“We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor…the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud and the rain…some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” –Henry David Thoreau
I’ve lived in Santa Fe off and on for the last two years, and in that time I’ve participated in nearly every outdoor pursuit available to a human bound by finances and gravity. Few places on earth offer such a varied palette of adventure, situated as Santa Fe is at the intersection of alpine and high desert biomes. With that adventure occasionally comes danger, but the rewards, for me, have always outweighed the moderate risks. Yet those who thrive on challenges tend to escalate them. Here you’ll find stories of some of my favorite nearby adventures, in order of escalating toughness, with maybe a flyspeck of danger. (We’ve also ranked them on a 1-5 scale for difficulty, danger and fun—1 being the least and 5 being the most.) Nothing crazy here. Just some fun moments in places worth wandering.
Cliff Jumping Abiquiu
Mike Webster perched calmly atop the 20-foot cliff overlooking a tongue of Abiquiu Lake. He was surrounded by nearly two dozen loud youths and a few fretting dogs, all gathered above the cool, miraculous sustenance of desert water on a hot New Mexico Saturday. He seemed almost not to notice them as he took measure of the cliff and of himself. Mike, managing editor of Santa Fe-based Blister Gear Review, was also a trained scientist and did not jump haphazardly into things before he’d run through the procedure and its possible outcomes. He calculated the height and the required arc his body would follow; then he turned his back to the water, put his heels to the rock’s edge and flung himself backward in a slow, well-executed back flip into the lake below.
On weekends in the summer months, one is sure to find a bevy of cliff-jumpers grouped on a small peninsula at the southwestern corner of the reservoir, just a few miles down State Hwy. 96 from the turnoff of US Hwy. 84. Cliff jumping here is not legal, though no signs are posted. The US Army Corps of Engineers, which built and manages the reservoir, patrols occasionally to stop cliff jumping. They'll issue warnings to jumpers, who often aren't aware of the activity's illegality, and occasionally fines. But that doesn't stop people from diving, and few injuries seem to occur. When they do, though, they can be fatal.
"Right now there are serious dangers," says Eric Garner, a natural resources specialist with the Corps of Engineers at Abiquiu. "We're five or six feet below normal water levels. There are rocks and ledges you can't see. You may have cleared an area this week that you'll hit next week."
You see risky moves that add to the inherent danger—gainers, twisting flips, the occasional (and sometimes accidental) belly flop. No one, including myself, sustained injury that day. But maybe we were lucky. At least one injury has occurred this year, and alcohol was involved.
A Corps of Engineers boat drifted by us and shut things down in the late afternoon as the last jumpers swam to shore, though without any explanation or warnings about the dangers.
“We don’t do it to be mean. We just want people to have a good time,” Garner says. “I’ve been a young man. But I’ve had to put people in body bags, and there’s nothing fun about it.”
Must-bring items: sunscreen, camera
Float the Chama by Moonlight
We stood howling on the high banks of the lower Chama as the supermoon rose over the graying sandstone buttes that abut the river. Twenty of us and our dogs convened with an expedition-worthy amassing of float gear—four 16-foot rafts, two canoes, oars, life vests, huge piles of food and alcohol—at our favorite campsite down forest road 151, tucked into a verdant canyon of cottonwoods, juniper, piñon and cholla. The huge moon riled us; our blood coursed with a lunar frenzy. When it grew dark as it would get, we bunched onto a trailer to be hauled two miles upriver, by road, to the put-in just south of the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert. From there, we would float under moonlight back to our camp, where we’d strung LED lights onto reeds to mark the takeout.
Mike Thurber, a former river guide who's led dozens of trips, addressed the group before it took to the river. "Don't fall in the water. If you fall in the water, don't stand up. I'm as serious as a heart attack," he said. "More serious than a heart attack, because the river will kill you faster."
This section of the Rio Chama has fairly tame Class I and II rapids with the occasional easy Class III, but the water is frigid and can hold a procumbent and ill-prepared swimmer under. The last time I'd run the river seeking adventure, I was floating on an inflatable pool toy without a life jacket and swam an easy Class III for several yards before regaining the top of my craft. I can't recommend it, but I'd do it again. This time, we had at least two onetime professional river guides in our group, and several other skilled watermen and women.
On the river, we flowed easily. The water rippled with silver moonlight, and the sandstone amphitheaters glowed gray as we swung by them. A long fireball streaked down the dark quarter of the sky.
A mile or two in, our camp neighbor, who had joined us in repayment for abiding our general clamor, took a long pull of whiskey and, in his committed lean on the raft's rim, fell supine into the river. He stood up and fell again. We dragged him into the boat, but he was cold. Our flotilla pulled to the bank to rest, and he fled into the darkness. We later learned that he had stripped off his clothes and, finding a fire at some other camp, warmed himself naked by it before stumbling back to his tent.
The moon lit our path the last couple miles downstream, the dogs swimming between boats, boaters singing under stars, until we hit our mark. It had been at once a mellow and exhilarating float, a euphoric ride through the bright night canyon. We built up the fire; cooked all manner of meat; and accompanied the river’s rhythm with guitar and fiddle and talk in the desert night.
Difficulty (scale of 1-5): 2-3
Must-bring items: life jacket, beer
Climb El Rito
The sport climbing crags of El Rito lie just north of the small northern New Mexico town in Carson National Forest, east of Ghost Ranch. From the forest road, a path works up to a ridge where cliffs jut some 40 feet skyward, a matrix of conglomerate rock with cobbles and holes that yield bomber holds.
My girlfriend, Mattie Schuler, had never climbed before, and this was an ideal place for her to learn—countless knobby holds rendering each route a sort of climbing "Choose Your Own Adventure" that simplified some of the steepest walls into beginner-level ascents. (Stronger climbers can still find 5.13 routes here to test their mettle.) We met our friends Will and Thea at the crag, harnessed Mattie in and guided her up her first route, a respectable 5.7. (Rock climbing routes are rated on a decimal scale from 5.1 to 5.15, and things start to get difficult around 5.6.) Will and Thea are talented climbers, and I'd had a fair amount of experience. I belayed Mattie on top rope after Thea had led the route, threading the rope through a series of quickdraws clipped to permanent bolts.
Mattie was nervous about falling, about trusting the rope and protection, but she proved strong for a beginner, pulling herself steadily up the rock without a slip. I lowered her from the top, which offered long views to the distant San Juan Mountains, and she smiled big when she touched ground. "That was so fun!" she said. "I want to do it again."
Climbing can be an addictive sport, and most who discover its thrilling simplicity—the meditative focus demanded of each move, the elegant geology diminished to the space of one's reach—never look back. They seek it like a drug and progress through its escalating dangers like junkies in need of an ever-stronger fix.
Chrissy Scarpitti, a Santa Fe-based climber (and my roommate), climbs almost daily at the local climbing wall and hits the various nearby rock on weekends at El Rito, Diablo Canyon and White Rock. The riskiest climbing is leading trad routes, where climbers set their own protection into available cracks in the rock, trusting a possible fall to their own judgment and the rock's integrity. Climbers must ascend some distance past their protection before setting the next piece, subjecting themselves to potentially big falls. On her most recent escalation, Chrissy led her first trad climb in White Rock. The route was rated 5.8, and she normally climbs 5.11. It was the scariest thing she'd attempted.
"The only way I could finish the climb was to act as if I were free-climbing," or climbing without a rope, she says. "Falling wasn't an option."
Those less daring stick to sport climbs. At El Rito, Mattie did a couple more routes, and I managed a 5.9 or two with no problem. Then the clouds darkened and a storm rolled in. Thea was perched 30 feet up the rock when the wind blew hail down upon us, and she still had to clean the remaining quickdraws. Fast climbing brought her to the top, and Will lowered her wetly. We fled back down the trail to the car, soaked and ice-pelted, and raced the storm home.
Must-bring items: climbing chalk, flip-flops between climbs
Solo Backpack the Pecos
The night was dead dark on Lake Katherine’s black shores, where I camped in the semi-open beneath a flimsy rainfly against the forecasted evening rain that barely skirted me. I heard something large lumbering near the water, dislodging sizable rocks that tumbled down the low mounds covered in spruce, pine and scree from Baldy’s upper slopes. I froze and lowered my book, extinguished my headlamp. I was torn between curiosity and apprehension. Whether elk, bear or mountain lion, I didn’t know. I never found out. My vision was blurry without contacts or glasses, and I didn’t want to venture out. My fear held me. It might have been wiser, but I was ashamed at my inaction, alone in the dark mountains.
