New Mexico's most popular city is a magnet for families in search of adventure, chile-hot food, the arts, and real cowboys and Indians

By Jessica Dineen
June 07, 2011
Rob Howard

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.

gallery hopping

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.

getting religion

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.

pueblo life

Those who have never been on an Indian reservation will be awestruck by Taos Pueblo (505/758-1028), more than 1,000 years old and barely changed since the Spanish arrived in 1540. There is a guide on hand to speak for the 1,700-odd Taos-Tiwa Indians who continue to live here, and to lead tours of the grounds and the Catholic church. The interiors of the adobe apartments are strictly forbidden to tourists, but a few are open as pastry or jewelry stores. The official tour divulges little information about native traditions; most are kept secret from outsiders. But the public is welcome at the tribe's ceremonial corn dances in June and the Taos Pueblo Powwow and the Feast of Santa Ana, both in July. For a calendar of feast days and information on Taos Pueblo and other pueblos in the area, order the "Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Visitors Guide" (call 800/793-4955).

day trips

High Road to Taos The only crucial stop along the 35-mile scenic route between Santa Fe and Taos is Chimayó, the village whose families have passed down the art of weaving for more than 150 years. The Chimayó weaving style is derived from Spanish and Mexican traditions, incorporating those of Central America and Native America. Most children won't want to spend too long contemplating these wonders, but it's worth a stop to see the European-style floor loom and the spectacular rugs made by seven generations of the Trujillo family at Centinela Traditional Arts (Chimayó; 505/351-2180). Of all the shops, this one is the best, and least known to tourists.

Bandelier National Monument and Puye Cliff Dwellings There's no shortage of enthusiasm or information among the staff at Bandelier (45 miles NW of Santa Fe on Hwy. 4, 505/672-3861), and in a short tour, either guided or self-guided with a trail map, families will learn about the ancient Puebloan Indians who lived in these cl around a.d. 1000 to the mid-1500's. You can climb ladders and peer into the caves that line the soft pink rock of the canyon; some have ancient carvings on the walls. The 30-minute drive north from here to the Puye Cliff Dwellings (Santa Clara Pueblo; 505/753-7326) is worthwhile if only for the dramatic sweep of mountainside between the two sites; the route is also far more beautiful than the highway to Santa Fe. The view of the caves from the road into the ruins is astounding. Exploring them, however, can involve climbing up some challenging, even treacherous, cliffside ladders.

where to eat

At least a dozen of Santa Fe's excellent upscale restaurants are less than perfect for children. (One of the best is Nellie's, in the Hotel Loretto.) But here are a few spots where you and your group will feel entirely welcome.

The place to be is Café Pasqual's (121 Don Gaspar; 505/983-9340; breakfast for four $50). Consequently, there's often a wait. But once you're seated, the food, colorful Mexican decorations, and cheerful atmosphere will make your day. Satisfy a sweet tooth with tamal dulce—a sweet corn tamale wrapped in banana leaves and served with black beans, mango, and a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.

If you're a huge fan of the chile, don't miss the legendary and often packed Tecolote Café (1203 Cerrillos Rd.; 505/988-1362; breakfast for four $35), where hot means hot. But a perfect antidote for the sheepherder's breakfast—a grilled mash of new potatoes, jalapeños, and onion topped with an egg, red and green chiles, and melted cheddar—is the café's biscuit-and-bread basket, served with whipped butter and raspberry preserves.

For a gourmet meal on wheels, look for Roques's cart—he usually parks on the corner of Washington and Palace Avenues from about 11 to 5, but there are no promises. The carnitas, tamales, and lemonade are a godsend. This is perhaps the best, and certainly the cheapest, lunch in town.

A dream version of Taco Bell, La Bell's (301 Jefferson St.; 505/986-8223; lunch for four $20) was opened by a Santa Fe chef who wanted to spend more time with her kids. The Mexican/New Mexican dishes are served in seconds but taste great. There's even a drive-through.

In a town where it can seem impossible to escape chili, the French Pastry Shop (100 E. San Francisco St., in La Fonda hotel; 505/983-6697; lunch for four $40) is a relief. Nothing here is spicy. The savory crêpes, such as the one filled with chicken, mushrooms, and béchamel sauce, make a delicious lunch. Of course, the sweet crêpes are irresistible. This is also a good place for café au lait.

