The Zen Forest

The Zen Forest

The Winsor Trail is Santa Fe’s gateway into the Pecos Wilderness from the west.
Its most popular trailhead is near the western end of the large parking area of Ski Santa Fe, at an elevation of 10,240 feet. On the map for which I’ve provided a link, the portion of the trail from the parking area to its intersection with the Nambe Lake Trail is shown, a walk of about 2.5 miles one way. There is a relentless elevation gain of 760 feet in about a mile, to reach the crest of Raven’s Ridge and the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness, so be prepared – this is the price everyone must pay to enjoy this beautiful walk.

Dogs on leashes, mountain bikes, and livestock are allowed on the Winsor Trail. You can hike this trail year round, but it is snow covered in the winter and snowshoes or cross-country skis might be necessary. Thunderstorms are very frequent in the summer and you’ll want to bring at least some light rain gear, because the showers are chilling. Lightning and hypothermia are dangers once you get above tree line.

The Winsor Trail, the local hiker’s route into the magnificent Pecos Wilderness east of Santa Fe, is beautiful from end to end, but there is a short section that passes through a grove of trees with such a remarkable quality of light and peace that I call it the “Zen Forest”.  And since you can reach this place after only a two mile walk from the parking area at Ski Santa Fe, it makes an ideal destination for a day hike during your visit with us.

A walk in the “Zen Forest” along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

I’m not sure exactly what accounts for the appeal of this stretch of aspen.

The mature trees, tall and widely spaced, let in a generous amount of the radiant northern light. The dark spruces are widely spaced as well, and hang their dark boughs down in a manner admired by the Arts and Crafts printmakers, contrasting beautifully with the bright upright aspen. Huge boulders and outcroppings of white stone emerge from the forest floor in sculptural forms, nestled in a sea of bright green heath and wildflowers. At any moment in this forest, you expect to hear the sound of temple bells, or catch a glimpse of a forest hermit reclining in the shadows.

Light and aspen

And the fragrance here is heavenly. In summer the air is drowsy with the balsamic scent of spruce needles, warming in the sun. In spring the powerful life-force of the tasseling aspen adds its note.

And in fall, with the yellow leaves swirling down against an alpine blue sky and collecting on the stones, there arises the subtle fragrance of oriental lilies, faint but unmistakable, distilled somehow from the aspen leaves as they participate in the Eternal Return.

It’s hard for me to tell you exactly when you’ve reached the Zen Forest. Not too long after you’ve left the dense spruce thickets along the slow descent from the saddle at Raven’s Ridge, the trail begins to turn to the right, and aspen begin to replace the dark evergreens.

Forest Service bridge over the Rio Nambe

These trees grow larger, the light magnifies, and presently you’ll reach a spruce whose branches sweep toward the trail, forcing adults to genuflect ever so slightly. You’ve entered the grove. By the time you reach the rustic little bridge over the Rio Nambe, you’ve left it.

Wildflowers are abundant here. In spite of the high elevation, some of these forest dwellers have an almost tropical luxuriance:

Golden Banner

A spray of Corn Lily near the Rio Nambe

The clean white boulders that crop out in the Zen Forest add to the grove’s luminosity. A closer look at these rocks reveals complex patterns that hint at turbulent past lives.

Without leaving the thread of our story too far, I just want to mention that these are truly remarkable rocks. They are called migmatites, and they represent metamorphic rocks that have been subjected to geologic conditions so extreme that the rocks began to partially fuse, bleeding white granitic melt and contorting into fascinating marble-like patterns.

Ancient metamorphic rock on the forest floor

When you reach the cheerful Rio Nambe and leave the Zen Forest, you will catch views of Santa Fe Baldy shouldering its great massif skyward, to the north.

