Santa Fe: Uniquely Southwestern Without The Red Rocks

Adobe and Cross

The American Southwest is a very popular travel photography destination, typically for photos of red rocks and canyons. The most popular destinations include the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks, as well as Monument Valley. I’ve been to all of these places (except Monument Valley) and definitely want to go back for more. But there is much more to the Southwest than red rocks and canyons. There is history; there is culture; there is people – all wonderful subjects for travel photographers. For the best of these non-red rock aspects of the Southwest, there is perhaps no better destination than Santa Fe, New Mexico, and its surrounding regions. They are uniquely Southwestern but minus the red rocks.

Ristra and Window

Santa Fe’s history dates back to around 1100 when Puebloan Indians founded a village at the site. Later, in 1608, the “modern” Santa Fe was founded by the Spanish governor of New Mexico. Two years later it was made the capital of the Spanish province. It has been the capital of New Mexico ever since. The city is the third oldest surviving American city founded by European colonists. (However, there are even older communities in the region. Acoma Pueblo [124 miles from Santa Fe] and Taos Pueblo [72 miles from Santa Fe] were both established around 1000 and are the oldest continuously occupied communities in the United States.) Santa Fe has been part of three countries: Spain, Mexico, and the United States. (Some claim it was part of a fourth; the Republic of Texas also claimed Santa Fe when it seceded from Mexico, but Mexico didn’t play along and easily defeated a Texan force sent to Santa Fe.)

Much of this history is evident in modern Santa Fe and other nearby areas of the state, especially in Santa Fe’s historic district. Known as Old Santa Fe, the historic district is best seen by walking. There are organized walking tours available (some free) as well as self-guided directions available, but these really aren’t needed. Just get a map of the district and set off on your own.

Palace of the Governors

The center of the historic district is the historic Plaza, a tree-lined meeting place for Santa Feans and tourists alike. The north side of the Plaza is bordered by the Palace of the Gov-erners, which was built in 1610 and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Nearby is the photogenic Sena Plaza, originally a 30-room house sur-rounding a large courtyard built in the 1800s which today houses small shops and restau-rants, and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, also built in the 1800s. St. Francis Cathedral stands out in Santa Fe, not just for its size, but because it was built in the Rom-anesque Revival style that is striking different than its adobe neighbors.

A short distance down the Old Santa Fe Trail from the Plaza is the Loretta Chapel, another gothic church from the 1800s. Continuing down the road are more historic photo opportunities, including the “Oldest House”, built in 1646 and previously thought to be the oldest house in the United States; the San Miguel Mission, dating from 1610 and reportedly is the oldest church in United States; and the New Mexico State Capital, the only round state capital building in the United States (and relatively new for the historic district, being built in 1966).

Oldest Window

Santa Fe is a cultural haven. Reportedly, Santa Fe has more art galleries per capita than any other city in the United States. It seems chock full of museums as well. In the historic district there is the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, and New Mexico History Museum, among others. Not enough for you? Try Museum Hill.  A short distance from downtown, Museum Hill is home to museums dedicated to Spanish colonial art, Indian art and culture, international folk art, American Indians.

Speaking of culture, I shouldn’t neglect the food. New Mexican cuisine (wonderfully good in my opinion) is distinct from other places in the Southwest, such as Tex-Mex cuisine (which I could do without).  New Mexican cuisine has Native American, Spanish, and Mexican influences, stemming from the region’s long history. Central to New Mexican cuisine are the chile and blue corn. Chiles are so ubiquitous in the food, that the official state of New Mexico question is "Red or green?" For those not in the know, this refers to the kind and color of chile sauce (usually just called "chile") served with your meal. I prefer the green, but you can always ask for your chile as "Christmas” and get both!

Santa Fe is also a great place for taking pictures of people. The front portal of Palace of the Governors, described above, is reserved for Native American artists to sell their wares. They are there almost every day of the year and can make wonderful subjects (though you might want to ask before taking their photos). And the Plaza itself is a haven for people, both locals and tourists. During my most recent trip to Santa Fe, there was always something interesting going on in the Plaza. There are street musicians, artists of all sorts, and people just relaxing in the shade.

If you have several days there, you may also want to get out of Santa Fe proper and head north to Taos – a great photographic destination in its own right. If you do, try taking the High Road to Taos, a 56-mile scenic drive from Santa Fe to Taos. There is plenty of infor-mation available on the High Road (a Google search on “high road to Taos” returns more than 180,000 results). For photography purposes, however, I found Laurent Martes' excellent book on photographing Colorado and New Mexico, Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 - a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico, to be an excellent guide. While the book’s focus is natural subjects, the highlight of the High Road is adobe churches. There are a number of highly photogenic churches along this route, and many are described in Martes’ book. By traveling this road, you're bound to come up with at least one or two good images - there is always at least one church with good light upon it.


Once in Taos, be sure to visit the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark. The multi-storied adobe buildings of the Pueblo have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years, and it is easily one of the most photogenic travel photography spots in the American Southwest. Be warned though, strict rules govern photography at Taos Pueblo – many parts of the Pueblo are off limits and no photography is allowed inside the picturesque San Geronimo Church. Those wanting to photograph for commercial use will need to purchase a $150 license, which comes with limited reproduction rights and is good for one day. Shooting for personal use costs $6 per camera in addition to the $10 admission fee. Tripods are not allowed with the personal use license. Further, the Pueblo is generally only open to the public from 8:00 a.m. (8:30 on Sundays) to 4:00 p.m., making it difficult to capture golden-hour light. Even with these restrictions, this is not a place to miss.

Other great photographic spots a short drive from Santa Fe include: Bandelier National Monument (unique ancient Puebloan ruins), Abiquiu (former home of Georgia O’Keeffe and one of the few spots in the region where you can get a red rocks fix), and Pecos National Historic Park (which preserves Puebloan ruins, a historic Spanish mission, and Santa Fe Trail sites).

The American Southwest is a world-class photography destination famous for its red rocks, canyons, and National Parks. Santa Fe and the region surrounding it are often bypassed by most tourists doing the National Park circuit. But for the history buff, culture lover, foodie, or travel photographer, Santa Fe is its own world-class destination well worth a special visit.

See all thirty (30) images of Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Joe Becker in "Santa Fe Album".

About the Author

Joe Becker is a freelance photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. His work has recently been published by Northwest Travel magazine and Washington State Tourism. You can see more of his images at his website and on his blog joebeckerphoto.wordpress.

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