaries. The shops and buildings that line the plaza create a buzzing and beautiful atmosphere at any time of year.
For nature enthusiasts, the real magic of Santa Fe is found along the many trails that lie outside the city limits. Some of these trails are quite high in terms of altitude. The Windsor Trail, part of Hyde Memorial State Park, takes hikers on a climb to more than 11,000 feet above sea level. For those seeking something a little more in the backcountry, Windsor leads to the quarter-million-acre Pecos Wilderness area. Hyde's Circle Trail requires less ambition than Windsor, but there is still some pretty steep climbing. The seven-mile Atalaya Mountain Trail is one of the most accessible trails in Santa Fe. The apex of the Atalaya hike is at the top of the trail's namesake mountain. This vantage point provides awe-inspiring views of the Rio Grande Valley and the city. During the summer, Santa Fe's Ski Basin, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, draws hikers with accessible and scenic trails including the scenery-heavy 10-mile Aspen Vista Trail. Many more paths snake through the Santa Fe area. One last one worth mentioning for casual walkers is the Nature Conservancy Trail, a mile-and-a-half loop that passes through protected land near central Santa Fe.
Cities the size of Santa Fe are often dominated by chain hotels. This is not the case in New Mexico’s capital, however. Independently owned inns with an atmospheric Southwest vibe are quite common, as are bed-and-breakfasts and other forms of small-scale accommodation. There is even a chance to get ultra-rustic at Hyde Memorial State Park, which offers tent camping and three-sided shelters.
Places like Pueblo Bonito Bed and Breakfast straddle the line between an inn and an intimate bed-and-breakfast. This 18-room facility boasts Southwestern ambiance and a location that allows guests to walk to both natural and urban attractions. The Santa Fe International Hostel is a funky sleeping spot with lots of common areas and a distinct lack of televisions. The hostel operates as a nonprofit business.
Bishops Lodge Ranch and Spa manages to balance luxury and service with eco-friendliness. This nearly-century-old venue has a kitchen that relies heavily on local organic ingredients, with some produce actually harvested on-site. The Lodge's green features include everything from energy efficient light fixtures and biodegradable food containers to environmentally friendly wedding options and landscaping practices that are designed to maximize water conservation.
The adobe-style Hacienda Nicholas is another green sleeping spot. This bed-and-breakfast-style inn has themed rooms with a strong Southwestern flair. Organically fertilized gardens, low-flow fixtures and other green features make this a good bet for travelers intent on finding a low-impact place to sleep.
Santa Fe is ripe with organic eating opportunities. Some of these natural eateries focus on health. Body Cafe, which features an organic-centered menu, is part of a health emporium that also includes a yoga studio and spa. In addition to the natural meals, the cafe serves organic beer, wine and sake. ZIA Diner, meanwhile, offers grass-fed beef and other locally sourced, organic ingredients. Another organic standout and local favorite is Tree House Pastry Shop and Cafe. The owner's fresh-and-local philosophy means that organic ingredients, which come from nearby farms, are the backbone of Tree House's kitchen.
Other small eateries have helped to create a surprisingly diverse and exciting scene for vacationing foodies. The small Pasqual's Cafe serves ice cream and baked goods that are made in-house. This is yet another kitchen that focuses on using natural and organic products. Vinaigrette features a salad-based menu that boasts fresh produce grown, in large part, at a local farm run by the restaurant's owner. The farm's greenhouse keeps the kitchen stocked during the colder months.
The Santa Fe Farmers Market is one of the more vibrant markets in the Southwest. It features locally grown foods and artisanal products. The market’s vendors go well beyond edibles, however, selling a variety of handmade goods, from guitars and pottery to jewelry and ornamental hand-blown glass.
Santa Fe might lack the bright lights and urban glamour of other regional cities, but it is arguably one of the better places in the Southwest when it comes to planning and enjoying a green-themed vacation. Even green-minded visitors not interested in the art and history of this capital city will find plenty of nature and an organic and locally focused eating scene.
Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.