Santa Fe Baldy, looking north from a clearing near the Rio Nambe

This might even be your destination, if you are in good shape and you’ve left the trailhead early enough, on a cool summer’s morning. You’d be about a third of the way there, with a climb to a rocky summit at 12,622 feet still facing you. But you might be content instead to sit quietly by the stream and take in the peace of the forest, and then make your way back home, blessed by your brief sojourn among the aspen of the Zen Forest.

Heading home

A Rocky Mountain iris in a meadow near the Winsor trailhead

Getting there: The parking area at Ski Santa Fe is approximately 16 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, at the very end of NM 475. From the Inn on the Alameda, you turn north on Paseo de Peralta, and then turn right at the light at the intersection of Paseo with Hyde Park Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way. The Winsor Trail trailhead is clearly marked at the northwestern corner of the parking area, and the Forest Service maintains some pit toilets and picnic facilities there. It would not hurt to bring a trail map if this is your first walk on the Winsor Trail. You can download the PDF from the link I provided above, or purchase a map at the Travel Bug right next door to the Inn.

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The Acceleration Into Summer

The Acceleration Into Summer

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Cerrillos Hills State Park has a number of trails, all of which you can see on the maps found on the website cerrilloshills.org. There is little shade in the park and your exposure to the sun is high, so be prepared with hats, water, and sunblock. Pets are welcome on leashes. Broken Saddle Riding Company uses many of the park’s trails for escorted horse rides. Since this is a State Park, there is a $5 day use fee, payable at the parking area near the entrance of the park. There are no camping facilities.

Apache Plume in full headdress in the Cerrillos Hills

We are moving rapidly into summer, here in the Southern Rockies, and the natural world is bursting with activity. My favorite change can be seen from here in Santa Fe, looking up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east: the grey expanses of aspen high on the mountains are donning their bright yellow-green coat, with the usual suddenness that never fails to impress me. It’s a look as soft as the fuzz on an elk’s new antler, and as welcome as summer itself.

Red columbines along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

The alchemy of change is strong up there among the leafing aspen, and this is that brief moment of transition when the fairies appear in the forest. By which I mean, the fairy flowers; those two species that seem the most fairy-like of all our woodland flowers here – the diminutive Red Columbine, and the elusive Calypso Orchid.

A flower like this, bright red, with nectaries perched well up into tubes, is naturally pollinated by hummingbirds, and you can hear the flying jewels chattering under the forest canopy and whirring about. The complexity of this flower is fascinating:

Hummingbird’s view of a columbine

Even more intriguing are the ephemeral Calypso orchids, or fairy slippers. After finding just one of these, years ago, along the Bear Wallow Trail, I have been searching in vain for another look. Our wet winter must have been the key to my luck this year, because I found an entire cluster of these beauties:

Calypso bulbosa along the Winsor Trail

This orchid has a surprisingly sweet fragrance, although I have to warn you that you’ll have to put your head practically on the forest floor to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, here below, in the more arid hills, a tougher set of flowers is showing off its resiliency. Our newest State Park, the Cerrillos Hills State Park, south of Santa Fe, has been offering a variety of nature walks including a Wildflower Walk.

There were splashes of color everywhere:

Paintbrush growing among the rocks

Verbena

This was a very pleasant way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon.

You can keep track of activities like these by visiting the New Mexico State Parks website. And if you prefer to explore on your own, local bookstores like the Travel Bug, Collected Works, or the Nature Center at the Randall Davey Audubon Center have good selections of guidebooks, from the most basic pamphlets, to tomes only a botanist could love.

Getting There: Cerrillos Hills State Park is about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, just a couple of miles off of Highway 14, the famous “Turquoise Trail” that connects Santa Fe to the eastern outskirts of Albuquerque. Turn into the scenic little village of Cerrillos, and then turn right at the sleeping dog – er, first stop sign, and follow the dirt road past the railroad tracks and Broken Saddle Riding Company to the park. Be sure and bring $5 to pay the day use fee.

