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Destination: New Mexico : Santa Fe Trails : Three autumn rambles amid pine, pin~on and fresh air--and within minutes of the Southwest’s culture capital

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Kipling works in The Times' news personnel department</i>

I needed no introduction to this Southwestern capital of art, shopping, culture and cuisine. A recent visit would be my sixth in a dozen years. This time, however, all the things that have turned the town into an icon and a cliche, had to share a seat. I went--was pushed--to Santa Fe to hike.

My wife and kids knew I needed it; they escorted me to the door. “You’re going to Santa Fe,” they insisted.

I wanted my stay to be invigorating, but nothing that would prevent my middle-age muscles from hiking the next day or keep me from more civilized amenities. And it couldn’t be expensive.

So I set some rules:

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Lodging would be walking-convenient to downtown. Though renting a car was essential, I would choose no trail head that I couldn’t reach in a 30-minute drive from my hotel. I would pack healthy food--fruit and raw vegetables, trail mix, bottled water, energy bars--for hiking and search out tasty but modestly priced restaurants for other meals.

I would try to take at least one, and sometimes two, hikes each day. I would start early--7:30-8 a.m. at the trail head--and hike only mornings or late afternoons, leaving the middle of the day for more typical tourist activity.

I discovered dozens of hikes in the region. Some require experience and a high level of fitness--don’t forget that most of the area sits well above 7,000 feet and some trails ascend to 12,000 feet. Still, there are many accessible day hikes that offer transcendental natural beauty and test the muscles without overexertion. And fall is a great trekking season: The weather cools, the summer storms abate, the leaves change and the tourist flood, which can make downtown Santa Fe resemble a county fair, begins to ebb.

Here are the ones local folks recommended that I enjoyed:

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Atalaya Mountain Trail

The first day out I just wanted to get going quickly, so I jumped in the car and 15 minutes later found the Atalaya Mountain Trail behind St. John’s College on the city’s southeast edge. This is a wonderful up-and-back hike that takes about three hours and winds through several microclimates as it ascends from 7,500 feet to its 9,100-foot summit overlooking Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Much of the trail is in shade, a blessing during summer and early fall , when temperatures can escalate into the 80s and the high-altitude sun can mean high levels of ultraviolet exposure.

Squat, dark-green pin~on trees--a signature of the Santa Fe area--dominate the lower part of the trail. After a half an hour’s walk the terrain steepens and the flora changes to tall conifers with a sprinkling of wildflowers, such as yellow mountain daisies and brilliant red-orange Indian paint brush.

Parts of this trail are pretty steep--my heart was certainly pumping--but keep a leisurely pace and pause whenever you’re out of breath. The exertion is worth it. Near the top, the trail levels out at a miniature natural amphitheater made of rose quartz. Five minutes later you’re at the summit--a glorious escarpment guarding a spectacular vertical plunge and marked with a solitary Ponderosa pine thrusting up between the rock sentinels. This ridge affords a bird’s eye look at all of Santa Fe, the desert to the west and several distant, frequently snow-capped mountain ranges to the north and east.

* Getting there: Take Alameda east from the center of town to where it turns right and becomes Camino Cabra. Remain on the road until Camino Cruz Blanca. Turn left and stay left when you see St. John’s on the right. Continue up this dusty road until it turns right. After the turn there is an adobe entryway with a sign, Ponderosa Ridge. Park on the left, near the Santa Fe National Forest sign. Walk up the road about 50 yards to a gated street on the left, then follow that road until it dead-ends. There you’ll find wooden steps, a wooden fence and a sign for trail No. 170.

* Afterward: That evening, I dined on a crisp chicken Caesar salad at my hotel, the venerable St. Francis. You can eat on the long veranda and watch nighttime Santa Fe come alive.

Tesuque Creek Trail

This is the perfect just-before-breakfast hike. A scant five miles from historic Santa Fe Plaza, with its centuries-old structures built around a charming block-square park, this civilized, three-mile stroll starts out as a fenced trail tucked between upscale residences. But it soon leaves enough of civilization behind to offer a beautiful, easy walk alongside rushing Tesuque Creek.

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Heavy spring runoff kept me from crossing the creek, but fall hikers can use the logs and rocks in the stream bed as a bridge to the more verdant south side. This will allow them to walk a loop instead of an up-and-back hike. The north-side trail offers a profusion of pin~on, boulders and wildflowers on the open, red-soiled hillsides, a pleasant contrast to the dense vegetation along the stream bed.

Either way, less than an hour’s walk up the trail, just before a small waterfall, a huge Ponderosa pine appears on the creek’s north side. If you’re on the green, fern-filled south-side trail, it is a signal to cross the creek again and head back down, finishing the loop. If you’ve hiked up the north-side path, cross the creek for a reverse loop hike or use this to mark the turn-around point.

