Ah, the signs of spring in New Mexico. The winds whip up, fruit trees and allergies erupt in white blossoms of petals and Kleenex, and pairs of bright, pale, pasty legs shed their cloistered winter woolen slacks for neon polypro running shorts. It’s an annual ritual.
Yes, spring is here. As the mercury climbs, so do we trail runners, working our way off the desert trails like those at La Tierra and the Rail Trail up into the Sangre de Cristos in search of shade, cool forest breezes and mountain streams.
“We’re kind of like migratory birds,” says John Lumley, owner of the Running Hub, a local running shop. “As the snow melts, we run farther and higher into the mountains.”
In the process, we leave behind hot, jarring asphalt streets increasingly packed with tourist traffic for soft forest paths, soaring vistas and the serenity of nature.
This is not to imply the trails aren’t a major draw to visitors, too. In recent years, Santa Fe has built a reputation as a trail-running mecca, billed by Runner’s World as “one of the best places to run in the Southwest.” Outside, which is based in Santa Fe, recently ranked Santa Fe second only to Dolomites, Italy, for best trail running in its 2014 Travel Awards.
Among the many reasons Santa Fe draws such accolades is the wide variety of terrain, elevation and microclimates right in our backyard. Jim Owens, president of the running club Santa Fe Striders, says his group runs more than 30 different mountain trails during the summer months, ranging from dense pine forests and Alpine meadows to remote, wind-raked tundra high above the tree line.
Departing every Sunday morning with anywhere from two to 15 runners, the Striders assault everything the mountains have to offer — La Vega, Raven’s Ridge, Santa Fe Baldy or a combination of multiple 12,000-foot peaks. It’s the snowpack, however, not their ambition, that dictates the schedule.
“We took a group up to run the Aspen Vista Road on May 8 about two or three years ago,” recalls Owens. “We got about 4 1/2 miles up and had to turn back. The snow drifts were 6-feet deep.”
By the time the group returned for a second try two weeks later, the snow had completely vanished.
As the mountains thaw, snowmelt spills into the valleys and swells the banks of the various rivers, seasonal creeks and acequias tucked throughout the area, revealing a host of hibernating, well-trod trails along their banks. Keeping your feet dry can be a challenge this time of year.
Setting out from Tesuque on the Winsor trail — a burly path that climbs some 13 miles and 3,000 feet up to the parking lot of Ski Santa Fe — runners must ford Tesuque Creek more than a dozen times in the first few miles. Or try the Rio En Medio trail connecting from picturesque Aspen Ranch; the trail actually runs atop the narrow bank of a 136-year-old acequia.
While there are plenty of lung-busting, high-altitude workouts to be found in the mountains, one need not be an adrenaline junkie or a trail-running devotee to enjoy the web of trails that spans the Santa Fe and Pecos wilderness.
For beginners, Black Canyon, just eight miles up Hyde Park Road, offers a quick, swooping two-mile path under towering ponderosas. Migrate a couple miles farther up the road and you’ll find the “Lollipop,” a four-mile, out-and-back loop created by the confluence of the Borrego, Bear Wallow and Winsor trails — complete with log-bridge river crossings. The Aspen Vista trail follows a forest road with a mostly gentle grade six miles up to panoramic views above the ski basin, ascending from 10,000 to 12,045 feet.
Though you might wait until the snowdrifts melt before donning that pair of shorts.