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Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

GHOST RANCH AND THE RIM VISTA TRAIL

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

One of the most rewarding day trips you can make during your visit to Santa Fe is an excursion up to the village of Abiquiu and beyond, past Georgia O’Keeffe’s house (where you might want to pre-arrange a tour) and into Ghost Ranch, where you are always welcome to stop at the Presbyterian Retreat Center and stretch your legs, or even have a picnic, surrounded by the spectacular pastel cliffs that drew Ms. O’Keeffe into their embrace for so many years:

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

You might even drive a little ways beyond and visit Echo Amphitheater hollowed into the cliffs, or – if the weather’s fine – brave the 13 miles of rough dirt road skirting the Chama River and have a look at the haunting Christ in the Desert Monastery, isolated and spiritually charged, waiting silently for you in its own little Zion.

Or you can be a masochist and hike the Rim Vista Trail.

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

You can’t help but notice a dramatic change in the landscape as you leave the Rio Grande in the town of Espanola and drive up the Chama River toward Ghost Ranch. Not far beyond Abiquiu mounting tablelands of red rock replace the buff colored hills of the Rio Grande Valley on your horizon, and soon you are climbing up a narrow cut of the river to enter a new world: the “Piedra Lumbre” – the Luminous Stone – a bright vista of warmly glowing hills guarded by the cliffs of Ghost Ranch to the north, and the iconic blue Cerro Pedernal – Ms. O’Keeffe’s touchstone (and personal possession, if God kept His promise) – to the south. And in a sense you have entered a new world: you’ve made an abrupt transition from the sere rift valley that guides the Rio Grande southward, into the colorful mesas and buttes of the vast Colorado Plateau.

For years a friend of mine had noticed an intriguing entry in local Sierra Club’s book of day hikes, called the Rim Vista Trail, and on this past Sunday, eager for an outing, convinced me to make the hike with him. It promised great views of Ghost Ranch, and that, together with the weather being fine and the lure of New Mexico’s best breakfast burritos, sold by Bode’s, in Abiquiu, for a late breakfast on the way, was more than enough to pull me along.

I’m not sure I can recommend this trail for your first experience of O’Keeffe Country. For one thing, it is a relentlessly uphill trek, on a stony, ankle-twisting trail churned by cattle and elk. You gain at least 1700 feet of elevation and there isn’t much shade. In fact, the cruelty of our 2005 drought and ensuing explosion of pine bark beetle is strongly evident along the way:

Drought stricken pinon forest

Drought stricken pinon forest

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

We estimated that between 85% to 90% of the pinon pines had been killed here! Only an ecologist could take pleasure in this sad scene. And yet he or she would no doubt note the young and healthy new saplings emerging everywhere beneath the tough twisted junipers, bringing a new cycle of life to the land.

Unaccountably, a few old survivors still held their heads high:

The trail follows an ancient landslide of arid hills, covered mostly in juniper now, which allows you to avoid the impossibly steep cliffs of the Entrada Sandstone (which form such a prominent and colorful component of the landscape here) and gain some elevation on the mesa. Eventually you reach the base of another set of sandstone cliffs and begin an angled climb to the rim, to receive your reward:

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

The trees are healthier up on this mesa, and it’s a great place to shed your pack, eat a snack, and do a little nature journaling:

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

These ledges are formed by the Dakota Sandstone, one of the most important sandstone “bookmarks”, as I think of them, in the pages of the geologic record of the Rocky Mountain States. The ancient sands, nearly 100 million years old – well within the Cretaceous Period, the age of dinosaurs – are river-laid at the bottom and beach-like at the top, and they mark a major reorganization of the tectonics of western North America, and indeed, of the entire planet. The Jurassic stomping grounds of the dinosaurs went under the waves for the last time, to be buried ultimately by the thick grey marine muds of the Mancos Shale. These rocks wouldn’t see the sun again until the Rockies shouldered their way up, 30 to 40 million years later.

