Beautiful asters soak up the sun. Flowers, plants, and water make the preserve a perfect place to enjoy nature. Photograph by Alan Eckert.

ON MORNINGS WHEN TERRY SULLIVAN LEADS HIKES at the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, he pauses on a particular rise and asks his guests to shhh, listen, and watch. “First you hear this enormous serenade of northern leopard frogs,” he says. “It echoes off the hillsides. And then you walk down into a little area where you first see signs of beaver dams.”

Over the past 21 years, the Nature Conservancy has turned this 525-acre pocket off Upper Canyon Road into an ecological success story. Site of Santa Fe’s Victorian-era dams for drinking water and irrigation, it had devolved into a mudflat after newer reservoirs were built farther up the Santa Fe River. Enter the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that oversees properties all over the world, including a handful in New Mexico. 

Volunteers and staff like Sullivan, the conservancy’s state director, began planting cottonwoods and river willows. “The whole ecosystem came back,” he says, although they can’t explain exactly why. “It just exploded.” 

Terry Sullivan takes outdoor enthusiasts on a hike in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, New Mexico Magazine
Nature Conservancy State Director Terry Sullivan takes outdoor enthusiasts on a hike in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. Photograph by Jackie Hall.

Nestled two miles from the busy Santa Fe Plaza, the preserve includes a gentle 1.5-mile trail that loops through the wetland, beneath shady trees, past the 1881 Old Stone Dam, and over the 1893 Two-Mile Dam. Views extend up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and are especially glorious, Sullivan says, when autumn illuminates the leaves. 

More than 30,000 people a year visit the preserve—a phenomenon, given the site’s anonymity among many residents. The conservancy plans to attract even more by making trails that accommodate wheelchairs, adding bilingual signage, and improving the packed parking lot. 

The trail intersects the city’s vast Dale Ball trail system, so you can extend your mileage, but take note: Dogs aren’t welcome in the preserve, as they might disturb the beavers. To see that critter, Sullivan recommends coming in the morning or evening, late April to late September. Park yourself on a bench along the upper portion of the trail, then shhh, listen, and watch.

A hooded warbler sits on a tree limb at the preserve, New Mexico Magazine
A hooded warbler sits on a tree limb at the preserve. This small bird is an active insect eater and loves the forest. Photograph by Bernard Foy.

Story Sidebar

The Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, at the intersection of Upper Canyon Road and Cerro Gordo Road, is open from dawn to dusk. Park only in the lot, not on the streets. The Nature Conservancy will resume guided hikes when it’s safe to do so.

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