On occasion, one needs to flee civilization and enter the wilderness alone. I hankered for the quiet contemplation and raw nature of an empty alpine lake and headed overnight into the Pecos Wilderness, where more than 200,000 acres and several lakes awaited me. I packed light, aside from a hardbound copy of Walden, and hiked up the Winsor and Skyline trails through ponderosa and aspen groves and onto the bare shoulder of Baldy before descending the tight switchbacks that lead to the lake.
Lake Katherine sits below the northeastern wall of Santa Fe Baldy at nearly 12,000 feet. Most people don't camp at Lake Katherine, so I had it to myself. A sign prohibits campfires, but there wasn't any suitable firewood on the bare forest floor anyway. After the Pacheco Canyon blaze that scorched Baldy's skirts last summer, just two months before my trip, I had no interest in fire. I was just pleased the wilderness was open again, though minor danger still loomed.
"Burns change the landscape," Bruce Hill, public affairs officer of the Santa Fe National Forest, says. Voids left by fires can loosen unstable rocks, and standing dead trees can fall without warning.
I spent the morning reading by the lake and reveling in solitude. Then I broke camp and picked up the Skyline to close the loop with a nine-mile hike through downed trees and up the ridge to summit Penitente, Lake and Deception Peaks. Atop Deception, I sat with a fellow hiker and admired the expansive view, the folded green earth, the brilliant blue ceiling.
My legs were tired and shoulders ached from the weighted pack, but I took my time descending Raven’s Ridge back to my car, holding to the simplicity of that mountain wilderness that feeds the soul.
Fun: 3-4 (entertain yourself)
Must-bring items: map, good book
Ride Hyde Park Road to the Ski Basin
I trailed Scott Yorko, a research assistant at Outside magazine, past the Chamisa trailhead, past Cottam’s Ski Shop, and into Hyde Memorial State Park on the road to the ski basin. We should have left sooner; I know that now. But this is one of the things you realize only once fully committed, and already the psychological commitment was secure. It has to be on this road, or you’ll never make it to the top. But it would be yet another hour before it became apparent that a deepening dusk is no ideal time for a fast and vulnerable descent on a windy mountain road.
Seven of us had left the Outside gravel lot at 6:30 pm to ride to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, a grueling 15-mile climb I'd attempted only once before, on a scorching day last summer before the Pacheco Canyon wildfire closed the road. I'd only made it to mile 12 before running out of water and fuel. I didn't realize I'd put the worst of it behind me, but I'd had enough for that day. Now, the cool evening saved my strength. Scott and I opened a gap on the others.
Hyde Park is where it starts to get tough, around mile 8 or 9 where the road steepens near the campground. I orchestrated whole albums in my mind and recited long poems to assuage the slow pain building in my legs. I'd developed a mantra for moments like this, when the body says enough and the mind knows otherwise: Suffer better. This derived from something my dad, a strong cyclist, said to me as we rode together two years ago, just after a long hill and just before he demolished me in a sprint. I was 26, he 57. He said that, though the 20-something hotshots were faster than he was, he knew something they did not yet know, and that's why they couldn't shake him on tough training rides. He knew how to suffer. Something I've not forgotten. Suffer better.
So I do. At mile 10, near the Bear Wallow trailhead, the climb is brutal. My once-asthmatic lungs began to rattle, and I feared that restriction, which hasn't attacked or required medication since I was 15. I stopped briefly to calm my breath, open the alveoli. I'd lost sight of Scott, who is a strong climber.
The next two miles wind steeply round the edge of the rising mountains. Even my granniest gear was not small enough to operate while seated, and I was forced to maintain a steady cadence off my saddle, fully engaging the quads. At one point, I spotted another cyclist from my group peeking around the farthest corner as I round another bend. I didn't see her, or any of the others aside from Scott, again. Only a rare few cars passed.
Some consider this a dangerous road to ride because of the cars and the steep curves. Rockfall is a greater, though still small, concern.