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

The Cretaceous Period, by the way, was a time during which flowering plants gained dominance over more primitive (yet very much still with us) spore-bearing plants. Infinitely adaptable, we enjoy them today, even in the most unpromising environments:

So be sure to include a day trip to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch when you come to visit us here in Santa Fe. I think you can safely skip the Rim Vista Trail – there’s more than enough to see and do with more gentle walks. But I’m not kidding about those breakfast burritos.

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The Circle Trail

The Circle Trail

THE CIRCLE TRAIL

A view through the trees along the Circle Trail

A view through the trees along the Circle Trail

The snow is slowly retreating from the mountains above Santa Fe, although winter never gives up without a fight in the Rocky Mountains. But the spring runoff is in full force, the authorities are letting water out of the reservoirs into the little Santa Fe River, which is burbling happily across the street from the Inn, and the aspen and river birches are confident enough to put out fuzzy tassels in the lower reaches of the forested canyons that lead you into the Santa Fe Range.

So start planning a few hikes for your upcoming visit to Santa Fe this summer. The snow is leaving, the flowers are blooming and soon it will be time to hit the trail. And to “look at all the sparkly rocks, Mommy!”, as I heard a child up at Aspen Vista once exclaim.

Bright green kinnickinnic coming out from under the covers

Bright green kinnickinnic coming out from under the covers

And believe me: you can get a memorable sunburn hiking this time of year. Don’t forget the sunblock!

Some interesting local history

Some interesting local history

The abundant runoff prompted me to make the short 8 mile drive up from Santa Fe to Hyde Memorial State Park, to check out the waterfall I wrote about earlier, back in the depths of winter. But before doing this, I decided to hike the Circle Trail, on the south side of the road that divides the park into two sections. This pleasant trail, which passes though a classic section of the mixed conifer forest of the southern Rockies, is little frequented, because you have to pay a small $5 fee for day use at the State Park, and most local hikers simply opt for one of the numerous free trails in the Santa Fe National Forest.

There are surprisingly good views along the way, considering that you’re only about halfway up the road to Aspen Vista and the high country trails that leave from Ski Santa Fe:

Yes, that’s fresh snow on Big Tesuque

Yes, that’s fresh snow on Big Tesuque

And of course I had an underlying motive to hike this way: rocks! Hyde Memorial State park straddles an ancient fault in the rugged crystalline rocks exposed in the Santa Fe Range, and I wanted to compare the outcroppings on either side of this important local structural boundary. Hyde Park marks the place where you leave the foothills of the mountains, so to speak, and enter the loftier regions, and as always, there is an underlying reason for the change.

There is an excellent description of the Park’s geologic setting by Shari Kelly, one of our prominent local geologists, here, and I urge you to have a look when you have a moment. As I mentioned in last week’s entry, rocks that are often simply lumped into the generic category “the crystalline basement” or “the Precambrian basement” because of their tangled and brutal history, can reveal some amazing insights upon closer examination.

The dominant component of the crystalline rocks in the Santa Fe Range are granites and other related igneous rocks, rather than the metamorphic rocks I wrote about last time. Everyone is familiar with volcanoes and all their pyrotechnics, and can picture ash falling out of turbulent clouds over Iceland (and clogging jet engines!) or lava flowing into a seething ocean off Hawaii. These are volcanic rocks, the output of Vulcan’s forge. But there is a deeper, hotter, more hellish realm, the domain of the dark god Pluto, and the molten rocks that crystallize here, miles below the surface, are called the plutonic rocks.

Because they form in similar environments, plutonic rocks and metamorphic rocks are intimately related. And of course, to confuse matters, igneous rocks are just as subject to metamorphism as any, and most of the granites in the Santa Fe Range show clear signs of reheating and strain. Here is an outcropping on the south side of the Borrego Fault zone, a very fine-grained, light-colored granite with little quartz “eyes” that were elongated by shearing forces:

Quartz porphyry along the Circle Trail. Penny for scale.

