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Quick after-work hikes in Santa Fe offer scenic views

August 19, 2018

It’s 5:33 p.m. and I’m leaving the office in a skirt and sandals — not appropriate attire for Santa Fe’s mountain trails. It’s about two hours before night starts folding in — just enough daylight for a hike.

Santa Fe’s outdoor scene is another reason the city is so special, because of its easy access to trails, the ability to find solitude and the open skies that amplify its unique landscape. The diverse terrain — prickly pear-covered peaks, towering canyon walls, ponderosa pine-filled mountains — excite mountain bikers, climbers and runners alike.

Now, if only work would cooperate with those plans.

Those 9-to-5 schedules — and sometimes longer — complicate an outdoor enthusiast’s desire to breathe fresh air and explore new places. But the close proximity to trails makes planning a quick, post-work adventure doable.

As summer comes to a close and the amount of daylight shrinks, sunset hikes are manageable — but not for long.

Whether you prefer a leisurely stroll, a steep ascent or something in between, there is something for everyone in these wild parts. Here are accessible, fun, beautiful post-work hikes to try:

Castle Rock

Difficulty: *** (out of a five-stars)

Distance: 2 miles round trip

Where to park: Atalaya Upper Trail Head parking lot on Camino de Cruz Blanca

Navigation skills: Follow the trail markers, and it’s fairly easy to find your way. Follow the pathway from the small parking lot to marker 39, head right toward 40 and onward to 41.

Description: The hike is not easy, but the view from the castle makes you feel like royalty. While it gets progressively harder throughout the hike, the return is all downhill. The trek is most strenuous at the end, making you work for the view. Nevertheless, it’s manageable for beginners and experts alike.

Picacho

Difficulty: ****

Distance: 3.5 miles round trip

Where to park: Cerro Gordo Road parking lot, off of Upper Canyon

Navigation skills: Follow the trail markers and you’ll be fine. This trail system is well-marked at every junction.

Description: It is a sturdy hike, but its beauty is well worth the effort. You start in the shade, among piñon and juniper trees and wind your way up red dirt switchbacks. About a half-mile in, you pass through stacked boulders, right before sections toughen and heads uphill for most of the way. You’ll climb some intense terrain over robust tree roots, severe switchbacks and steep straightaways. Once you make it up a severe incline about a mile in, you’ll take in gorgeous, open-air views of various mountain ranges, including Sandia Crest, the Ortiz and the Jemez. The 360-degree views from atop the mountain are breathtaking — considering how out of breath you’ll be rounding the last turn.

Sun Mountain

Difficulty: ****

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip

Where to park: Sun Mountain Trailhead just off of Old Santa Fe Trail, roughly 0.8 miles south of the National Park Service headquarters building

Navigation skills: Not much. When you first start, there are a few open patches that can be mistaken for trails, as well as zig-zagged pathways that aren’t actually part of the route and lead to private property. You might get a little turned around at first, but it’s pretty easy to figure out.

Description: Sun Mountain looks more like a bulging hill, but don’t be fooled. The hike uphill is short, but steep — very steep. While it’s not even a mile to the top, there are several calf-burning inclines that can make it feel much longer, especially if you’re feeling low on energy after a long work day. Because of its intensity, Sun Mountain takes much longer to hike than other sub-two-mile treks. Winding up the switchbacks, views of town become increasingly vast. Chamisas bud out in every direction, and large boulders prop themselves on the sidelines. From the top of Sun Mountain, you can see waves of the Jemez Mountains and bits of the Sandia Crest. The peak is arguably one of the best spots to watch the sun make its final descent. On a clear night — which is pretty much every night in Santa Fe — you can watch the sky change from tangerines and corals to fading shades of blue. Be sure to bring a headlamp, as the descent can be tricky in the dark.

La Tierra

Difficulty: *

Distance: Take your pick.

Where to park: La Cuchara Trailhead, near Unity Church, but several other options include Camino La Tierra or the Frijoles Trailhead

Navigation skills: Follow the trail markers and you’ll be fine. This is a very well-marked trail system, and all signs are numbered. If you see “Not a Trail System” sign, you’re about to get off the designated pathways.

Description: La Tierra is a diverse trail system, offering semi-hilly segments, shaded areas and views of layered, distant mountains. Trail runners, dog walkers, mountain bikers and hikers gravitate to its rocky pathways for the trails’ varying terrain. If you’re in the mood for an easier stroll, La Tierra is never a bad bet. Enjoy the straight, docile paths and challenge yourself with the steeper and rockier bits.

Diablo Canyon

Difficulty: **

Distance: About 4 miles round trip

Where to park: Diablo Canyon parking lot

Navigation skills: This is pretty straightforward

Description: The hike takes you through the towering cliffs of Diablo Canyon, where you’ll likely catch a glimpse of rock climbers navigating the craggy cliffs. The only factors that amplify this hike’s difficulty are the sand and lack of shade. If you’re out on a hot summer day, bring plenty of water, and be prepared for four miles of what feels like a beach walk. Once the canyon opens, you’ll meander through an open-air arroyo, before reaching the Rio Grande. If you’ve got a dog, don’t leave it behind. The trail is great for pups, especially because it offers a water break at the halfway point. Warning: There’s nowhere to really sit and relax once you reach the river, so if you prefer to walk along the canyon and turn around early, you won’t be missing out!

Tips for after-work hiking

• Drink lots of water, and bring more than you think you’ll need. Ice is never a bad idea.

• Wear sunscreen, especially on the back of your neck.

• Ladies, be sure to wear a sports bra to work, or pack one with you for your post-work hike. And don’t forget hair ties!

• Bring headlamp(s) just in case it gets dark.

• Snacks are great.

• If hiking alone, let a friend know where you are and when you expect to be done, just in case something goes wrong.

• Wear trail shoes — no sandals or flip flops. For more aggressive terrain, wear stable boots that come above the ankle.

• A mini first-aid kit is wise.

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