Adventure on the outskirts of Santa Fe

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Santa Fe, N.M., needs more publicity like its fiery chili needs more peppers.

Which it doesn't.

Word-of-mouth has brought millions of tourists to this mud-colored city of low adobe buildings -- home to artist's galleries, museums, ultra-chic boutiques, restaurants and stylish residences.

Wrapped in rugged desert scenery studded with pinyon and juniper, Santa Fe wows so many tourists that lots of them stay.

In a 1993 poll, Conde Nast Traveler readers voted Santa Fe their second favorite U.S. destination, and fifth favorite city worldwide -- tied with Paris and ahead of London and Rome. San Francisco was first in both categories.

Santa Fe was on the Conde Nast ballot this year after winning the competition last year -- on a write-in vote.

In a mere 15 years, Santa Fe has gone from sleepy to slick, from a cowpoke to a dandy, from undiscovered to sorry-we're-sold-out.

Result? A city bursting at the seams of prosperity, choking on its own success. Not since the Santa Fe Trail brought goods and dreamers from the Midwest to the high desert in the 1800s has such an influx occurred.

Santa Fe needs a break.

So maybe it's time we cut a few Santa Fe trails out of town. You can point your car in virtually any direction and enjoy history, fascinating cultures and vast, otherworldly scenery.

Heading out of town

This one's a full day, but maybe the most complete day trip you'll make. Highlights:

San Ildefonso Pueblo. New Mexico abounds in pueblos. If this one's your first, brace yourself. The past and present collide at San Ildefonso.

Start with how you can drive through San Ildefonso. I spied a woman on a portable phone. I also saw a Weber grill. So much for ancient tribal traditions.

On foot you can view the simple mission church and cemetery, a 300-year-old cottonwood tree and hornos: beehive-like outdoor ovens used for baking bread.

Village pottery is handmade the old way, without using a potter's wheel. Black-on-black pottery from San Ildefonso is prized. Also, expensive.

Bandelier National Monument

Awesome, steep-walled Frijoles Canyon is one of those places that fires an imagination. Picture this canyon 800 years ago and thousands of American Indians living one with the land. Here was the population center of the Anasazi, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians.

Catch the 10-minute slide show at the visitor's center. Then lace up your walking shoes for a looping trail that passes ancient ruins and cliff dwellings in the canyon walls.

Los Alamos. Fifty years ago Los Alamos was, well, nowhere. Just a box number in virtually trackless desert. Scientists met in this desert outpost to build, then detonate the first atom bomb.

Twice a year you can stand at Ground Zero, but you'll get more from visiting the science museum here, with a time line, hands-on displays and a film that tells the chilling story of the Manhattan Project.

Abiquiu. With its dusty, rutted roads and mangy dogs, Abiquiu seems hardly a place of pilgrimage. Yet to fans of Georgia O'Keeffe, the village is a shrine. Here she lived and painted in her later years. Her high-walled home is closed to tourists, but the desert vistas are breathtaking.

Head up U.S. 84 and you're deep in painted desert to rival Arizona (maybe even outdo it). Ghost Ranch, where O'Keeffe spent summers, is better known today for its fossil-rich grounds. You'll find modest museums of paleontology and anthropology. In the summer high season, a conference center charges $38 for accommodations.

Animal lovers will want to head up the road to Ghost Ranch Living Museum, where critters indigenous to the area -- but orphaned or too injured to be released -- are cared for.

Too enthralled to leave? Hard by the rivers, gorges and mesas that inspired Georgia O'Keeffe is the handsome, 12-room Abiquiu Inn. Rates from $55; (800) 447-5621.

Santa Fe ski basin

Need a quick fix of scenery? By the odometer it's only 18 miles up the winding mountain road to the ski area. But what panoramas! Pine trees scent the air, inviting an hour or a day on hiking trails that crisscross the Santa Fe National Forest.

Aspen Vista is popular with outdoors enthusiasts. "Truly the great outdoors," said one hiker. "You can get into the back country up on the mountain ridges to villages that have been around for 300 years where they still speak Spanish."

Sightings of bear and mountain lion are rare, he says, "but there's plenty of deer, turkey, bobcats. It's heaven up here."

