As the weather cools, trails at lower elevations offer a chance to see the last of the golden leaves and have a final fall picnic in the sun.
One option for a fall hike is Diablo Canyon found northwest of Santa Fe. The trail passes through a dramatic basalt canyon and follows a dry arroyo to the Río Grande. At the river, a sandy beach makes the perfect picnic spot on a sunny fall day.
The hike begins at the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area. The trailhead is on Bureau of Land Management property, which extends to the northeast. To the northwest is the Santa Fe National Forest. From the parking area, pass through a gate. Head west towards the 300-foot high rocky cliffs that are popular with rock climbers. The cliffs form a dramatic passageway to begin the hike. Midway through the canyon, a small spring is surrounded by still golden aspens.
Leaving the tall cliffs, the trail continues into open areas surrounded by chamisa and more distant buttes. The arroyo bears the mark of recent water and is dotted with lava rocks. The arroyo bottom looks like the Río Grande might if the water were peeled back to reveal the sandy river bed beneath.
The trail gradually leads north toward the Río Grande, descending almost 400 feet from the trailhead to the river. Looking ahead, the cliffs of the river basin are visible along with the flourishing green and yellow cottonwoods. Rounding a corner after a bit more than 3 miles brings you to a sandy beach at a curve of the river. This is a good spot for a picnic and rest before heading back along the arroyo to the trailhead. Total mileage for the hike is about 6.4 miles. Elevation begins at 5,837 feet and ends at 5,453 at the river.
At the trailhead, some informational signs explain the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior Land). The 1,600-mile route passed through the area from 1598 to 1882 between Mexico City and Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) with an extension all the way to Taos. The road followed the paths of indigenous people who used the route for trade.
Off to the north of the trail, facilities for the Buckman Direct Diversion Project provides water from the Río Grande to the City of Santa Fe. According to an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, this area was the site of a plank bridge built by Henry S. Buckman, an Oregon lumberman. A small community known as Old Buckman Town was located here near the old site of the Chili Line Railroad. In 1888, a post office was built, and the town flourished until 1921 when the bridge collapsed. No traces of the town can be seen but remnants of the railway are in the area.
The area has been a frequent setting for western movies, including "The Missing," "3:10 to Yuma" and "Cowboys and Aliens."
On a recent visit, red-tailed hawks were circling above the rocky cliffs. Birds of prey are common here, according to Daryl Ratajczak, wildlife biologist for the Santa Fe National Forest. "The high cliffs provide the perfect habitat for peregrine falcons, which are often seen in the spring and summer especially," he says.
Coyotes are active in the canyon hunting smaller mammals that inhabit the region. Ratajczak explains that the canyon is also a travel corridor for larger mammals moving through the area, including an occasional bear or cougar.
Fall temperatures can vary dramatically depending on the amount of wind and cloud cover. Be sure to carry rain gear and extra layers for changing conditions. Be aware of predicted rain as the dry arroyos can fill quickly and create a hazardous situation.
For more information
To find out more, call the Bureau of Land Management Field Office at (575) 758-8851 or visit blm.gov/visit/diablo-canyon . Reach the Santa Fe National Forest at (505) 438-5300.
From Taos Plaza, head south on Paseo del Pueblo. Go 67 miles as Paseo becomes US 68 and then US 84/285 as it passes through Española. Take exit 166 for State Road 599 Santa Fe Relief Route. Drive 3.6 miles to the Camino La Tierra exit. Turn right on Camino La Tierra and go a bit less than 5 miles. Turn right onto Old Buckman Road. This is a dirt road and is bumpy in sections although it is passable by most vehicles. The road should be avoided during heavy rains due to the arroyos that cross it. After about 8 miles, the trailhead will be off to your left for Diablo Canyon Recreation Area. The trip covers about 83 miles and takes about two hours.