Quartz porphyry along the Circle Trail. Penny for scale.

When you cross the road to climb up and have a look at the waterfall, you find an entirely different look:

Foliated biotite granite just below the waterfall in Hyde Park

Foliated biotite granite just below the waterfall in Hyde Park

This granite is far more visibly crystalline than the one on the south side of the park, and its metamorphism is clearly shown by its abundant and strongly aligned flakes of the black mica biotite.

The waterfall in Hyde Memorial State Park, cascading down a bowl of foliated granite

The waterfall in Hyde Memorial State Park, cascading down a bowl of foliated granite

These are the strong rocks that begin to hold up the higher peaks in the Santa Fe Range. There are more complications above – and even higher summits – but I’ll spare you that story for another time.

Oh – the waterfall. The ice is gone now, and this tiny tributary of the Little Tesuque River is singing in its new freedom:

So start planning a few hikes for your upcoming visit to Santa Fe. The snow is leaving and it’s time to hit the trail. And to “look at all the sparkly rocks, Mommy!”, as I heard a child up at Aspen Vista exclaim, while you’re at it.

A “sparkly rock” along the Circle Trail, with a shiny penny for scale

A “sparkly rock” along the Circle Trail, with a shiny penny for scale

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Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

BANDELIER FROM ABOVE: THE FREY TRAIL

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

You would think, after all the hiking I’ve done around Santa Fe and northern New Mexico over the years, that I would have discovered this overlooked gem long ago. But it took a last-minute change of plans, leading me to an unpromising trailhead on the arid uplands of the Pajarito Plateau, to put me on its track.

On a recent Sunday, with splendid weather, I decided it was a perfect day for a drive to Bandelier National Monument and a walk along the Rito de Frijoles under the Ponderosas. Unsurprisingly, I was not the only person to have this idea, and while the drive to the park entrance was swift and uneventful, a little sign at the ranger’s booth let me know there would be at least a 20-minute wait in the canyon below, to find a place to park. This is extremely unusual. Plan B formed swiftly in my mind. I knew there was a little-used trail that leaves from the campground above Frijoles Canyon, called the Frey Trail, that winds its way to the canyon rim, but I’d never walked it. Now was an as good opportunity as any.

As I suspected, there was almost nobody parked at the trailhead. A dusty and unpromising path led off to the south:

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

Although the temperatures were mild today, the sunlight was intense, and I could imagine calling this the “Fry” Trail in June. But there were promising vistas above the pinyon and juniper:

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

It was certainly an easy walk. From time to time the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s was evident:

Old sign

Old sign

And then I reached the rim of Frijoles Canyon, and discovered what I’d been missing all these years:

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Amazing views of the ruins on the floor of the canyon, which I’d only walked past before, opened up from a raven’s eye perspective:

Tyuonyi ruins from above

Tyuonyi ruins from above

I could survey the heart of the canyon from my perch:

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

And looking east

And looking east

Below me a few other hikers traversed the lower switchbacks, pausing along the monumental stonework built by the CCC to take in the view:

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

I walked down as far as that clump of Ponderosa pines you can see above, and had a light lunch in their shade, gazing happily out over the canyon floor and the visitors walking along the paved paths to the cliff dwellings. Afterward, I wound my way back up the switchbacks and walked back to my car, meeting no one else along the way. Which is remarkable in itself in such a popular place, on a beautiful weekend.

I can’t recommend this walk highly enough. It’s only about a mile and a half hike from the trailhead at the Amphitheater in Juniper Campground down to the ruins at the floor of the canyon, and the switchbacks have been carefully constructed to make the descent – or should I say, ascent – relatively painless. Perhaps there’s a reason for the unusual beauty of this trail. Up until 1934, this was the only way into Frijoles Canyon and its wonders. And that’s reason enough, in my mind, to make the walk and relive the adventures of those early travelers, seeing the canyon as they saw it, back when the first parks and monuments – America’s Best Idea – were being conceived.

