Let’s face it—Santa Fe is a worthwhile destination in itself. Wandering around the museums, historic buildings, and quaint shops on the plaza is on my list of favorite travel experiences. And don’t even get me started on the food. I’ve had moments when I’ve contemplated driving to Santa Fe just to get some blue corn enchiladas at Tia Sophia’s. If you’re lucky enough to have more than just a couple days in the area, these Santa Fe day trips will give you lots of cool places to explore.
Bandelier National Monument
Among all of the spectacular national parks in the Southwest, Bandelier National Monument is one of my favorites. Although it’s starting to get better known among travelers than it used to be, you won’t encounter the kind of crowds you’ll find in places like Zion or Arches National Park.
Bandelier’s 33,000 acres of public lands protects scenic canyons and the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited the area between 1150 and 1550 AD. Like many ancient people in the Southwest, they eventually moved on to other locations due to drought and resource scarcity. The hike through Frijoles Canyon on the Pueblo Loop Trail takes you past archeological sites and a series of cavates—cliff dwellings within small alcoves. Short ladders allow you to actually take a look inside these mini dwellings.
If you’re game for some serious climbing, you can continue on a spur trail to Alcove House. A series of four wooden ladders and lots of stone stairs take you 140 feet above the canyon floor. We’re talking very tall ladders—so high that you might just chicken out when you see them. I don’t have a strong fear of heights, but I’ll admit that at one point I had to stop looking down. The worst part was when I was at the top and realized that now I had to go back down.
Distance from Santa Fe Plaza: 40 miles
The small town of Chimayo lies 28 miles north of Santa Fe, just east of Espanola. Famous for its heirloom variety of chili pepper (the Chimayo Pepper), the town is also known for the hand-woven rugs and blankets of the Ortega and Trujillo families.
But the main reason most visitors come to Chimayo is to visit El Santuario de Chimayo. Built in the 1800s, this historic Roman Catholic church was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Every year, about 300,000 people make a pilgrimage to El Santuario during Holy Week. Regardless of your religious leanings, it’s hard to deny that this is one of the most picturesque churches you’ll ever see. El Santuario draws landscape photographers (including me) from around the world who come to capture its architecture and setting.
While you’re in Chimayo, I highly recommend treating yourself to lunch or dinner at Rancho de Chimayo. In fact, just thinking about it right now has my mouth watering for their carne adovada.
Distance from Santa Fe Plaza: 28 miles
A friend of mine who lives in Albuquerque mentioned this place to me several times over the years, and for some reason I always just kind of shrugged it off. Then I decided to finally go check it out, and I realized I should have taken her advice sooner. Tent Rocks is now one of my favorite Santa Fe day trips.
The main attraction at Kashe-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is, as you might guess, the rocks. These cone-shaped formations are the result of volcanic eruptions that occurred 6-7 million years ago. Volcanic ash ejected during the eruptions hardened and eroded, eventually forming the “tents.” Varying in height from several feet to up to 90 feet, the formations are similar to the “hoodoos” found in southern Utah.
The 1.5-mile (one way) Slot Canyon Trail takes you through a short slot canyon and then up to a lookout point where you get a panoramic view of the tent rocks. On the Cave Loop Trail (1.2-mile loop), you can see a small cliff dwelling like the cavetes in Bandelier National Monument. Note that it can be hot during summer months, so take precautions when hiking in the desert.
*Note: Tent Rocks closed in 2020 due to Covid-19 in order to minimize exposure to the local community of Pueblo de Cochiti. At the time of this blog post, the monument remained closed while the BLM finalizes a new management plan to address over-visitation and long wait times that started prior to COVID-19.
Distance from Santa Fe Plaza: 36 miles
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
I admit I have a thing for bridges. Especially the swinging kind, which this one is not. But with a span of 1,280 feet, it’s a pretty impressive piece of hardware. The “Gorge Bridge,” as it’s known locally, is a steel deck arch bridge that hangs about 600 feet above the Rio Grande. During the bridge’s construction in the 1960s, there was apparently not enough funding to continue the road on the other side, so it became known as “the bridge to nowhere.” It is now part of U.S. Route 64, which continues west from the bridge.
Small parking areas on either side allow you to get out and walk across the bridge. Viewing platforms near the center of the span enable you to take in the dizzying scene and get photos without standing too close to traffic. The narrow gorge 600 feet below you makes for quite a dramatic view.
While you’re in the Taos area, you should also visit the Taos Pueblo. Built 1,000 years ago, it is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US. Closed to the public for more than two years due to COVID-19, the Pueblo re-opened in August 2022.
Distance from Santa Fe Plaza: 78 miles
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved