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Great Hikes: Picacho Peak, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Tom Lohr is an avid fan of science, space travel and exploration. He has spent 13 months at the science station at the South Pole.

Map of the relevant Dale Ball trails

Map of the relevant Dale Ball trails

Picacho Peak

Santa Fe is New Mexico's state capital and a haven for artists. Tourists flock to the the city to sample fine dining, boutique shops, and the occasional celebrity sighting. Visitors can become so immersed in the culture of art and hobnobbery that they forget Santa Fe is surrounded by some of the most stunning natural scenery in the American West.

Even the most casual visit to Santa Fe should include at least a few hours exploring the fabulous mountain trails leading out of the city and into the hills. In addition to the discovery of outdoor adventure so close to town, you might even work off a few of those pounds those irresistible restaurants added.

Picacho Peak is an 8,577-foot mountain to the east of Santa Fe that provides a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding landscape. It is a moderate hike that takes about 1 hour 45 minutes up and about 45 minutes down. Including a stop at the top to take it all in, anyone in decent shape should be able to complete this hike in three hours or less. It is a dog-friendly trail, so feel free to take your bestie with you; just be sure to bring some extra water for your pet.

Typical trail

Typical trail

Getting There

To get to Picacho Peak, hikers take a series of the Dale Ball Trails, a system of paths that spans 22 miles in the Sangre De Christo mountains. For this hike, begin at the Cerro Gordo trailhead, which is a very short drive from downtown Santa Fe. Simply find your way to the intersection of Upper Canyon Road and Cerro Gordo Road and park at the trailhead lot. Walk to the back of the parking lot and bear right. In a few yards, you will cross a small creek and then a road, after which you are on your way in earnest.

The Hike

The trails are well maintained, but some sections can be rocky. Hiking boots make for a more pleasant journey, but if you only brought your tennis shoes you will be fine. Most of the trail is shaded, but there are some exposed areas as you get near the top. Keep in mind that you are starting at around 7,000 feet and going up. The altitude, coupled with New Mexico's copious sunshine, can make becoming dehydrated very easy. It is important to carry sufficient water for a three-hour hike.

I highly recommend using a hydration system such as a Camelbak. I personally use a 2-liter Camelbak Rouge to keep me hydrated. After having other brands of bladder-type hydration systems either burst, leak, or fail, Camelbak has not let me down in over 15 years of mountain climbing and hiking. The Rouge comes with a few storage pockets that can easily accommodate your cellphone, a map, and some snacks to keep you energized. Besides being the easiest way to carry enough water, the sipping tube makes it possible to hydrate while moving. Additionally, when hikers do not have to stop to fumble with a water bottle, they tend to hydrate more often. Using a Camelbak hydration system helps keep your water intake more consistent, making for a safer and more enjoyable hike.

Stay Hydrated With the Camelbak Rouge

The Dale Ball Trail system is very clearly marked and uses numbers to designate trails. From the trailhead, take trail 29 as it meanders through sparse trees, and then into a dry creek bed leading to denser forest. As you break out onto a small ridge you will come to a trail intersection. Keep to the left and take trail 30. Soon you will arrive at another intersection where you will again keep left and attack the most grueling portion of the hike: a series of switchbacks. At the end of this section, you will emerge from the forest onto an exposed ridge and the last trail intersection before the summit. Once again keep left on trail 34, and a very short distance later you can enjoy the spectacular view from the top of Picacho Peak.


Get Off of the Couch

The total round trip for this out and back hike is four miles. Provided you keep the left at every junction, becoming lost is nearly impossible (although a map is always recommended). Each intersection is clearly marked with easy-to-read trail markers. The convenient access from the city center, and the well-maintained trail, make this a perfect hike for someone that came to Santa Fe for shopping and food but decided to toss in a little exercise. The next time you are in Santa Fe, combine a little fitness with your visit and tackle Picacho Peak. It's free, it's fun and it's fabulous.

Top of Picacho Peak

Top of Picacho Peak

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.