What To Do in Santa Fe with Kids

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By Emily Paster

As I mentioned, my family recently returned from a week-long trip to Santa Fe with my mom. My husband loves the Southwest and even tried to convince me to move to Albuquerque after law school. I actually love New Mexico as well, but not quite enough to live there. I could never get used to living in such a dry, desert climate but I do love to visit it. The scenery, the culture and history and the cuisine all make Santa Fe an enchanting vacation destination. We hiked, rode horses, toured museums and historical sites, shopped, went white-water rafting on the Rio Grande and ate green and red chiles to our heart's content.

One of the best days of our trip was our visit to Bandelier National Monument, a national park encompassing over 30,000 acres of canyon and mesa. Beyond the amazing scenery, what is remarkable about Bandelier is that it contains fascinating relics from the ancient Pueblo people who occupied this valley for thousands of years. At Bandelier, you can see ruins of adobe buildings and ancient dwellings carved out of cliff walls. You can also see petroglyphs, symbols carved on the canyon walls. Although my kids act like walking a few city blocks is akin to a death march that requires humanitarian intervention, they were willing and enthusiastic participants on two different 1.5 mile hikes at Bandelier, including the somewhat harrowing hike up and down the mesa along the Tsankawi trail.

Bandelier is a 90-minute drive from Santa Fe — it's closer to Los Alamos, actually — and you have to park in White Sands and take a shuttle to the park in summer months. But, it is a very worthwhile day trip from Santa Fe and a fascinating place to visit for adults and kids. If you do go with kids, ask the Park Rangers about the Junior Ranger program; kids complete an age-appropriate workbook to earn a special Junior Ranger patch.

Another great day trip was visiting the Taos Pueblo, a thousand-year-old, multi-story adobe dwelling still used by the Pueblo people today. We took a tour with a Pueblo guide and sampled the Indian fry bread and regular bread baked in one of the outdoor adobe ovens known as hornos. It is chilling to look at the adobe buildings and know that they were there when the Spaniards first arrived in Taos in the 1500′s.

Near Taos there are also many companies that offer white water rafting on the Rio Grande. We took a three-hour rafting trip one morning with a company called New Wave Rafting. We did the most popular trip, on a part of the river known as the Racecourse, because its moderate white water is suitable for families with kids as young as six. Everyone in our group loved the rafting. The kids even got the chance to get out and float at various points and there were just enough rapids to get everyone wet. We liked our guide, Joe, very much and thought the whole New Wave operation was very professional. We decided to go rafting only a week or so before we left and I am so glad we did. One of the best days of our trip!

Of course, there is plenty to do in and around Santa Fe as well.  Santa Fe may be best known for its shopping, galleries and museums. (The dining is excellent too — that is another whole post!) Not all of those activities are favorites with young kids.  Zuzu was definitely interested in the shopping however– she especially liked browsing the wares of the Native American artisans who exhibit in front of the Palace of the Governors in Old Town Santa Fe. These craftspeople are selected by town officials so you know that their wares are authentic. Some of the jewelry is very special.

The Palace of the Governors itself and the adjoining New Mexico History Museum tell the story of the state's tumultuous history, from the Native peoples to the Spanish conquistadors through Mexican independence and then when the United States finally took over. There are amazing artifacts from all those time periods and the displays do an excellent job explaining the history. The kids went through it much quicker than the adults wanted to, but it was still worthwhile.

Outside of downtown Santa Fe is Museum Hill, where there are several outstanding art and history museums. The most kid-friendly of these museums is the Museum of International Folk Art, which has an amazing displays of crafts and folk art from all over. My kids loved the temporary exhibits about Amish quilts and Japanese kite-making. The permanent collection of dolls and figurines is also outstanding. There is a cafe on Museum Hill with a pleasant patio that makes a nice stop for lunch.

Another great outdoor activity in Santa Fe is horseback-riding. JR was too young, but my mother, Zuzu and I did a sunset trail ride on top of a mesa that was spectacular. Zuzu was in heaven the whole time. The resort where we stayed, Bishop's Lodge, has a ranch that offers several trail rides a day and you don't have to be a guest at the Lodge to do them. The wrangler who led our ride was incredibly nice and took safety very seriously. Kids have to be at least 8 years old to go on the trail rides. But luckily, you can feed the horses treats at any age!

Bishop's Lodge is a very nice resort for families. It is a short drive outside of town, but the hotel offers a shuttle. There is a nice pool, spa and activities on-site, which make Bishop's Lodge more like a resort than just simply a hotel. We rented one of the villas that is affiliated with the resort and it was perfect for our needs. We had plenty of room to spread out and could even eat some meals at home, which is helpful when you are traveling with kids. Many people have vacation homes in Santa Fe that are available for weekly rentals, so if you are planning a trip to the area, definitely look into that option.

But my favorite thing about Santa Fe is just the natural beauty. For kids from the East Coast or the Midwest, the mountains and the desert landscape are so different than what they are used to. It's fun to remind them of the astonishing diversity of our country. The villa where we stayed looked west and every single night, the sunset was spectacular. I may not want to move to New Mexico, but I do want to return there, many more times.

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