The Gila National Forest offers epic night skies and lush forests a summer adventure. Photograph by Jay Hemphill. 

FOR MANY, SUMMER MEANS road trips, lazy days by the water, nights under the stars. Festivals, ice cream, baseball. With longer days and more time off, summer delivers the freedom to explore, try something new, and leave that to-do list behind. 

As a kid, that meant throwing a PB&J, some jerky, and a bottle of water into your backpack, getting on your bike, and heading out to wherever. The playground, the bosque, the river. You’d return when you got hungry or when it got too dark to see—a “free-range existence,” as Santa Fe author and anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva calls it in this month’s Originals interview.

After a stay-at-home summer (okay, year) filled with cancellations, isolation, and heartbreak, it’s tempting to want to pack everything we’ve missed into the next few months. Sled the White Sands National Park dunes. Hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak. Ooh and aah at the Fourth of July fireworks at Elephant Butte Reservoir. Step back into history in Chaco Canyon. Explore the caves in Carlsbad. Camp under the dark skies at Clayton Lake State Park. Wander the booths at the Santa Fe Indian Market. Wet a line in the San Juan River. Share drinks on La Fonda’s rooftop. Catch a sunset over the Organ Mountains. Soak in the Truth or Consequences hot springs. They’re the kind of bucket-list moments New Mexico so readily provides. 

For this month’s Essential Elements of Summer cover story, we take a step back to appreciate what makes those moments possible—our unique landscape, fresh air, and thrilling waterways—with essays that get at the essence of those experiences as well as a few ideas to reconnect with the earth, sky, and water.  

As Elizabeth Miller writes in her story of hiking the Gila National Forest, “In summer, when we can eat in, drink from, and sleep out on the land, be governed by its light and dark hours, be shaped and directed by the water and wind just as the earth around us has been, we begin to feel our way into a place in that wider ecosystem.”

So I’m keeping my summer list pretty short. I’d love to be in the stands and enjoy a hot dog at an Albuquerque Isotopes game this season (maybe on Dukes Retro Night, August 7). I also can’t wait to see where the wind—and the summer—takes me.

Read More: Park Ranger Brenna Rodriguez offers a few tips to conquer the gypsum.

Read More: For Ancestral Puebloans, Chaco Canyon was the center of the world.

Read More: Step into a kayak, canoe, or raft. Get hypnotized.