"Rocks, falling trees, or loose limbs could come crashing down," Hill says. But these are negligible dangers.
The real danger, for me, was just about to escalate. Scott was finishing a lap around the ski basin lot when I rolled in after an hour and a half of tough climbing. It was 8:00 pm on a May night, and the light was quickly diminishing. The others in our group had apparently turned back, so we pulled our lights out for the descent. But my headlamp malfunctioned, simply wouldn't turn on. Scott clipped his blinking red light to my back and led the way with a headlight on his handlebar.
Scott turned out to be faster on the descent, too. I soon lost sight of him and his light around the curves. I plunged into the gloaming at ridiculous speeds, hoped I could beat the descending darkness. I never caught him. The road melted into the roadside, a vague gray swath cut through somewhat grayer trees and rock, and I could only follow the white stripe at its edge in this impressionistic scene. My consolation was that I knew the road well.
I passed uncomfortably close to four deer at Hyde Park, which I saw just in time to shout to alert them of my presence. Hordes of invisible moths smacked my face and helmet. I was ready for this to end.
And finally, it did. Scott stood under a streetlight on Bishop's Lodge Road. It was 9 pm and had been fully dark for at least 20 minutes.
"Glad you made it. Got pretty dark there."
“Let’s not do that again,” I said.
Fun: 2 (climbing); 4 (descending in daylight)
Must-bring items: water, energy bar, spare tube
Scramble up Lake Peak from Nambe Lake
The rock crumbled everywhere I grabbed hold with any conviction and tumbled 100 yards down the steep slope to join the piles of talus near its base. This Precambrian sediment thrust skyward some 20 million years ago, and now it stymied my progress with its lack of molecular integrity. Down-climbing was an option, though an unpleasant one. The slope behind me was steep and littered with all the centuries’ loose rock sloughed from Lake Peak’s upper ridge. A misplaced step could lead to a long, wild slide to the spruce that ring Nambe’s shores. A committed lunge for an ill-chosen hold, though, would mean a backward vertical fall, certain injury, possible death. My friend Will Taylor perched several feet above me, hidden by a ledge. We had tried separate lines, so I hadn’t seen what moves he took to reach his stable position.
"You've got some good holds to the left. Should be pretty stable," Will called down to me.
I kept my footing and considered my next move, which could either be my last or the first of the rest of my life.
It was early May, and late snow still clung to the peaks and frozen trails in the Pecos Wilderness. Will and I had decided to climb Lake Peak off-trail from Nambe Lake. The Winsor trail was snow-covered, and the trail up Nambe Creek to the lake was hidden in an indiscriminate white. We followed the sound of the water beneath a veneer of ice on its surface until the slope grew steep and slick, where we diverted off-trail until we reached the talus on the east side of the lake. Patches of snow salted the scree field that climbed to the Lake Peak ridge.
Now, at my moment of impasse beneath the vertical ridge, I made a decision. A long reach to a solid hold would render me momentarily vulnerable as I swung off balance over a void, and it was crucial that I nail it and scramble atop the ledge. I released a pent-up breath and lunged. The rock held. I leaned into it. Then I breathed again and heaved myself upward.
"Nice work," Will said. "Let's get to the top of this thing."
A 20-foot vertical wall of sketchy rock still rose above us to the peak of the ridge, and it ran most of the length of the basin's eastern rim. It was 5.6 climbing at best, but we had no rope and only cumbersome hiking boots, so the prospect of that climb was unwelcome. But the ledge to which we'd ascended also looked to run that distance to a notch just shy of the summit at 12,409 feet. We hoped to find escape through that notch.
We followed our lower ridge onto springy, stunted grass and a narrow, rocky meadow creamed with snow. Pikas squeaked among the scree below us. A traverse through sloping snow finally led us to the notch. We scrambled up the low-angled rise and topped the ridge, then followed it to the summit.
We took risks, but we were not green to such a challenge and acted according to our abilities as we edged into that zone where danger needles into our quiet comfort. We were well rewarded.
The view back to Nambe Lake and to the lower peaks and foothills beyond Raven’s Ridge surpassed the measure of risk we took to get here. This is why we seek adventure, I thought. This is why we come.
Must-bring items: extra layer, lunch, sense of adventure
Nick Davidson is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe.