Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Ride the Rail Runner Express to Madrid
Just a short ride from downtown Santa Fe awaits a charming former coal mining town that offers a low-key yet highly rewarding day trip. The Rail Runner Express provides daily service between Santa Fe and Madrid, allowing travelers to soak up spectacular desert scenery along the way. Though less than an hour by rail, Madrid feels wonderfully remote thanks to its rugged setting amidst the Ortiz Mountains.
After departing the Santa Fe train station, the Rail Runner route heads south through the Galisteo Basin. Gaze out the window to admire the reddish cliffs and buttes that rise above the high desert plains. As the train winds through canyons and crosses over arroyos, you'll understand how this landscape captivated legendary painter Georgia O'Keeffe.
When the train pulls into Madrid's tiny station, you'll be transported back to the 1920s. Quaint adobe buildings line the dusty main street, looking much the same as they did when Madrid was a bustling company town. But nowadays the storefronts host art galleries, eateries, and shops stocked with handcrafted treasures.
Wander along Madrid's narrow side streets to discover colorful murals and whimsical sculpture gardens tucked behind the historic facades. Duck into the Engine House Theater to view an exhibit of paintings, ceramics, jewelry, and more created by local artists. Grab a bite at the Hollar Restaurant, which serves up delicious Southwestern fusion fare on its pleasant patio.
As you meander about town, you're sure to encounter friendly residents eager to share stories of Madrid's past and present. The small population of around 150 includes many creative types drawn by the tranquil setting and affordable cost of living. Madrid provides a nurturing environment where artists can find inspiration far from urban distractions.
While the town itself holds endless intrigue, the real magic lies in the landscape beyond its borders. Embark on a hike through the Cerrillos Hills State Park just north of Madrid. Follow trails leading past hoodoos, hoodoos, and other dazzling rock formations. The 5,000-acre park also harbors ancient petroglyphs and mine sites left over from Madrid's mining heyday.
Or head south of town through the dramatic golden canyons of the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site. This BLM recreation area allows visitors to view over 300 petroglyphs up close. Try to decipher the abstract symbols and images carved into the canyon walls centuries ago by Puebloan peoples.
What else is in this post?
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Ride the Rail Runner Express to Madrid
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Immerse Yourself in Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - See the City from Atalaya Mountain
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Explore the Santa Fe Farmer's Market
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Take a Pueblo Pottery Class
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Visit the International Folk Art Museum
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Enjoy Wide Open Spaces at Cerrillos Hills State Park
- Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Savor Santa Fe's Creative Cuisine
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Immerse Yourself in Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return
Just a short drive from downtown Santa Fe, you'll find a one-of-a-kind art experience that defies explanation. Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return is an immersive installation that visitors describe as mind-bending, psychedelic, and imaginative beyond belief. Once you step inside this former bowling alley turned alternate universe, you'll understand why the House of Eternal Return has achieved cult status among travelers seeking something truly unique.
The basic premise sounds simple enough - you're exploring a Victorian house that contains secret passages and portals to other worlds. But attempting to describe specific details about what you'll find inside does no justice to the experience. Meow Wolf's artists have crafted a multimedia exhibit blending animation, sculpture, painting, and more to construct a choose-your-own-adventure realm dripping with mystery.
As you wander through the house's various rooms and corridors, incredible sights await around every corner. Peer into the fireplace only to discover a bubbling neon vortex. Open the refrigerator door and get sucked into a jungle landscape. Ascend a staircase leading to an erupting volcano or a forest filled with glowing mushrooms. Meow Wolf mixes mediums and genres seamlessly, juxtaposing the fantastical with the banal in ways both delightful and disturbing.
While attempting to unlock the house's secrets, you'll encounter fragments of a strange fictional family's history. Their notes, diaries, belongings, and scientific experiments shape the fragments that the artists arranged in surreal configurations. No rules or directions exist to guide your journey - where you roam and what narrative threads you choose to follow depends entirely on your curiosity.
Many describe the House of Eternal Return as an adult playground, encouraging total immersion in the weirdness. Hidden crawl spaces reward those intrepid enough to explore every nook. Periodic live music performances and audience participation elements means you'll likely stumble upon delightful surprises. Visitors rave about emerging from the house feeling energized by the boundless creativity on display.
The collaborative nature of Meow Wolf sets it apart from more traditional exhibits - over 100 artists contributed their talents to evolving the ever-changing installation. Their collective world-building approach gives the House of Eternal Return an organic depth and coherence that a single vision could not achieve. It feels as if you're peeking into the inner psyches of a tribe of creatives unhindered by conventional limitations.
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - See the City from Atalaya Mountain
Perched upon the towering reddish cliffs on Santa Fe's eastern edge lies Atalaya Mountain, offering adventurous travelers sweeping panoramic vistas. Though just a 15-minute drive from the Plaza, the landscape here feels eons away from downtown's bustle. By embarking on the strenuous hike to the summit, you'll gain a fresh perspective on New Mexico's dramatic beauty.
The trail to the top of Atalaya Mountain begins from the picnic area within the Dale Ball Trail System. After crossing the arroyo, you'll immediately start ascending a series of switchbacks traversing the cliffside. As you climb higher, Santa Fe sprawls below with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains soaring behind it. From this bird's eye view, the adobe buildings appear like an architectural model of the city.
Continuing uphill through piñon and juniper brings you above the treeline. The exposed rocky path presents a challenge, but pressing on reaps great rewards. At the 7,820-foot summit, unobstructed 360-degree views make the demanding hike worthwhile. On clear days, your gaze can sweep from the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos to the Sandia Mountains rising east of Albuquerque.
To the south, the Cerrillos Hills and Ortiz Mountains frame Santa Fe. Watch hawks circling above the piñon-dotted foothills surrounding Madrid. Let your eye trace the route of the Santa Fe River flowing through the downtown area. Pick out landmarks like the Cross of the Martyrs, St. Francis Cathedral, and Museum Hill. But be sure to also soak in the craggy contours of Atalaya Mountain itself just below the summit.
Many hikers consider sunset or sunrise the optimal time to experience Atalaya's panoramic charms. As the shadows shift, the vistas take on mesmerizing colors and textures. Sunbeams rake over the cliffs, illuminating the varied strata. And the golden light casts the city of Santa Fe into sharper relief. Locals love ascending Atalaya Mountain after work to watch dusk dim the lights over town one by one.
Just below the summit, you'll spot the unmistakable landmark of the stainless-steel Atalaya Observatory built in 1932. This small dome structure housed a telescope used for meteorological studies by St. John's College professors. While the building now stands empty, it remains an iconic Santa Fe landmark visible from miles around. Make sure to pause and peek within its circular walls for a true taste of old Santa Fe.
The trek to Atalaya Mountain's summit and back takes around 3 hours to complete. Make sure to carry plenty of water and sun protection for this strenuous hike. While the incline proves challenging, even casual hikers can complete the trail by taking rests and pacing themselves. For an unforgettable Southwestern sight accessible right from downtown, ascending Atalaya Mountain offers an ideal adventure.
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Explore the Santa Fe Farmer's Market
Far removed from the touristy trinkets peddled downtown, the Saturday Santa Fe Farmers Market offers visitors a delicious taste of New Mexico's agricultural bounty. Arriving early is key to fully experiencing this beloved local tradition spanning six city blocks along the railyard district. Before the crowds descend, you'll have the chance to chat with vendors and watch as they unpack overflowing baskets of just-picked produce from their farms and gardens.
The intoxicating smells hit you first - roasting green chilies, fresh tortillas on the griddle, fragrant herbs bundled for sale. As you wander the market's 300 stands, your gaze will be drawn to vibrant displays of purple eggplant, golden squash blossoms, crimson radishes, and more. Sample juicy Palisade peaches, Silver City apples, and other fruits grown just down the road.
Beyond produce, the market tempts with hearty breakfast burritos, bubbling pots of posole, freshly baked empanadas, and creative street food. An entire section showcases New Mexico's beloved Hatch chilies roasted onsite, perfect for bringing home. You'll find artisanal jams, honey, and other pantry staples like blue cornmeal cultivated nearby. Handmade natural soaps, candles, and beauty products feature local ingredients.
Of course, the farmers market offers plenty to feast your eyes on as well. Photographers flock with cameras in hand to capture the cornucopia of colors and textures. Listen for the chatter of Spanish and Native languages reminding visitors of the state's deep roots. Both families shopping for their weekly groceries and tourists eager to taste authentic flavors pack the aisles.
By 9 am, live music starts streaming from the market stage, ranging from mariachi bands to solo guitarists. Hands-on cooking demos share tricks for whipping up New Mexican cuisine at home. Special events like watermelon and chile eating contests add to the festive morning atmosphere.
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Take a Pueblo Pottery Class
Among Santa Fe's many arts offerings, a Pueblo pottery class provides visitors with a hands-on connection to Native traditions. Several studios in town allow beginners to craft their own clay masterpiece under the guidance of experienced potters. Through the serene process of centering clay on the wheel, you'll gain insight into the spiritual roots of this ancient art form.
