Best Hikes in Santa Fe National Forest (NM)

Santa Fe National Forest Overview

Santa Fe National Forest is located in northern New Mexico surrounding Santa Fe. Most of the best hikes in Santa Fe National Forest below are in the Pecos Wilderness just east of the busy city. Deep and narrow canyons, long and broad mesa tops, heavily forested slopes, and rugged ridges with peaks above timberline characterize the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Pecos Wilderness. Hiking opportunities in the Santa Fe National Forest are as plentiful and diverse as the life zones of the forest. Due to the forest covering so many elevations and habitat types, there is year round access to hiking trails on the forest. Hikers can choose from lower front country trails for short day hikes or longer backpacks in the higher elevations of one of the four designated Wilderness areas.

StateNew Mexico
Nearest Metro AreaSanta Fe, NM
Area Size1,558,452 acres
EstablishedJuly 1, 1915
Hiking Trails1,002 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Santa Fe National Forest

(*** = Best Hikes in Santa Fe National Forest)

Atalaya Trail #170*** – 6.0 miles out and back
Atalaya Mountain, Photo by Tstock05

The trail is only minutes from downtown thereby making it one of the more popular hikes in Santa Fe National Forest.  Dramatic views of the city, and the Sandia, Ortiz, and Jemez mountain ranges are offered at the summit and hikers are encouraged to stay (and catch their breath too) after the 1,700 foot climb. Follow the switchbacks as the trail rapidly gains elevation.  The trail meets Trail 174 within a half-mile.  Bear left (north) and follow the ridgeline to the summit of Atalaya Mountain, another 2 miles.  There are a few, unsigned side trails that can be misleading.

Borrego Trail #150 + Bear Wallow Trail #182*** – 4.0 mile loop
Borrego Mesa Area, Photo by US Department of Agriculture

Starting at the parking lot, Borrego Trail drops down into a lovely valley full of aspen, fir, pine, and flowers. In about one-half mile the trail forks. Take the right fork, which keeps you on the Borrego Trail #150. The trail climbs onto a ridge with long sweeping switchbacks. Then a narrow section of trail drops you down to Tesuque Creek. You must cross over to the north side of the creek, and a fallen log here makes a handy bridge.

Finally, follow the creek past the edge of an aspen and grassy meadow often used as a dispersed campsite, and turn left at the next intersection onto the Winsor Trail #254. This is a designated National Recreation Trail, and actually winds from the village of Tesuque to the west up into the Pecos Wilderness to your east and all the way over to the village of Cowles in the upper Pecos River Valley. Follow the Winsor Trail to the east along  Tesuque Creek downstream for about a mile. A weathered sign indicates your left turn onto the Bear Wallow Trail #182. You cross the creek again and climb a sharp grade, getting away from the creek. Once you reach Bear Wallow and the junction with Borrego Trail again, retrace your steps back up to the parking lot.

Chamisa Trail #183 – 4.4 mile loop

The main Chamisa Trail heads uphill and east through the trees, and the alternate route runs north through the canyon. The alternate route joins up with the main trail at a low saddle in approximately one mile. This alternate route can be used to make a loop route from the trailhead and back again. The trail levels out and is almost flat for the next mile when you reach the top of the ridge and the saddle. The trail then continues north and drops down into a draw all the way to Tesuque Creek and the intersection with the Winsor National Recreation Trail #254. For a longer loop, consider taking Windsor Trail west and looping back to the trailhead via Juan and Saddleback Trails.

East Fork Trail #137 to McCauley’s Warm Springs and Jemez Falls – 7.2 miles out and back
Jemez Falls
Jemez Falls, Photo by echoroo

Expect a medium difficult hike uphill from Battleship Trailhead to the Jemez Falls. Midway in the hike you’ll find McCauley’s Warm Spring, a beautiful stop for a picnic or to soak your feet. If you have a 2nd vehicle and can shuttle between trailheads, East Fork Trail one-way is 10.0 miles from west to east finishing at the Las Conchas Trailhead.

Rio En Medio Trail #163 – 4.0 miles out and back

Leaving the parking area, you walk up the canyon and watch for the trail to leave the road to your right.  In a quarter mile the trail descends to the canyon floor and makes the first of numerous stream crossings.  Soon the trail enters a mixed conifer forest.  You may find parallel trails on both sides of the rio in some places, but as long as they continue upstream, they will all eventually come together again.  After about 2 miles, there is a short detour to your left that brings you to the bottom of a decent waterfall.  Staying on the main trail brings you to the top of this waterfall after a short steep climb, and you continue ascending up the canyon passing several cascades, shallow pools, and soon you will reach the end of Forest Road 412 and the Aspen Ranch Trailhead #9. 

Skyline Trail #251 to Lake Katharine*** – 15.0 miles out and back
Lake Katherine • Santa Fe, NM
Lake Katharine, Photo by Clay Junell

Trail 251 can be picked up at its actual starting point near the top of Tesuque Peak by hiking the Tesuque Peak Road from the Aspen Vista Picnic Area to just before the summit. It can also be accessed from the Ski Area by hiking along the Triple Chair lift to the top of the ridge. Following Trail 251 north from the road, you will climb along a high ridge through mixed conifer forest with the closed Santa Fe Watershed to your east.

Enter the Pecos Wilderness, and you will soon emerge above the treeline, into a low scrubby alpine tundra environment.  Follow the rock cairns uphill, being careful to stay on the well established route. After a short climb you will arrive at the summit of  Deception Peak, with Nambe Lake directly below. Just across a small gap to the northeast is the summit of Lake Peak. A steep scramble to the east is necessary here to get from Deception Peak to the faint trail along the shoulder of Lake Peak, and to continue along the narrow rocky ridge that separates Lake Peak and Penitente Peak. From Penitente Peak, follow the trail down the gentle northeast ridge by following the rock cairns, and watch for the spot where the trail again enters the timber. After a descent with several switchbacks you will find a junction with the Winsor Trail #254. 

Finally, turn left here and follow the combined Skyline and Winsor Trails to the grassy meadows of Puerto Nambe. Look for the sign marking the junction, and turn north, climbing steeply up the shoulders of Santa Fe Baldy. After several switchbacks you will arrive at a high saddle below the summit of Santa Fe Baldy. From here one can follow the ridge to the west, where there is a well worn route to access the peak, or continue along the Skyline Trail to Lake Katherine, which sits in a high glacial cirque.

Windsor Trail to Nambe Lake Trail #400*** – 6.3 miles out and back
Nambe Lake, Photo by Jerry Friedman

The Nambe Lake Trail leaves the Winsor Trail about two miles from the Pecos Wilderness boundary. The trail climbs steeply up the canyon, following a major fork of the Rio Nambe. This is the closest alpine lake to Santa Fe, and as such receives a lot of visitors. Although it can get crowded, the trail is still one of the best hikes in Santa Fe National Forest. The trip is challenging due to extremely steep sections of trail. Dense forest, towering cliffs and rock slides surround the lake.

Featured Image: Looking South from Hermit’s Peak, Pecos Wilderness, Santa Fe National Forest, Photo by Matthew Kowal

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