Outdoor Adventures with Kids

Courtesy photo: Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

Courtesy photo: Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

How to get your kids hiking and having a blast on the trails around Santa Fe

By Katie Macaulay

You are going on an adventure, not a hike. For kids, an adventure sounds much more exciting than a hike, so be sure to frame it properly from the start. There are plenty of great adventuring spots in and around Santa Fe. I’ll share a few that are appropriate for all ages from toddler to teen. I’ll also share some fun activities which can be done on (almost) any trail.

FIRST: PREPARING FOR A HIKE

Before you head out, talk about how to prepare for a hike. Proper preparation means that you have checked the weather before you go and everyone has a backpack, ideally with a whistle, water, snacks, and a rain jacket. Extra socks and/or a fleece jacket are a good idea, too. Let someone know where you are going, and be sure to have a map or good directions before you get out of cell phone range.

Teach your child that if they get lost or separated from the group, the best practice is to STOP AND STAY PUT. If you get separated, sit down, drink some water, put on extra layers, and think about the best next steps. If you have a whistle, blow it three times at a time, over and over, and wait. If you aren’t found right away, consider what kind of natural shelter is nearby and make yourself comfortable until you are found. The key is to stay found in the first place, so use a buddy system and always keep your young ones within sight.

OK, now that we are feeling prepared, let’s get going—there are adventures to be had.

IN-TOWN ADVENTURE: SANTA FE CANYON PRESERVE

The Santa Fe Canyon Preserve is an in-town favorite. If you want an adventure that is close and accessible for all abilities (wheelchair access is in the works); this hike offers wonderful variety: shade and sun, desert and “jungle,” water, bird life, and a special place called Fossil Hill. 

Upon arrival in the parking lot of the Preserve (check Google for directions), the main trail goes northeast toward Two-mile Reservoir, the old water reservoir for the city. After walking up a short incline, you will be met with a beautiful view up the canyon with Picacho Peak to your right. Pause to enjoy the view. Walk through a field of four-wing saltbush (look for the seeds with, you guessed it, four wings). Stay left and you will arrive at a bench overlooking a small pond where you may see waterfowl, red-winged blackbirds, and, if you are lucky, a great blue heron.

Children examining a worm.

Courtesy photo: Children examining a worm.

Activity: A Fistful of Sounds

This is a great place to sit for a few minutes. With kids, I like to do a Fistful of Sounds, which involves closing your eyes, sitting quietly, and using your fingers to count ten sounds that you hear. Afterward, share what you heard with each other. This is a fun and easy way to build a bit of mindfulness into your adventure and give everyone a chance to slow down and be present in this beautiful place.

Leaving the pond and the bench, head up the canyon (northeast) where you’ll find a trail on your left that heads down into a willow jungle and home of beaver-sign galore. (Sadly, the beavers moved on, but there is plenty of evidence, and signage regarding their residence here for many years.) At the fork in the trail labeled “Enjoy the Mud” and “Avoid the Mud,” you can choose your own adventure. This is a nice spot to sit for a snack and some water, drop packs, and explore the area. Be sure to let children know they must be accompanied by an adult near the water. It’s more fun that way, anyway.

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Activity: Nature Detectives

Put on your Nature Detective hat and look for signs of beaver and other animals. Do you see the beaver-chewed logs? Can you find a large bird nest up in the tall cottonwood trees? Do you see the cattails, a useful plant for Native people and primitive skills enthusiasts? Can you find a spotted leopard frog, tadpole, or tiny eggs (small gelatinous circles with a black dot in the middle) in the marshy area? The re-introduction of the spotted leopard frog here in the past decade means you should leave their marshy habitat undisturbed. It is super fun to explore this area, like the jungle it is, with little ones; just stay on land and look for clues. Who else do you think lives here or passes through? 

After exploring the pond and making your way through the willow jungle, you’ll head uphill toward a branch of the Santa Fe River crossing, complete with a small waterfall and a bench where you can safely enjoy the view—another good spot for a snack and water break.

Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

Courtesy photo: Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

Activity: Natural Forts and Shelters

On the far side of the river here, there are thickets of willows where kids will find natural forts to let their imaginations roam. If you are inclined, get ready to become an animal or enjoy a tiny tea party. You can also imagine using one of these for an impromptu shelter in a storm. The river crossing is a great place to cool off on a hot summer’s day, depending on the flow, which varies. The icy cold water was snow not so long ago, so a little goes a long way toward dropping your core temp.

If your crew is tired or done, this is a good place to turn around. If you are up for a longer adventure, carry on and you will emerge from the jungle to find a large meadow. The meadow can be a great game field, or you can continue to your right (look for the cottonwoods along the river to give you a clue) to enjoy water play by the river. (Leopard frogs do not live in the fast flowing river here, so water play is welcome.) After you cross over the river, you will eventually reach the road and the Audubon Center. Turn back to go back the same way you came, or take the trail up toward Fossil Hill.

