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Courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

Why Santa Fe Should Be Your Winter Road-Trip Destination

Discover the off-season allure of our artistic southwestern neighbor.

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About a five-and-a-half-hour drive (390 miles) from Denver, Santa Fe falls onto most Front Rangers’ travel radars between spring and fall, but it turns out winter is a winning time to visit America’s highest capital city.

That’s right… highest. Although the Mile High City gets more high elevation fanfare, Santa Fe towers over us, measuring in at 7,200 feet above sea level. Its closest ski slope is higher still. Although Taos is unquestionably New Mexico’s most renowned ski destination, the state is actually home to nine ski areas, and one of its rather well-kept secrets is Ski Santa Fe.

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But the slopes aren’t the only reason you should travel to our artistic southwestern neighbor in the wintertime. With fewer crowds, affordable accommodations, and plenty to do—plus more than enough green chile to keep you warm—now is the perfect time to plan a road trip to Santa Fe.

Skiing

Courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

Comprised of seven chairlifts and 80-plus trails that are mostly blue and black-rated, Ski Santa Fe is no small ski area. Starting at 10,350 feet and topping out at 12,075, the panorama from the top is dizzying; Albuquerque is clearly visible to the south, the Sangres de Cristo peaks loom to the north, and the mystical Los Alamos (site of the 1940s Manhattan Project) is in sight to the west. The best part is that the ski area is just over a half-hour from downtown Santa Fe, up a twisting and stomach-turning road, the navigation of which you can leave to a professional by taking the $5 shuttle from downtown (which earns you a token for $5 off anything other than booze at the ski lodge). Even on a sunny Saturday, it’s possible to ski onto every lift in five minutes or less, and the après band kicks up for the weekend lunch crowd on the deck at Totemoff’s Bar beginning at 11 a.m.

The walk-up price for a lift ticket is $80, and if you plan ahead, package prices work out to about $60 a day. The ski area is run by Ben Abruzzo, whose grandfather, Ben Abruzzo Senior, took over Ski Santa Fe operations in 1984 and also built Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway. In addition to his passion for skiing, Ben Senior set multiple world records in hot air ballooning as part of the first team to cross the Atlantic and notching the longest journey, crossing the Pacific from Japan to California. Ben Senior and his wife, Patty, died in a plane accident en route to Aspen in 1985, but the adventurous Abruzzo family spirit lives on at Ski Santa Fe, where Ben Junior can often be found bumping chairs or patrol sweeping and Grandma Abruzzo’s marinara sauce is a staple on the base lodge café’s pizza and pasta menu.

Soaking

Be sure to pack your swimsuit, because en route to and from Ski Santa Fe (the return shuttle makes a stop here) lies Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese spa and hot springs. Modeling after an authentic Japanese onsen, the facility features an outdoor grand bath with waterfall, foot baths, gender-only pools (you’re in the buff here), saunas, a meditation room, and a long list of massage and skin care treatments. There’s also a tasty restaurant, Izanami, not specializing so much in sushi as charcoal-grilled wagyu beef, Japanese fried chicken, and a daily sashimi.

Downtown

Native American artists on the Plaza. Photo by Shauna Farnell

Like Denver, even when it’s freezing or dumping snow on nearby peaks, Santa Fe’s temperature is relatively mild. The heart of downtown is the Plaza, an open square lined by lampposts hung with dried hot peppers and the historic (circa 1610) Palace of the Governors. The Plaza-facing exterior of the palace is occupied by Native American artists displaying their handmade jewelry, ornaments, and colorful keepsakes. The artists represent New Mexico’s numerous pueblos and are individually certified, each entering a lottery every morning for a spot to pitch their blanket and display their wares. Even if you don’t buy anything, they are eager to answer any questions and explain the traditions and personal stories behind their work.

