SFR has picked just four national places to profile, but there are more than a dozen parks in the state to explore—so get out there!
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos Approximate distance from Santa Fe: 45 miles
Directions: Take US-84/285 (St. Francis Drive) about 15 miles north to NM-502 West (toward Los Alamos). After about 11 miles, bear right and exit onto NM-4 West toward White Rock. Continue for 12 miles; Bandelier’s entrance is on your left.
Fee: $12 per car
History: The Ancestral Puebloans (don’t call them Anasazi; the term, which translates to “Ancient Enemy,” is considerably un-PC) populated Frijoles Canyon, the monument’s main attraction, for 10,000 years. For a reason that is still unknown and still hotly debated, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their permanent settlement here around 1550, leaving behind kivas, cavates (cliff dwellings), ceremonial sites and crumbling buildings.
The area was repopulated in the 1700s and, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation declaring the site a national monument.
Your Visit: The most popular area of Bandelier is Frijoles Canyon, which features an easy hike on a 1.2-mile paved path past dozens of ruins, kivas and cave dwellings—some of which visitors are invited to climb into. The slightly more daring can climb 200 feet of ladders into a large ceremonial cave. The considerably more adventurous can hike around the park, which includes both established trails and areas designated for backcountry camping. For an out-of-the-box (and less crowded) visit, check out Tsankawi, a separate section of the monument that features hiking trails, breathtaking vistas and an unexcavated archaeological site.
Pecos National Historical Park, Pecos Approximate distance from Santa Fe: 30 miles
Directions: Take I-25 North to exit 299. Turn left at the exit, then right onto NM-50. In about six miles, turn right onto S. Main St. and follow signs for the visitors’ center.
Fee: $3 per person (valid for one week), free for kids 16 and under
History: As the site of both ancient pueblo ruins and the westernmost battle of the Civil War, this park has something for everyone. A 1.4-mile paved trail in back of the visitors’ center winds around incredible ruins of the massive Pecos Pueblo (population 2,000), dating back to 1100 AD (though there is evidence of habitation going back 12,000 years). The ruins include kivas, buildings and—perhaps the park’s centerpiece—the stately remains of a 16th-century mission church.
Your Visit: The 1.4-mile loop is definitely worth a gander, especially the mission church. However, to get away from the crowds, the smart adventurer would be best advised to check out the Glorieta Battlefield Trail (an easy 2.25 miles of gravel walkway), a short drive from the visitors’ center. You need a combination to the gate lock to get to the trail, which park rangers at the visitors’ center are happy to provide. The trail guide, also available from rangers, details the history of the battle, including where amidst the rocks troops hid during the fight.
Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque Approximate distance from Santa Fe: 65 miles
Directions: Take I-25 South to the Paseo del Norte exit. Turn right (west). Plentiful signs direct you to a left on Coors Road, a right on Dellyne Avenue, a left on Unser Boulevard, and a right into the driveway of the main visitors’ center, where you can find directions to trails. Fees: No fee to enter the park; Boca Negra Canyon parking is $1 weekdays, $2 weekends History: Amazing canyons of dark basalt were the perfect canvases for ancient Native Americans’ petroglyphs (rock carvings). Some estimates say there are 25,000 petroglyphs at the site. The images date back to the 14th-17th centuries. Some more “modern” petroglyphs exist (aka vandalism), but history had the last laugh—thanks to the patina on the basalt, it is very easy to distinguish the authentic from the wannabes.
Your Visit: There are three main areas of Petroglyph. The most popular is Rinconada Canyon, a sandy trail (1.25 miles each way; round trip is 2.5 miles) that meanders past an impressive array of petroglyphs. Boca Negra Canyon is the easiest selection of trails, taking the visitor on paved loops past about 200 petroglyphs. SFR’s pick of trails, however, is Piedras Marcadas Canyon, the furthest trail from the visitors’ center. You enter the trail from behind a strip mall from a tiny hidden parking lot; because of its “remote” location (in a residential area), it has fewer visitors. Its petroglyphs are stunning and have virtually no vandalism, which provides a sense of isolation and serenity.
White Sands National Monument, Alamogordo Approximate distance from Santa Fe: 270 miles
Directions: Take I-25 south to exit 139 (about 143 miles). Take US-380 east about 65 miles to US-54 West. At Alamogordo, take US-70 West to White Sands National Monument.
Fees: $3 per person (valid for one week), free for kids 15 and under
History: In a strange combination of natural beauty and modern technology, White Sands National Monument is both the world’s largest gypsum dune field and a missile testing site for the US Army. We prefer to focus on the former distinction.
Your Visit: If nothing else, remember your sunglasses! The blindingly white gypsum dunes at White Sands are like no other sand dunes on Earth, whether it be in volume, color or ability to reflect sunlight. The white sand stretches on for 275 square miles, creating a surreal moonscape of rolling hills, which turn pink, purple and blue at sunset. For day-trippers, in addition to driving tours, the park offers lots of events to keep things interesting (full-moon bike rides, hikes and sand sledding). For hikers and campers, backcountry permits ($3 per person) are available so you can pitch a tent in one of the most unique landscapes in the world.