If your crew wants to adventure to Fossil Hill, be sure they are surefooted and well supervised. There is a metal barrier between you and the slope down to the old reservoir, but in a few spots the sediment has filled in, so the wall is very short as to be basically nonexistent. Walk with care and keep littles within reach. The flat trail undulates along the hillside, with views to the pond below, and can be hot on a warm summer’s day. Everyone should be well watered, with hats and sunscreen before taking this adventurous route.

Activity: Fossil Hunting and Leave No Trace

After walking for ten minutes or so, depending on your pace, look for large rock panels on your right with fossils embedded in them. You’ll see tiny lifeforms and shell shapes from when Santa Fe and the entire region were under an ocean. You may find some loose rocks. Please leave them there for others to enjoy, and teach your kids Leave No Trace principles: Leave only footsteps, take only pictures, and pack-in pack-out. 

After exploring Fossil Hill as young archeologists, follow the trail as it winds back down to the stream level (consult the map, but basically, stay left and go downhill) toward a replanted meadow with several old apple trees standing guard. (Harvest season is late-summer/early fall, so you’ll have to come back then for a fresh, tart apple.) Walk toward the tall cottonwoods, where a wooden footbridge crosses the river; a great place for a water break or a picnic. (Do you see a theme here? Snacks are KEY to a great adventure.) Enjoy this last cool, shady spot before taking the trail up the hill toward the parking lot where your adventure began.

Nice work. High five each other for a great adventure.

Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

Courtesy photo: Kids hiking on the Norski Trail.

MOUNTAIN ADVENTURE: NORSKI TRAILS

On a hot summer’s day, getting up into the mountains will get you into temperatures about ten degrees cooler than in town. This can make the difference between grumpiness and joy in most humans, especially small ones. The Norski Trail is one such location where the elevation is high and the hiking is relatively easy. 

In the parking lot, find the map and picnic table to start your adventure. (Snacks, water, hat, sunscreen, and backpack with rain jacket or other supplies. Check? Check!)

On the map, you’ll notice the trail is a series of intersecting loops. This can be a bit confusing at times, but there are maps at every junction, so just keep an eye on them. This is a good opportunity to engage your kids in wayfinding with landmarks, map reading, and talking about the four directions (Never Eat Soggy Waffles is a favorite way to remember the order of the four directions starting with North, clockwise to East, South and then West).

If you start on the trail trail to the left (not the one that goes down; this is the Winsor Trail, and will take you down, down, down into Tesuque), you will encounter a small meadow. On the right you will not. Both lead to the same junction, which is a favorite fort building location. 

Activity: Forts and Leave No Trace

Downed aspen logs make great material for forts. Just remember to Leave No Trace and take down what you build. (I know this can be a joy-stealer for some, but the process of dismantling can also be very fun when done with gusto and care.) Remember, it’s all about how you frame it.

Activity: Meet a Tree

For this activity, it is helpful to have a bandana or other material for a blindfold, but you can also pull a hat down low or just close your eyes. Buddy up and decide who will Lead and who will be the blindfolded Buddy. The Leader will ensure their Buddy can’t see, and then very carefully guide them to a tree. The Leader will guide their Buddy by the hand or elbow and give verbal directions for all changes in terrain, logs, or other obstacles. The goal is to get them safely to a special tree you would like them to meet. Once there, the Leader will let their blindfolded Buddy know, so they can commence getting fully acquainted with their tree. Encourage the Buddy to take their time; touch the tree high and low, feeling for any bumps or branches, smell it, walk around it. Once the Buddy has met their tree, the Leader will take their Buddy back to where they started, again, carefully. The Buddy will remove their blindfold and try to find their tree. Switch roles and do it over and over again, as kids may request. 

If you are keen to hike farther and your kids are dragging, a game called Camouflage gets everyone moving. Suddenly, tired grumpy kids will be running down the trail and shrieking with delight. 

Kids hiking at Fossil Hill in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve.

Courtesey Photo: Kids hiking at Fossil Hill in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve.

Activity: Camouflage

The premise is simple. As you hike, one person, typically an adult, is walking along the trail looking for the others who have hidden just off the trail no more than 20 feet. Kids, or the hiders, may also drop their backpacks, or another item of your choice, just beside the trail where they go in, so you know to start looking (and you don’t lose anyone). Kids love sneaking and hiding games, and this one has the added benefit of them sitting quietly in nature for a few minutes at a time. Young children should be buddied up with an adult for safety, and ensure there is no poison ivy along the trail. Kids will get so enthused about hiding, they will run from spot to spot. Wait: I thought you were tired?! Haha. Not anymore. 

There are plenty of other great hikes up the ski basin road; the Big Tesuque campground and Aspen Vista also offer great opportunities to get out and play in the forest. All it takes is a little preparation; check the weather, grab some good snacks, water, proper attire, and bring along your sense of playfulness and adventure.

Katie Macaulay is the founder and director of Mountain Kids!, a 16-year-old outdoor education program in Santa Fe. Mountain Kids! offers summer camps, home and after school programs, and classroom field trips for kids in the Santa Fe area.

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