At first glance, the Santa Fe area doesn't seem like the perfect choice for a family vacation. What's kid-friendly about streets filled with boutiques selling Southwestern-style clothing, pottery, and furniture? What's a child to do with a mile-long stretch of art galleries?Not to mention the proliferation of couples, many middle-aged and older, who seem to be on spiritually romantic second honeymoons.
But on closer inspection, and with careful planning, north-central New Mexico is a gold mine of fun for children. Here, finally, is a place where they can play both cowboy and Indian, using all the real props. There's something for just about any kid: artistic, athletic, spiritual, imaginative, outdoorsy, or adventurous—as well as plenty of painless learning opportunities. Read on for tips on how to experience the best of Santa Fe.
six action-packed adventures
1 Catch a rodeo. During intermission, the youngest can ride woolly rams and ewes. The Rodeo de Santa Fe (505/471-4300) takes place in late June.
2 Fly-fish along the trails of the Pecos Wilderness Area. For a reliable guide, call Santa Fe Fly Fishers School & Guide Service (800/555-7707 or 505/757-3294) or High Desert Angler (888/988-7688 or 505/988-7688).
3 Float over the Rio Grande Gorge in a hot air balloon. Liftoff is before dawn, when the conditions are calmest. Completion of the hour-long flight is celebrated with an apple cider toast (Paradise Balloons; 505/751-6098; $195 per person).
4 Hike the Jemez Mountains and Valle Grande caldera, and see the pink cliffs of volcanic ash and the black lava mesas up close. Ask the Santa Fe Guiding Co. (505/466-7964) to help plan and lead your expedition.
5 Learn to rock climb on the walls of Las Conchas canyon. Southwest Climbing Resource (505/983-8288) specializes in guiding families, beginners, and intermediates. Kids can brush up their skills at the Santa Fe Climbing Gym (825 Early St., Suite A; 505/986-8944).
6 Go white-water rafting on the Rio Grande. Kokopelli Rafting Adventures (800/879-9035 or 505/983-3734) will set up a trip for kids and adults of all skill levels.
Teenagers might like to stroll through the Canyon Road art galleries during Friday-evening openings—at least the cheese and crackers will satisfy them. But the younger set will be happy with a visit to the wacky benches and moving steel sculptures in the courtyard of downtown's Houshang's Gallery (235 Don Gaspar; 800/962-3502 or 505/982-4442), and a look at children's-book illustrator and Eggbert author Tom Ross's Hahn Ross Gallery (409 Canyon Rd.; 505/984-8434). For kids who'd rather make their own art, three-hour summer classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, and assemblage are given three mornings a week for 8- to 12-year-olds and two evenings a week for 13- to 18-year-olds at Fine Arts for Children & Teens (1516 Pacheco St.; 505/992-2787). Those who have had some exposure to the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe should see the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St.; 505/995-0785; Tuesday-Sunday 10-5; Friday 10-8), and might also want to tour the Georgia O'Keeffe Home & Studio (505/685-4539) in Abiquiu, 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe, off Highway 84.
The altar screen at St. Francis Cathedral (Cathedral Place; 505/982-5619) is a testament to the mix of cultures in New Mexico. Called Saints of the Americas, its 15 brightly painted and gold-leafed panels depict an Indian convert with a turtle at her feet, as well as saints from Peru, Italy, Spain, and Mexico, among other places. America's oldest statue of the Virgin Mary is also here, brought to New Mexico in 1625 by a Franciscan priest. But children will be more amazed by a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó (Chimayó; 505/351-4360), 25 miles north of Santa Fe. Soon after the shrine was built in 1816, the faithful began flocking here to cure their ills. Hanging from the ceiling and on the walls in the chapel are the hundreds of crutches and braces—several of them child-size—that have been abandoned. The miracles are attributed to a crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipula, and to this day pilgrims hoping to get in on the magic take a handful of dirt from a hole in the ground in the back room.
live and learn
It's impossible to imagine the child who wouldn't like the Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo; 505/476-1200; Tuesday-Sunday, 10-5). On display are almost 106,000 folk dolls and figurines from around the world in windowed dioramas. The scenes—of rowdy festivals, dinner parties, a funeral, a bullfight with an audience of at least 100—are so intricate, and the loft-like space they're in is so beautifully designed, that the line between the display and that which is being displayed is blurred. For young or tired children, the museum has a play area with couches, toys, and books.
Everything at the cozy 5,000-square-foot Santa Fe Children's Museum (1050 Old Pecos Trail; 505/989-8359; Wednesday-Saturday 10-5, Sunday 12-5) is interactive: children can push objects along water channels, climb through mirrored tunnels, and attend workshops with local artists and scientists. The most inspired part of the museum is the outdoor garden with fruit trees, sculptures, a pond, musical installations, and a miniature adobe village.
A few miles south of the city, in La Cienega, is El Rancho de las Golondrinas (334 Los Pinos Rd.; open 10-4 Wednesday-Sunday; 505/471-2261;), a complex of 18th- and 19th-century houses, blacksmith shops, and watermills, a chapel, and a winery. Once a stop on the Camino Real, the ranch comes alive during summer "theme weekends," with music, storytelling, and dance.