Adventure on the outskirts of Santa Fe

November 14, 1993|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

Santa Fe, N.M., needs more publicity like its fiery chili needs more peppers.

Which it doesn't.

Word-of-mouth has brought millions of tourists to this mud-colored city of low adobe buildings -- home to artist's galleries, museums, ultra-chic boutiques, restaurants and stylish residences.

Wrapped in rugged desert scenery studded with pinyon and juniper, Santa Fe wows so many tourists that lots of them stay.

In a 1993 poll, Conde Nast Traveler readers voted Santa Fe their second favorite U.S. destination, and fifth favorite city worldwide -- tied with Paris and ahead of London and Rome. San Francisco was first in both categories.

Santa Fe was on the Conde Nast ballot this year after winning the competition last year -- on a write-in vote.

In a mere 15 years, Santa Fe has gone from sleepy to slick, from a cowpoke to a dandy, from undiscovered to sorry-we're-sold-out.

Result? A city bursting at the seams of prosperity, choking on its own success. Not since the Santa Fe Trail brought goods and dreamers from the Midwest to the high desert in the 1800s has such an influx occurred.

Santa Fe needs a break.

So maybe it's time we cut a few Santa Fe trails out of town. You can point your car in virtually any direction and enjoy history, fascinating cultures and vast, otherworldly scenery.

Heading out of town

This one's a full day, but maybe the most complete day trip you'll make. Highlights:

San Ildefonso Pueblo. New Mexico abounds in pueblos. If this one's your first, brace yourself. The past and present collide at San Ildefonso.

Start with how you can drive through San Ildefonso. I spied a woman on a portable phone. I also saw a Weber grill. So much for ancient tribal traditions.

On foot you can view the simple mission church and cemetery, a 300-year-old cottonwood tree and hornos: beehive-like outdoor ovens used for baking bread.

Village pottery is handmade the old way, without using a potter's wheel. Black-on-black pottery from San Ildefonso is prized. Also, expensive.

Bandelier National Monument

Awesome, steep-walled Frijoles Canyon is one of those places that fires an imagination. Picture this canyon 800 years ago and thousands of American Indians living one with the land. Here was the population center of the Anasazi, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians.

Catch the 10-minute slide show at the visitor's center. Then lace up your walking shoes for a looping trail that passes ancient ruins and cliff dwellings in the canyon walls.

Los Alamos. Fifty years ago Los Alamos was, well, nowhere. Just a box number in virtually trackless desert. Scientists met in this desert outpost to build, then detonate the first atom bomb.

Twice a year you can stand at Ground Zero, but you'll get more from visiting the science museum here, with a time line, hands-on displays and a film that tells the chilling story of the Manhattan Project.

Abiquiu. With its dusty, rutted roads and mangy dogs, Abiquiu seems hardly a place of pilgrimage. Yet to fans of Georgia O'Keeffe, the village is a shrine. Here she lived and painted in her later years. Her high-walled home is closed to tourists, but the desert vistas are breathtaking.

Head up U.S. 84 and you're deep in painted desert to rival Arizona (maybe even outdo it). Ghost Ranch, where O'Keeffe spent summers, is better known today for its fossil-rich grounds. You'll find modest museums of paleontology and anthropology. In the summer high season, a conference center charges $38 for accommodations.

Animal lovers will want to head up the road to Ghost Ranch Living Museum, where critters indigenous to the area -- but orphaned or too injured to be released -- are cared for.

Too enthralled to leave? Hard by the rivers, gorges and mesas that inspired Georgia O'Keeffe is the handsome, 12-room Abiquiu Inn. Rates from $55; (800) 447-5621.

Santa Fe ski basin

Need a quick fix of scenery? By the odometer it's only 18 miles up the winding mountain road to the ski area. But what panoramas! Pine trees scent the air, inviting an hour or a day on hiking trails that crisscross the Santa Fe National Forest.

Aspen Vista is popular with outdoors enthusiasts. "Truly the great outdoors," said one hiker. "You can get into the back country up on the mountain ridges to villages that have been around for 300 years where they still speak Spanish."

Sightings of bear and mountain lion are rare, he says, "but there's plenty of deer, turkey, bobcats. It's heaven up here."

Halfway to Taos is Velarde, where the roadside fruit stands are too irresistible to pass up. Each is colorful with cascades of ristras: hanging chili peppers ripened to a dazzling red and woven together.

The rush of being in Taos starts miles out of town, with the way the scenery goes from striking to really sensational, like a curtain rising on a grand stage. Your car snakes through the canyon of the Rio Grande until it crests at a plateau. Welcome to Taos.

Taos is Santa Fe, only smaller, more charming and cozier with its mountain surroundings. Skiing is world-class.

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