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The best hiking under the sun

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Bob and Patrice Rosenthal of Ojai, Calif., enjoy the view at Tsankawi, a division of Bandelier National Monument, near White Rock. (Courtesy of Karl F. Moffatt)

Bob and Patrice Rosenthal of Ojai, Calif., enjoy the view at Tsankawi, a division of Bandelier National Monument, near White Rock. (Courtesy of Karl F. Moffatt)

Recent unseasonably mild weather has created ideal winter hiking conditions here in northern New Mexico, and the White Rock and Los Alamos area boasts some of the best sunny and scenic strolls around.

“We love hiking around here,” said Bob Rosenthal, 61, as he and his wife, Patrice, 57, enjoyed a recent outing to Tsankawi off State Road 4 near White Rock. “It’s quiet and peaceful, there’s the remarkable Indian ruins and the views are stunning.”

The vacationing couple from Ojai, Calif., said they learned of the secluded getaway while vacationing in Santa Fe once before and have returned to the site numerous times since.

“It’s just a delightful place to visit,” Patrice Rosenthal said.

Administered by the National Park Service at Bandelier National Monument, the site features a 1.5 mile loop trail that leads hikers onto a mesa for an eye-popping view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the Pojoaque Valley below.

While roaming through the ruins of an ancient Indian pueblo atop the mesa, one might begin to understand why the native people chose to live here when they did.

The site affords grand views of the Rio Grande valley below, and caves carved out of the south-facing sandstone cliffs provided additional living quarters amid the warm winter sunshine.

Today visitors can enjoy an easy ladder climb up and down the mesa just 45 minutes north of Santa Fe and learn more of the history of the people who once lived here. And visitors can enjoy Tsankawi for free right now because the fee collection machine is off being repaired, according to a sign posted at the park entrance.

After working up an appetite at Tsankawi, visitors might want to stop at the El Parasol restaurant down in Pojoaque for some of the best Spanish/American fast food in northern New Mexico.

Another fabulous Los Alamos-area hike featuring sunny exposure and fantastic views is Deer Trap Mesa.

Located on the far side of Los Alamos at the end of Barranca Road, the spectacular scenery starts as soon as one gets out of the car.

The views only get better at the far end of the mesa where the panoramic scene of the valley below begs for a leisurely picnic.

Upon setting out on this hike, visitors can stop and read the interpretive signs at the beginning of the trail that highlight the lives of those who had once homesteaded the area before the federal government took the land to create what is now the national laboratory.

The beauty of this hike is it’s an easy, flat, 3-mile loop trail that wends its way out to three distinct vantage points before heading back with a fine view of the mountains above Los Alamos looming ahead.

For more info about the trail, visit losalamosnm.us.

To get to the trail head, take State Road 502 up to Los Alamos and pass through town to the intersection of Diamond Drive by the hospital. Go right and continue past the high school and golf course to a roundabout. Take the far exit and head north up San Ildefonso Road. Continue to the intersection of Rendija Road and turn right onto Barranca Road and follow it to the parking area.

On the return trip stop in Los Alamos at CB Fox, an old-school department store where a visit to the candy counter alone is worth the trip, but the selection of quality apparel and other household goods is equally astounding.

Another great winter hike in the area is Burnt Mesa on the grounds of Bandelier National Monument.

While the visitor center, gift shop and Indian ruins in the valley floor below are a must-see for many visitors, those who live in the area recommend springing for the $30 annual pass so that the parks’ many hiking trails can be enjoyed year-round without having to pay a $12 entrance fee each visit.

Burnt Mesa provides a wonderful winter hike across a wide-open meadow where one might encounter a lone stag deer grazing just off the trail or find a curious hawk tagging along overhead.

Visitors might also find the abundance of pottery shards scattered amid the remnants of Indian settlements along the way make for an exciting venture into the countryside. Keep in mind that it is illegal to remove or disturb these artifacts, so take only pictures and respect the sanctity of these Indian ruins.

The Burnt Mesa trail head and parking area can be found just a few miles past the entrance to Bandelier on the south side of State Road 4. If you reach the Ponderosa Group Campground and the turnoff to Jemez Springs and Los Alamos, you just missed it.

And finally, a visit to the area without a stop at the White Rock overlook for a vertigo-inducing view and maybe a stroll along the Rio Grande gorge rim might be an oversight, but it could also be a trip worth saving for another fine winter’s day.

Karl Moffatt is a longtime New Mexico journalist and avid outdoorsman whose many other articles and photographs can be found at outdoorsnm.com.

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