Halfway to Taos is Velarde, where the roadside fruit stands are too irresistible to pass up. Each is colorful with cascades of ristras: hanging chili peppers ripened to a dazzling red and woven together.

The rush of being in Taos starts miles out of town, with the way the scenery goes from striking to really sensational, like a curtain rising on a grand stage. Your car snakes through the canyon of the Rio Grande until it crests at a plateau. Welcome to Taos.

Taos is Santa Fe, only smaller, more charming and cozier with its mountain surroundings. Skiing is world-class.

Off Taos' pretty plaza is the same crass commercialism that has overtaken Santa Fe. But it doesn't feel -- at least not yet -- as though all the charm has oozed out.

Maybe the best diversion is to walk to the Taos Inn and take in the warm Southwestern decor, the adobe archways and wall hangings of what truly is history with guest rooms.

Shopping the Plaza? Quality stamps the western wear at Taos Cowboy, spangly Mexican clothing at Coyote Club -- even the T-shirts at Plaza T-Shirt.

Other Taos must-sees:

Ranchos de Taos. Off the dusty town square is pretty San Francisco de Asis church, long a favorite of painters, ZTC photographers -- and birds who like to roost on its simple mud walls.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Man-made meets nature-made at this steel giant spanning a gaping rift in the earth's crust. Views down into the gorge can be dizzying.

Millicent Rogers Museum. A gravel road leads unceremoniously to one of the finest museums in the Southwest. Handsome rooms of this quiet country villa show pottery, paintings, Navajo silversmithing, Apache basketry, Maria Martinez pottery.

Taos Pueblo. Indians lived in Taos more than 500 years before Columbus. New Mexico's most famous pueblo is an enchanting layer cake of mud buildings, doorways, ladders and log supports. For $1, Indian women will sell you oven-warm bread.

Take the snaking "High Road to Taos" back to Santa Fe. It takes twice as long as the highway, but the mountain vistas, rugged towns like Truchas and the varied vegetation are worth it.

In the unspoiled village of Chimayo is the Lourdes-like Santuario de Chimayo (1816). Beside this quiet country church is a chapel hung with crutches, canes and testimonials. Believers with afflictions scoop "Holy Dirt" from the floor of the chapel, rubbing it on whatever ails them. They believe the dirt has healing powers.

The Turquoise Trail

On this drive discover the mineral-rich towns south of Santa Fe.

Such as Cerrillos.

Nothing much happens in Cerrillos, unless you count half the town hanging out on the ramada outside the Cerrillos bar and gas pump. In its heyday, Cerrillos mined turquoise. Now with a trading post and a petting zoo to get what tourist dollars it can, Cerrillos is a town of faded glory.

Madrid shows a pulse. Main Street is rows of shops. The Mine Shaft Saloon bustles with live bands, summer dinner theater and history of the 1920s, when Madrid mined coal.

After lunch at Pete's Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, take the road that hairpins up to Sandia Peak. Drive a few more miles, to Sandia Crest, and get even better views for free.

From here your options are to backtrack to Santa Fe on the Turquoise Trail, take Interstate 25 back or sweep wide through the spectacular red sandstone canyon of the Jemez Mountains, stopping at Los Ojos -- a bearskins-on-the-wall, Seger-on-the-jukebox saloon in Jemez Springs -- for a burger. For dessert: a nature walk beside the rapids of Dark Canyon, filling your lungs with fresh mountain air.

C'mon, what's another 100 miles?

New Mexico is an experience you don't want to end.

IF YOU GO . . .

By air: Shuttlejack coaches provide daily bus transfers from Albuquerque International Airport to Santa Fe. Drive time: one hour.

Rental car: More options in Albuquerque than Santa Fe. Insist on unlimited mileage.

Elevation: In Santa Fe, more than 7,000 feet. You may tire easily in the thin air of the up-country. Pace yourself. Your throat, skin and nose will feel drier than sagebrush.

Santa Fe, etc.: With four Mobil stars in its hip pocket, the Bishop's Lodge is again offering its Fireside Package. Set against the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the lodge offers romantic fireplace room, fruit basket and breakfast for two at $100 per couple per night. Dates: through Nov. 24, Dec. 1-23. Call (800) 732-2240.

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