Most public lands in the United States come with a host of rules to follow: Camp only in designated sites, stay on trail, pack out any trash. In case there was any confusion, the rules ensure these spaces maintain a degree of purity we have come to expect from nature. But for public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management—which make up 10% of the country—users have a bit more wiggle room when it comes to regulation.
“BLM land is public land, we share it. Every person in the United States owns it,” Bill Tefft of the New Mexico Public Lands Information Center tells SFR. “The land belongs to you, me and everyone else, so we have to share it.”
Blessed with some pretty great BLM land only 30 minutes from downtown, Santa Feans flock to Diablo Canyon and the surrounding area for all their public land pleasures. The spot leaves space for activities of all types and users of all interests to congregate. For some, the minimal regulations of BLM land provide the ideal setting for target practice; shooting, while prohibited in the canyon, is legal on the surrounding BLM land and one of the few places in Santa Fe where gun enthusiasts can fire at will. Beyond this, “virtually anything is allowed” says Tefft, though within reason. No need to be a jerk—read the posted signage, follow the rules and don’t go creating new trails with an ATV. But do take some time (in the early morning or late afternoon, because it gets hot as hell in the summer) to explore this arresting landscape through whatever means necessary.
“It’s a free-for-all out here,” says Henry Lanman, a mountain biker who has been riding the trails around Diablo for over two decades. People of all different types use the land for both recreation and living, though more recently, he says, “It’s gentrified a lot, which is interesting for an outdoor space like that.” Lanman explains this shift has mirrored the explosion in Santa Fe’s population over the last 20 years.
Regardless of the shifting dynamic, “If people are going to be using public land, they need to share. And they need to also insist that other people share it,” Tefft says of the area. This tragedy of the commons plays out when everyone’s shared responsibility becomes no one’s responsibility—a reality Tefft has witnessed over the years, primarily in the form of trash dumping.
For decades, New Mexicans have enjoyed Diablo Canyon for its untamed wilderness and the freedom that comes with land that was turned over to BLM after it remained unclaimed by colonists at the conclusion of the Homestead Act, Tefft explains. Though, prior to the US government’s staking of the land, pueblos used the area as a migration and trade route, explains Tim Martinez, cultural resource advisor of San Ildefonso Pueblo’s Department of Environmental and Cultural Preservation.
“Every land, no matter where it is, is sacred to our Indian people and we have to respect that,” Martinez tells SFR. “If you find something in that area, leave it where it is. Don’t touch it, because it doesn’t belong to you.”
To access and enjoy this nearby wilderness, one option besides trekking in the canyon itself is the established Dead Dog Trail. A short, steep path transports you to the top of the mesa for spectacular wildflowers and sweeping views. For those who want to extend their trip, continuing northwest for some miles will land them at the banks of the mighty Rio Grande.
The stark basalt cliffs are also home to some of the highest-quality rock climbing around Santa Fe, with unbeatable accessibility for climbers of all levels and interests. Even if scaling the crags at the popularly close Winter Wall isn’t of interest, there’s scrambling for anyone who wants to get up close and personal with the landscape. Keep your eyes peeled for a trail off the gully floor that leads into the recesses of the canyon for even more exploring.
No matter the activity, there are some pro tips to keep in mind: Keep a lookout for rattlesnakes and bring lots of water (and then bring some more). Look at a map of the area beforehand to avoid unintentionally entering private land.
Tefft encourages users to leave the area better than they found it.
“Then we all become tuned in to the idea that it belongs as much to me as it does to you,” he says.
Diablo Canyon Recreation Area
From Santa Fe: Take Buckman Road to Paseo Nopal; Camino La Tierra/Hwy. 77, then straight on ‘til morning