Looking down on Aspen Vista and the Rio Grande Valley from Tesuque Ridge

When the weather gets hot in Santa Fe, as it has the past week or so, those big blue mountains to our east begin to look like a perfect place for a cooling walk or a refreshing picnic. A short drive from town can take you up as much as 3000 feet higher where, even on the driest, sunniest day, temperatures moderate and there is shade among the aspen and evergreens just a few steps off the road.

This past Sunday a friend and I walked most of the length of the Aspen Vista Trail, probably the most popular of all high country trails around Santa Fe. This doubletrack route is graded as a rough road up to the radio towers high on Tesuque Peak and so it climbs in a practically leisurely fashion up the Tesuque Creek watershed, through aspen and mixed conifer, into the Engelmann spruce forest, and finally out into open, tree-dotted meadows near the crest of the ridge, where the views to the west are spectacular.

The desert air, lofting up the flanks of the southernmost Sangre de Cristo Mountains, filters through literally square miles of sun-drenched spruce, distilling a heavenly balsamic fragrance that will surround you from the moment you step out of your car.

Englemann Spruce shading the trail

After about four miles’ walk the trees thin abruptly and the big views begin. At this point you’re about 11,200 feet above sea level and the light is glorious:

Approaching tree line with fair-weather cumulus filling the sky

Our goal was the crest of the spur that you can see in the photograph above. Here an unusual outcropping of granitic boulders makes a perfect stopping point with lots of sheltered places to sit and enjoy a snack:

The ‘Stone Circle’ on Tesuque Ridge

Wildflowers bloom in every nook and cranny of this natural Alpine garden:

Blue Rocky Mountain Columbines

Spotted saxifrage nestles among the rocks

The rocks themselves are a kind of granite unusually rich in dark minerals, set off by a bright white, sodium-rich feldspar more common to the Sierra Nevada Mountains than the Rockies. It’s called tonalite and it is a very handsome rock:

Lichen on stone

The nice thing about the Aspen Vista Trail is that it’s always back downhill to your car at the trailhead, no matter how far you’ve chosen to walk.

So keep an escape plan in your back pocket when the summer heat gets a little too oppressive. A cool, green, fragrant world awaits you up there. . .

A refreshing spring along the Aspen Vista Trail