Santa Fe: Hiking the Atalaya Mountain Trail


Santa Fe is one of those destinations that has something for everyone so it’s a great place to go with friends whose idea of what constitutes a good time may differ slightly from yours.  The area offers hiking, skiing and rafting for the outdoorsy types, Canyon Road and the museums for art and history buffs, shopping and spas, Taos and the Pueblos, great restaurants and bars. Spring and fall bring gorgeous, dry warm days and cool nights when it’s nice to curl up by the kiva fireplace in your casita and relax after the day’s activities.

There I  did something I vow I will never do again –  took a solitary mountain hike on an unfamiliar trail.  It was a 7 mile loop that you picked up close to downtown Santa Fe that started off kind of easy and flat and became increasingly challenging. Some people I met coming back down mentioned a shortcut that joined up with a dirt road that eventually led to where I’d parked.  They also said once you reached the final peak the trail split. You could take a longer more gradual incline or a steep straight shot up to the summit. One of them looked middle-aged me over and said, “you know, it gets extremely strenuous from here….”

Game on.  The steep uphill was actually no  problem, I’m at the gym every morning. Anyway I was antsy to finish the hike already and meet up with my travel companion, who was back in town dividing her time between browsing the galleries and searching frantically for public restrooms when it became apparent she should have opted out of the hot chile sauce on her huevos rancheros  – enough said.

The lack of trail markers was concerning.  In the Midwest there are always those little signs with the colors, here, not so much –  just a narrow footpath winding through the pines. Covered in pine needles it  didn’t look a whole lot different from the ground where the footpath wasn’t.  Nevertheless, I made the summit without incident.

The vistas from up there were amazing. The 18x zoom on the Olympus SP 550-UZ was getting quite a workout. That camera is no longer with me, it got ripped off last winter at a different Mayan ruin. Bad camera karma at those ruins, makes you wonder….

In any event, a woman at the summit who did this climb daily obligingly snapped my pic and started back down.

I said to myself, I should follow right behind her,  she knows this trail. I should have listened to myself.

Heading back down one minute I was on the trail, the next minute, not so much.  I ended up perched out on some high precipice, with a serious case of acrophobia, no water and almost no battery power left in a cellphone that only showed one bar. I tried calling the New Mexico State Forest Department. This trail wasn’t in their jurisdiction and they couldn’t help. I called some number at the Santa Fe county. They told me to call state forestry department.  I heard the low battery signal beeping and hysteria creeping into my voice. A cold icy hand gripped my chest and  squeezed really hard. I broke out in a sweat.

Then my inner voice said, Self,  hang up. If you panic all is lost. It said trail or no trail, clearly the direction you must go is down. It said,  just keep the sun on your left. I listened. Grasping some tree roots I got off the precipice and on solid ground. That the ground was at about a 60 degree angle I had no choice but to ignore. I crouched down and slid – pine needles are actually softer than they look – finally reaching somewhere flat enough to stand upright. Sliding down was  a hell of a lot faster than climbing up but I don’t recommend it. There I spotted a v-shaped seam in the side of the mountain,  like maybe where snow melt runs off. 

The voice said water knows it way down a mountain better than an ignoramus like you. It said, follow that sluice and it will bring you back to the trail. 

That never happened.  But damned if that sluice didn’t deliver me to the exact spot those people told me about where the dirt road linked up to the parking lot. Eventually I met up with other hikers on the road who were looking at me funny. Apparently the pine needles had ripped my aerobic tights to shreds and they saw London, they saw France, they saw Caryn’s underpants.

One response to “Santa Fe: Hiking the Atalaya Mountain Trail

  1. Haha am I honestly the first reply to this amazing post?!?

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