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Art & History

A scene from Meow Wolf’s the House of Eternal Returns in Santa Fe. Courtesy of Meow Wolf

Santa Fe’s museums and galleries are often less crowded in the winter, meaning you can truly immerse yourself (and gain insight on what’s to come in Denver) at Meow Wolf, see the original work and inspiration of Georgia O’Keefe up close and personal, and witness the architectural miracle of the spiral wooden staircase built by a disappearing carpenter at Loretto Chapel. The New Mexico History Museum is also a can’t-miss stop, detailing the state’s rich fusion of Native American, Spanish, and Mexican cultures. As long as you bundle up, one of the most exhilarating ways to absorb the historic depth and artistic lore of this 400-year-old city is by bicycle. Passionate locals at Routes Bike Tours lead a two-hour ride from La Fonda that takes you through the Plaza, along the Old Santa Fe Trail to America’s oldest house (the foundations date back to Ancient Pueblos of 1200 AD and you can actually see the straw poking out of the adobe mud walls) and down the gallery-strewn Canyon Road and the Barrio de Analco District.

Eat & Drink

The vegetarian winter medley with mole at Sazón. Photo by Shauna Farnell

Whatever you do, eat as much green and red chile as humanly possible. Both are typically vegetarian and can be found almost everywhere. Classic New Mexican haunt La Choza’s rellenos are swimming in both (order “Christmas” for the green and red combo) and its green chile clam chowder is addictive. You can also get a delectable dose of chile at Tomasita’s—try it on the chicken enchiladas, washed down with a margarita. One of the most unlikely places to indulge is at the Five & Dime store on the Plaza, formerly Woolworth’s, where locals have salivated over chili-slathered Frito Pies since they were kids.

If you’re looking to splurge, expect one of the most memorable dining experiences of your life at Sazón. Surrounded by vibrant colors and the various somber expressions of Frida Kahlo, Sazón fuses seasonally fresh ingredients (fresh beets, local beef, and even baby grasshoppers) with scrumptious iterations of 30-ingredient mole sauce. The cocktails are creative and potent, and Mexico City-born, 10-gallon hat-sporting chef Fernando Olea oversees all proceedings, including the choreographed, “brigade-style” service.

There’s no shortage of places to booze in town, as well. If you adore margaritas, the $4 Margarita Trail passport is worthwhile, offering discounts on a signature marg at 30 tequila-loving haunts around town. If craft beer is more your thing, head to Second Street Brewery, where the Agua Fria pilsner is surprisingly hoppy and its Jack Plane porter goes down smooth (its accompanying Rufina Taproom also serves up creative pub food and regular live music). Popular all winter long, Santa Fe Spirits is a cozy spot to grab a night cap, specifically a Nut Job, made from founder Collin Keegan’s single malt whiskey and one-of-a-kind Atapino liqueur, which is distilled from local pine nuts. But don’t skip town without checking out the newly opened Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, which was inspired by a bike tour of Denver’s breweries and distilleries. Try the juicy IPA or order a cocktail made with agave-distilled—because it’s not made in Mexico, Tumbleroot uses the term “agave spirit” to describe their 100 percent organic blue agave nectar—plata and reposado and homemade tonic water, while enjoying an eclectic (and free) lineup of talented regional musicians.

Stay

La Fonda on the Plaza. Courtesy of Kent Kanouse / Flickr via Creative Commons

Luckily, by traveling in the off-season, you’re likely to get a deal on even the best hotels. In that case, book your very own casita in the foothills at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado. Once a popular dude ranch among celebrities, the resort is nestled into the sage and pinion-covered dunes about 10 miles north of downtown (with free shuttle service to and from the Plaza). It’s surrounded by hiking trails and even boasts its own Adventure Center, which offers everything from yoga to customized hike, bike, and ski tours. Alternately, locate yourself in the heart of the action in an upscale room at the bustling, classy, and historic La Fonda on the Plaza, or walk to the Plaza in less than 10 minutes from the artistic and affordable Hotel Santa Fe, the only Native American-owned hotel in the area, complete with a gym, jacuzzi, sauna, spa, and fascinating collection of artwork, located in the hip Railyard Art District.

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Winter Adventures

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