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The Dale Ball Trails: Picacho Peak

The Dale Ball Trails: Picacho Peak

THE DALE BALL TRAILS: PICACHO PEAK

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

It’s finally that time of year when anybody stimulated and made restless by the first warm weather we’ve had all year begins to turn their thoughts to – Hiking! The snow hasn’t let go yet – and in fact the trail I chose for a walk on Sunday had some thick patches of corn snow in the shady places. Not to mention some slippery mud. But the sun was bright and warm, and the sky intensely blue, and there was no way I was going to stay inside on such a promising day. So where to go to take advantage of the beautiful weather and still practice social distancing?

The hiking trails closest to downtown Santa Fe are the well-maintained Dale Ball Trails. They are accessible from a variety of trailheads, none of them more than two miles from the Plaza, and they are so well marked that you would really have to work hard to get lost. It’s almost like playing a big game of connect the dots:

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

Typical trail marker on the Dale Ball Trails

At least you don’t need to carry a map!

I chose to make the relatively easy climb to the summit of Picacho Peak, just south of the Nature Preserve parking on Upper Canyon Road. This is a trail I highly recommend to guests in moderately good shape who want to get a taste of the mountains and a splendid view of Santa Fe without taking too much time out of their day. The elevation of the small peak is 8577 feet above sea level, not very high by Rocky Mountain standards, but still about a 1250 foot gain from the trailhead near the Santa Fe River. You’ll feel the elevation – but the views are worth the exercise.

Most of the trail winds through the classic pinon-juniper forest that surrounds Santa Fe:

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

Along the Picacho Peak trail

You’ll be walking over the ancient crystalline rocks of the Sangre de Cristo uplift the entire time. Most of the rocks are very high grade varieties of gneiss (pronounced “nice“):

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

A beautiful banded gneiss – walking stick for scale

The lower part of the trail enters a short segment of a shaded canyon that supports some magnificent Ponderosa pines:

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

Looking up into the branches of a “Grandfather” Ponderosa

These are shot through with plenty of coarse pink granite, and in fact much of the ground is littered with the glittering fragments of these stones. In places the trail is built right on the massive rock:

The rocky path on the way to Picacho Peak

The rocky path on the way to Picacho Peak

The view from the top is wonderful:

The summit of Picacho Peak, looking to the north

The summit of Picacho Peak, looking to the north

All of Santa Fe lies at your feet to the west, with the rounded peaks of the Jemez Mountains beyond. To the southwest you’ll be able to see the little Cerrillos Hills, the rugged Ortiz Mountains beyond them, and dominating them all, the great crest of the Sandia Mountains, with Albuquerque hidden behind. On most days you can see the distant mass of Mt. Taylor, a huge stratovolcano between Grants and Gallup – the sacred southern mountain, Tsoodzil, of the Navajo people. To the south the the Rockies die out in a series of progressively lower granitic peaks. To the north you may be able to see the distinctively mounded shape of San Antonio Mountain, on the furthest horizon – especially if there’s any snow – and will marvel to think this peak marks our distant border with Colorado. But I don’t doubt your eyes will be most strongly drawn to the ramparts of the magnificent Santa Fe Range and it’s snowy peaks north and east of your perch.

So the next time you come to visit us, ask about the Dale Ball Trails and the walk to the top of Picacho Peak. You’ll be well rewarded for the short investment of time it takes to make the climb. Bring a snack: there is a perfect outcropping of gneiss with a welcoming Ponderosa tree about half way up. You’ll know it when you find it. And wave to the ravens soaring over your head. They are waiting for you. . .

 

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The Summer Monsoon

The Summer Monsoon Many people are surprised to find out that Santa Fe’s rainy season corresponds almost exactly to the height of the tourist season – July and August. They become even more alarmed when the locals refer to this as the...

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