One the best things about being a new parent is the realization that I will soon get to relive many of the best moments of my childhood. Through sharing similar experiences with my own little guy, I will soon get to revisit the brilliance of summertime Venus from inside a tent in Abiquiú. Or thrash a paddle through chocolate milk-colored froth from a raft on the Rio Grande. Or rocket down the Winsor Trail on my mountain bike. Or swipe at insects with a bug catcher net at the Randall Davey Audubon Center.
For adult and child alike, the Santa Fe landscape is a vast ecological playground, a place that boasts 1.6 million acres of Santa Fe National Forest; a deceptive number of mountain streams, lakes and fishing ponds; and some of the country's best hiking and mountain biking trails.
To help navigate through these Northern New Mexico natural gems, I asked five local experts for some guidance on the region's top child-friendly spots.
The front end of the Aspen Vista Trail on the way up to Ski Santa Fe might be the most popular family-friendly hike in the region, but in my opinion, it's also the most annoying—due in part to traffic congestion and heavy human presence, particularly during early fall, when the aspen leaves begin to turn.
"For kids, it's not about long distances or long solitary trails," says William Neuwirth, an ecologist and hiking instructor Santa Fe Community College's Continuing Education program. "They're not just looking but exploring, with their bodies and all their senses. They want to get out and get their hands dirty, their feet in the water and experience nature."
The 33,000-acre Bandelier National Monument is a perfect place for a family hike, with its ancestral pueblo ruins, a manageable 1.2-mile main loop trail, the babbling Frijoles Creek and a passel of wildlife. "Bandelier is fairly popularized but kids can climb ladders and explore inside of caves and other places," says Neuwirth.
Neuwirth also recommends the Rio en Medio Trail, located in the village of the same name, just north of Tesuque. While parking is sparse, he says the trail's creek crossings, towering ponderosa pines and cascading waterfall is a great hike for children.
For families looking to get their feet wet, a scenic rafting trip is a great way to take in the beauty of the stone canyon landscape of the Rio Grande and the newly established Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, a swath of some 242,000 acres of land that includes 74 miles of river.
Children as young as 4 years old regularly participate in half-day scenic floats offered by companies like Kokopelli Rafting Adventures. "Starting in mid-June, the rapids calm down," says seasoned tour guide and Kokopelli co-owner John Seiner. "In addition, the water really warms up mid and late July and lasts through August, and it makes for a really nice family experience."
The three-hour trip is a leisurely way to sightsee the canyon and a proper introduction for young people who might want to move on to bigger rapids in the future, says Seiner, who adds, "People are sometimes surprised that we have appropriate trips starting at age 4, but the families get hooked and then by age 7, kids can start taking part in our most popular trips."
In recent years, Santa Fe has carved out a reputation as a top mountain biking destination, highlighted by some 50 miles of adventurous trails, including the accessible and meandering Dale Ball and the multiterrain Winsor.
What about the children? Thanks to push balance bikes, often called Striders, kids as young as 18 months (18 months!) can start cruising Santa on two wheels. But the president of the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, Pat Brown, says parents might want to wait until their kids are about 8 or 9 to start prepping them for the heavy-duty stuff. "Dirt trails are a lot different than concrete trails, so they need to learn how to maneuver a bike before they get too ambitious," Brown says. "Plus, the parents need the same skills, too."
La Tierra Trails, about 25 miles of networked trail located in northern Santa Fe off NM 599, is an ideal family biking destination, says Brown, who adds, "there's all kinds existing trails and trails being developed there that range from beginner to advanced."
Don't miss the newly minted La Tierra Flow Trail, a bike-specific, downhill-only path that was constructed by local volunteers and designed by experts from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. "You should be able to ride down it without any pedaling or braking, which is why we call it a 'flow trail,'" says Brown. "We developed that trail so both kids and adults can enjoy it. You see kids on Striders out there."
Perhaps no outdoor activity evokes as much nostalgia as the camping trip. The Santa Fe National Forest is made up some 1.6 million acres, and whether wilderness or developed grounds, you can camp in nearly every square foot of it in some capacity. "There's really no better way to introduce young people to the outdoors and self-reliance" says Miles Standish, a recreation technician in the Española Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. "Getting out of the house and your feet on the ground—it's very good at bringing people together."
Camping in the national forest varies greatly from low to high elevations, Rocky Mountain desert to thick forest and developed (read toilets, potable water and other amenities) to "primitive."
For family camping, Standish suggests the scenic Big Tesuque Campground, located on Ski Basin Road about 12 miles from town. The site is a very popular walk-in (meaning tents only) site surrounded by aspens and streams. With capacity for 10 campers at a time, the site offers picnic tables and grills and toilets in the parking lot, but no potable water, according to the Forest Service website.
"Thanks to recent rainfall, we're not currently under any fire restrictions, which is nice," adds Standish.
While it might take a lifetime to master the secrets of angling a hook and line, that shouldn't discourage families from testing the waters of fishing. The Santa Fe National Forest alone boasts some 1,000 miles of streams and 20 fish-yielding lakes, ranging from remote fly fishing alcoves to established fishing ponds. "Fishing is a great family activity because most kids are not ready to do it on their own, so a parent will need to train and assist them—there's a lot of interaction between adult and child," says Ed L'Heureux, fly fishing guide and general manager of High Desert Angler.
Before attempting fly fishing, which requires considerable patience and skill, L'Heureux suggests starting kids off with a spin or bait rod and taking them to well-stocked ponds or rivers that don't have much competition from adults.
L'Heureux highly recommends the newly updated Cowles Ponds Fishing Site, located in Pecos Canyon, which offers a dedicated pond for kids under the age of 12. In addition, "almost every hatchery offers ponds just for kids," says L'Heureux. Licenses are not required for New Mexico resident and nonresident anglers under 12 years of age.