If you want to relax even when your younger kids are throwing food and your older ones are rolling their eyes, the Plaza Restaurant (54 Lincoln Ave.; 505/982-1664; lunch or dinner for four $50) is your safe haven. This diner has been on the Plaza since 1918 and has nothing to prove. The food is very good, and some of it—like the meatloaf—is great.

Sick of burritos? Every Santa Fe resident under the age of 18 seems to put Il Vicino (321 W. San Francisco St.; 505/986-8700; pizza for four $20) on a list of favorites. The highest praise goes to the wood-oven pizzas and calzones.

The locals' choice for traditional New Mexican food in a no-frills setting is La Choza (905 Alarid St.; 505/982-0909; dinner for four $50). Try the green-chili clam chowder.

where to stay

Many of Santa Fe's best hotels, such as the Inn of the Anasazi, are geared to romantic getaways rather than family comfort. The following choices are most appropriate for families.

La Fonda 100 E. San Francisco St.; 800/523-5002 or 505/982-5511; doubles from $209. Much is made of the history of this adobe-style building, which lies at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Many of the 167 guest rooms are haphazardly decorated and cared for. But those in the innovative contemporary wing are nicely outfitted with all-cotton mattresses and natural textiles. The courtyard pool is large enough for kids' play. But the primary reason to stay at La Fonda is to be directly on the Plaza, surrounded by restaurants, stores, and galleries.

Hotel Santa Fe 1501 Paseo de Peralta; 800/825-9876 or 505/982-1200; suites from $139. This 128-room hotel is more than half-owned by the Picuris Pueblo. With soft flute music playing in the sitting areas and an unusually congenial staff, the hotel may be the most peaceful place to stay in Santa Fe. The menu offers the only Native American food in town, and to top it all off, the 91 well-designed suites are ideal for families who want to stay in one room without sacrificing all privacy.

Eldorado Hotel 309 West San Francisco St.; 800/955-4455 or 505/988-4455; rooms for four $269. This 219-room hotel in the historic district is less like an adobe house than most. Still, each guest room is comfortable, and many include wood-burning kiva fireplaces. Rooms facing east, toward town, have great views.

Bishop's Lodge Bishop's Lodge Rd.; 800/732-2240 or 505/983-6377; doubles from $280. A summerlong program for children five and up ($40 per day) makes this sophisticated full-service resort ideal. Without ever leaving the 450-acre property they can ride ponies, play tennis, go on nature walks, fish a stocked trout pond, and do arts-and-crafts. The playground has all the usual climbing and playing structures, as well as a tepee and a giant sandbox. And the rooms are a smart, contemporary take on Southwestern style.

BEST VALUE Hotel St. Francis 210 Don Gaspar Ave.; 800/529-5700 or 505/983-5700; doubles from $220. The only major hotel in town decorated in a European style, the St. Francis sits a block south of the Plaza. The 83 rooms are furnished with a mix of Victorian-style floral fabrics and early-20th-century brass and iron beds. The red-tiled lobby is one of the most pleasant places to take a break in Santa Fe, under a 20-foot ceiling.

local kids' favorites

Mary Bessone, age 10 "The Santa Fe Ski Area is a great place to hike in the spring and summer. You can take the chairlift down. And if you have any old people with you, they can take it up, too.

"We went rafting last year at Chama River, north of Santa Fe. Mostly it was pretty calm. But whenever we went over rapids, all the kids had to sit in the middle.

"Beyond Waves sports shop near the Plaza is good for skateboarding and snowboarding stuff.

"We hike in the wilderness area of Eldorado, and in Aspen Vista — that's up in the national forest."

Ivy Mueller, age 11 "I like Tidbits [227 Don Gaspar] for the Betty Boop postcards and alarm clocks, and going to Señor Murphy's, in the same building as La Fonda hotel, for caramel apples."

Dylan Marshall, age 8 "I like the De Vargas skateboard park because when I do holes or ramps or grinds, the teenagers say, 'Oh, cool, dude!' "

Kassie Marshall, age 11 "I like all the art museums. I want to be an artist or a photographer, and they give me ideas of what to paint and stuff."

Peter Bessone, age 8 "Take the tram in Albuquerque on your way home. It's a long ride — like twenty minutes. I saw two deer, a bear, ten chipmunks, and a squirrel."