At Woo-Peen-Nay Pottery, instructor Dominique Toya patiently leads students through each step while explaining the significance behind Puebloan potting methods. Before touching the clay, you'll observe a smudging ceremony meant to purify your mind and spirit. Students then hand-knead the clay to infuse their energy before beginning to shape it on the wheels.
The spinning turntable initially proves challenging to newcomers, but Dominique emphasizes intuition over technique. "Allow your hands to become one with the clay," she urges. Once you find your rhythm centering the lump, it practically shapes itself into a graceful vessel. Guests marvel at how Dominique skillfully lifts thin-walled pots from the clay, caressing them into form between her adept fingers.
Glazing uses natural mineral and plant pigments like terracotta and ocher. Students gain insight into how Puebloan families gather and process these raw materials by hand during seasonal harvests. Firing the finished wares in an outdoor adobe kiln imparts subtle smoky flavors to unglazed sections. During several days of cooling, participants share meals with the Toya family and glimpse Pueblo home life.
At the end, you'll depart with your fired pottery infused with memories of days spent immersed in Santa Fe's living Native culture. Dominique's goal isn't perfection - it's connection. "We shape the clay from our heart and hands," she says. "Pots hold the spirit of their maker."
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Visit the International Folk Art Museum
Beyond Santa Fe's world-class art museums lies a genre often overlooked - folk art. At the Museum of International Folk Art, you'll discover the passion and ingenuity behind creative works born from community traditions rather than institutional settings. Wandering its galleries provides a reminder that art is not simply something to gaze at behind glass - it is integral to everyday life across the globe.
As soon as you enter the museum, you'll be enveloped by its centerpiece: the Girard Wing. This vast space displays over 10,000 folk art objects from six continents in a kaleidoscopic installation. Cases burst with dancers, dolls, masks, toys, textiles, and ritual objects placed in evocative configurations. It represents the life's work of Alexander and Susan Girard, avid collectors who traveled to more than 100 countries. Left in the state they designed, the exhibits exude a sense of wonder and discovery.
Beyond the Girard Wing, rotating special exhibits highlight different cultural themes and artistic mediums. A collection of whimsical Day of the Dead dioramas made by Mexican families reveals the holiday's blending of mourning and celebration. Nearly life-sized New Mexican santeros glow with the spiritual intensity of their hand-carved expressions. No matter the subject matter, folk art's intimate nature always shines through.
Don't miss the museum's hidden treasures - its courtyards and sculpture gardens. Shady outdoor nooks provide places for contemplation amidst the expansive interior exhibits. The neutral, adobe-style architecture harmonizes perfectly with the work of local artists sprinkled about the grounds. Delightful surprises include a "Tower of Found Objects" assembled from pieces scavenged from the surrounding landscape.
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Enjoy Wide Open Spaces at Cerrillos Hills State Park
Just a scenic 25-minute drive southwest of the Plaza delivers you to Cerrillos Hills State Park, where you’ll discover 5,000 acres of remarkably preserved Santa Fe wilderness to explore. From ridgetop trails overlooking the Galisteo Basin to desert washes winding through petroglyph-carved canyons, this park prized by locals packs plenty of peaceful pathways. Wander amid the rolling hills, admiring the vividly colored cliffs and diverse High Desert habitat. As you traverse Cerrillos Hills State Park’s far-reaching trail system on foot, bike, or horseback, prepare to be awed by the raw natural splendor so close to downtown.
For many Santa Fe residents, Cerrillos Hills State Park serves as their own private backyard playground practically right outside their doors. Locals flock here daily to hike and bike the park’s 50+ miles of multi-use trails that zigzag over the ridges and through the arroyos. Routes cater to every ability level, from gentle nature paths perfect for families to challenging climbs with tremendous payoffs at the vista points up top. Mountain bikers particularly praise the park’s promise of solitude and technical single-track options uncommon in state parks so close to civilization. With numerous intersecting trails to combine, you’ll never run out of new routes to piece together across the rumpled landscape.
While human-made trails entice visitors to explore, the natural trails blazed by desert wildlife also intrigue at Cerrillos Hills State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for jackrabbits, roadrunners, mule deer, red-tailed hawks, and other creatures traversing their ancestral corridors. This biodiverse park shelters an astonishingly diverse array of flora and fauna adapted to the rugged High Desert terrain. Pauses to spy a soaring hawk or flitting lizard will remind you this isn’t just scenery – it’s an intact ecosystem where wilderness persists alongside Santa Fe’s urbanism.
Escape the Plaza: 5 Offbeat Experiences to Discover the Real Santa Fe - Savor Santa Fe's Creative Cuisine
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