* Getting there: Take Washington Avenue north off Santa Fe Plaza. After a few blocks it becomes Bishop’s Lodge Road. You’ll pass the entrance to the lodge, an exclusive resort, after three-plus miles. Less than a mile later, where the road veers left, take a dirt road to the right and drive about a quarter mile to the second of two signs that say “No trail parking beyond this point.”

About 200 yards up the road is a stone pillar and three wooden posts. The trail starts here, where you cross the creek on a footbridge. Follow the fenced route to a dirt road, turn left and walk over an old bridge with faded green railings. Just beyond the bridge the trail winds off to the right bordering the creek. A 15-minute walk brings you to a Forest Service gate. Just past it the trail forks. If possible, cross the creek here; otherwise, continue up the left, or north side of the stream.

* Afterward: The entire hike should take no longer than two hours and is just vigorous enough to justify a green chili breakfast burrito at the Tesuque Village Market about 1 1/2 miles down the road (tel. 988-8848).

For dinner, I drove over to Dave’s Not Here (1115 Hickox; tel. 983-7060; no credit cards), an eatery not more than a mile from Santa Fe Plaza. Dave’s has the biggest portions of any restaurant I’ve eaten at in Santa Fe, and tasty, hearty food--basic American and Southwestern grub. The very spicy enchiladas are my favorite, ranking just ahead of the thick, juicy hamburgers. And loosen your belt for the homemade pie.

Ghost Town Trail

Imagine an ascending series of mountain meadows, each bordering a rushing stream. Imagine walking through glens of aspen and pine--is there anything prettier than the play of shadow and light on aspen leaves shimmering in the wind? Imagine rediscovering your sense of sound, with only nature’s chatter--the buzz of insects, water rushing over rock, the warble of songbirds--to break your reverie.

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The scenery is so quietly thrilling that I found myself walking backward on the way out, just to hold on to the picture. This was my favorite hike, and one I would have skipped had a local woman not enthused over its beauty.

The hike starts about 300 yards up the road from the Glorieta Baptist Conference Center gas station. You’ll see a fence with a hikers’ log to fill out; make an entry. Not far from the trail head the path separates; a sign offers various trail destinations. Continue straight ahead alongside the stream, which will be a constant companion on this 6.4-mile hike. There are numerous stream crossings along the way, none troublesome.

The trail starts at about 7,500 feet and climbs gently to 8,400 feet. It is almost a stroll. About halfway up the trail are the remains of an old car and detritus from what appears was once a timber mill. It’s about an hour-and-a-half to the destination; a high mountain meadow with the remains of an old hotel--walls, window frames and roof all at odd angles--several other collapsed structures and the shell of another long-abandoned car. If you walk to the west, or left, of the hotel and look back at it, you’ll be surprised by the immense cliffs that soar just east of the meadow.

* Getting there: This was the only hike that tested my rule about driving distance, but it passed, barely. It took me 30 minutes to drive from downtown Santa Fe to the trail head, which lies at the back end of the Glorieta Baptist Conference Center. Take St. Francis Drive south to Interstate 25 north, toward Las Vegas--Las Vegas, N. M., that is.

Stay on the interstate about 20 minutes until the Glorieta exit. Turn left over the interstate, then left again. You’ll soon see the conference center on your right. Drive to the gatehouse. They’ll give you a map, direct you to the trail head at the northeast corner of the grounds and tell you where to park.

* Afterward: On my way back to Santa Fe, I drove north along highways 84-285 to Espan~ola, then motored east on Highway 76 to the small town of Chimayo. A weaving and artisan center, Chimayo is also the site of the Rancho de Chimayo (Route 4, tel. 505-351-4444), a wonderfully weathered adobe hacienda that houses a restaurant specializing in traditional Southwestern cooking. I sat on the tranquil, terraced back patio and enjoyed the sopaipillas and honey with my meal.

I ventured out on other hikes, too, though some were not as successful as the three I’ve described. The result? Well, I was ready to jump back on ship, with renewed energy. Even the family dog could tell the difference.

And I came away with a new wonder for a place I thought I already knew. I discovered Santa Fe’s essential duality--one part culture, the other nature. Simultaneously, you can lose yourself in its wild terrain and partake of the city’s offerings.

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GUIDEBOOK

Santa Fe Ramblings

Getting there: United flies from LAX, connecting in Denver, starting at $266 round trip.

Getting started: First, you need a decent map of the city and the area. While most hotels furnish some kind of map, the best free material can be found at the Santa Fe Welcome Center (505-827-7336), part of the New Mexico Department of Tourism (505-827-7400 or 800-545-2040).

Where to stay: Lodging can be tricky in Santa Fe. There are high and low seasons and prices have escalated over the past several years. I chose the Hotel St. Francis (505-983-5700) because of its location at 210 Don Gaspar Ave., only a block from the Plaza. The large lobby and pleasant veranda are the attractions of its public spaces, and it has clean rooms and reasonable prices--$75-$180.

Sticking to a budget, you might venture out about two miles to 1862 Cerrillos Road, where you can bed down at the pleasant 92-room El Rey Inn motel for $55-$207 (505-982-1931).


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