Golden brown oak...

Golden brown oak leaves along the Chamisa Trail. If you spend a moment near these bushes, you might spot a few bright blue Steller’s Jays poking through the leaves and flouncing their jet black crests at each other, like I did.

It’s 1:00 in the afternoon on Chamisa Trail, just above Santa Fe, and the light spilling through the trees is utterly perfect. And that’s exactly why I’m writing about this walk – it’s November 22 and winter is well on its way here in the Southern Rockies. Finding a pleasant hike in the mountains is a bit more challenging this time of year. But this trail, winding through the mixed-conifer forest at around 8000′ elevation, just happens to be oriented perfectly to catch the magic light of a sunny winter afternoon. If you leave downtown Santa Fe right after lunch and make the short drive to the trailhead just inside the National Forest, you can look forward to about a two mile round trip walk on a well maintained trail, with plenty of parking just off Hyde Park Road.

The Chamisa Trail makes its way through a forest that is transitioning from the pinyon- juniper woodlands that surround Santa Fe into the groves of Englemann spruce and aspen that cover the higher elevations of the Rockies. And in spite of its name, the only Chamisa bushes that grow along this trail are the ones in the disturbed meadow near the parking area But if you want to see examples of nearly each kind of conifer that grows around here, this is the trail to take. This is the home of the Douglas fir, with its fresh green needles and quirky cones with the little snake’s tongue sticking out. “White” firs give a sharp blue note to the forest. Crush one of its flat grey-green needles between your fingers and enjoy the scent of pineapple and the holidays. (This is the tree many of us in Santa Fe choose for our Christmas tree). Limber pines grow here, with their soft pom-pom bundles of needles and surprisingly big, pitch-covered cones. But the monarch of the forest, of course, is the Ponderosa, sporting platy cinnamon brown bark and long, olive-green, shiny needles held out on twisting branches that always make me think of Japanese woodcuts.

And all of this is bathed in glorious winter light.

A mile’s walk brings you to a dry and fragrant saddle with a signpost and a map that lets you see how far you’ve come along. This is a good place to retrace your steps and enjoy the warmth of the southern light on your face as you walk back to the trailhead. And don’t forget – as the sign there reminds you – to Breathe Deeply.