When you think of New Mexico, what do you think of? I imagine most people think of miles of desert filled with sage brush. You don't typically think of high-altitude mountains covered in stands of quaking aspens, slopes covered in lush green plants and vibrant wildflowers, or rushing waterfalls tumbling down mountainsides.
It's just a 30 minute drive from charming downtown Santa Fe on the 425 to the lovely Sangre de Cristo mountains, where you will pass a number of hiking trails, a state park, and many picnic areas in the Tesuque canyon area.
What a view from this bench!
We opted to take a popular hike just past the Aspen Grove picnic area. The Aspen Grove trail is aptly named, as you immediately see large stands of quivering aspen leaves glittering in the sunlight. I can only imagine how magnificent this area is in the Autumn months when the aspens turn the mountainsides to gold!
It was incredible to go from a sweltering 95 degrees in downtown Santa Fe to a refreshing 74 degrees up in the canyon. The air felt so crisp and cool, with the fresh scent of pines. The trail was peaceful and uncrowded in the evening, giving us the chance to experience the tranquility of nature and the beautiful sounds of the forest all around us. The air was filled with melodious birdsong, with scores of wrens and warblers singing their hearts out just before sunset.
Listen to the melodious songs of many birds singing before sunset!
The Aspen Grove trail is a challenging hike because of the elevation, steepness, and the length of the loop hike: 7.4 miles. It typically takes 4.5 hours to complete it. My youngest daughter and I hiked, and my husband and son decided to mountain bike.
A challenging mountain bike trail, but the reward is the views!
They made it most of the way to the top for an amazing view. My daughter was so excited about the wildflowers, birds, streams, and waterfalls, that we took a much more leisurely hike. The expression “stop and smell the flowers,” was very fitting!
We passed a few other hikers and some mountain bikers, with some bringing their dogs to enjoy the trails as well. You do have to watch out for cyclists and dogs off-leash as you hike up the steep switchbacks. We left our dog Zorro back at the RV, as the elevation was so high and the hike so steep.
The only thing that made the hike more difficult for us was the elevation.
The hike starts at 9,900 feet and goes up to the summit of 12,000 feet. We didn’t have enough time to get all the way to the top, but just starting at almost 10,000 feet left us out of breath, dizzy, and tired. We aren’t used to the high elevation since we have lived in Florida for six years. Those symptoms presented a challenge while hiking uphill, however, the hike was so lovely that we pushed on through the discomfort.
We hiked up the trail slowly, took frequent breaks, and made sure to hydrate as much as possible. Stopping for breaks gave me time to really appreciate the beauty around me and to listen to the birds singing. Little woodpeckers, wrens, and warblers landed in the trees overhead, singing sweetly. Every couple of feet, we would spot a new and beautiful wildflower, so my youngest daughter and I began having fun seeing who could spot a new flower we hadn’t seen yet. I tried to photograph as many as I could.
We were delighted to see a hummingbird hawk moth drinking water from a little stream. It was zooming around so fast that I didn't have time to take a photo! As we proceeded higher up the trail, we could hear the rushing, burbling sound of water, and our excitement grew as we got closer to a rushing stream and waterfalls.
I love the sound of creeks and waterfalls!
Once we reached the water, I could hardly tear my youngest daughter away. She played in the clear, cold water for at least an hour, exploring in the rocks, and finding new flowers.
Kids can't resist playing in the water on this hike!
When we left to go hiking, she told me she really didn't feel like going, but once she experienced the beauty of the mountains, she looked around and said, "This is glorious! I never want to leave here." I felt her choice of words was perfect, as I felt exactly the same!
Serenity by the stream.
The setting sun through the aspens at golden hour was so beautiful, and reminded us that we unfortunately needed to leave this magical place behind to make our way back down the trail before dark.
Glowing aspen grove.
The breathtaking beauty of the golden hour!
At the end of our hike, we were rewarded with an absolutely gorgeous rose-gold sunset before our drive back down the mountain.
Although we were all very tired after our strenuous high-altitude hike, it was a good kind of tired…the kind that makes you feel renewed and recharged. A hike like that makes you feel as though you’ve accomplished something special, challenged yourself, made memories with your children, and that you will all sleep well! We certainly did sleep well that night.
A gorgeous pink sunset with storms in the distance. We left just in time!
If you visit Santa Fe, take the time to drive up the 425 to visit the lush and magical mountain trails of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and reconnect with the serenity of nature. Traveling the U.S. has led to unexpected surprises. I never knew how glorious and lush the mountains in New Mexico are. I hope you get to experience it one day for yourself on your own travel adventure. Happy hiking!
What a magnificent end to a marvelous hike!
Copyright @Lorien Villucci Nature Photography 2023