Predatory thrills

Dressed for an encounter with Hollywood royalty, Philippa Coates instead treks up a mountain on high alert for cougars.

WE WERE alone in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, at a trailhead on the edge of the Taos ski valley. It was October, the peaks surrounding us were a patchwork of gold and green - aspens on the turn mixed with forests of firs. In just a couple of months this scene would be transformed, snow-covered, the colour and foliage gone, and accessible only using snow shoes or cross-country skis.

But for now, in the fall, this picturesque setting was ours to savour, although the sky was acting a little temperamental; one moment dazzling blue then coming over grey and threatening. At 2850 metres, it was real mountain weather.

The sign at the trailhead said beware of cougars and bears.

To my children, what had been an underwhelming proposition only minutes earlier - a two-hour hike to an alpine lake - suddenly had the makings of a thrilling expedition.

"Why didn't you say there were going to be cougars?" they asked indignantly as I continued to read the sign aloud.

Rule No.1: "Stay together at all times" became "fan out in search of predators". Within seconds the boys had disappeared into the forest looking for very big sticks and cougars to use them against, and we had abandoned the rule list to chase after them.

The trail snaked fairly steeply through the spruce and aspens. The air was so crisp it almost hurt to inhale but at the same time it smelled sweet from the firs. This was nothing like an Australian bushwalk. The bird song was gentle, not like the crow calls of our high country. The canopy was so dense that our cries to the boys didn't echo; they just seemed to be absorbed into the wall of wood around us. It was like being inside a big theatre set.

Our hike would take us to 3400 metres, a climb of almost 550 vertical metres. Although the round trip to Williams Lake would be only 6.5 kilometres, it's surprising how much more tiring this distance is when done at altitude.

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The temperature was noticeably cooler as we ascended and light, sleety rain dusted down for a period. We were not really dressed for the thinner air and the possibility of a downpour; the hike had been suggested by a ski shop assistant in town and decided upon spontaneously. In fact, I was dressed for a chance encounter with Julia Roberts, having imagined our day trip to her hometown of Taos would involve strolling around the pretty plaza and its boutiques. Silly mother of three boys.

But the spirit of adventure was high and rest breaks were accompanied by commands between the children to watch each other's backs as they made daring sorties ahead. This behaviour was partly inspired by our visit to a

Wal-Mart store to test the myth about whether you could buy guns in Wal-Mart. You can.

In fact, there's an alarming range of guns and camouflage suits available in Albuquerque Wal-Mart, conveniently located just next to the toy aisles. Given that the turkey, elk and deer hunting season had just begun, the sales desk was doing quite a trade.

Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico and, aside from the impressive Sandia Peak Tramway and the annual international ballooning festival, it's usually the starting point for wider exploration of the "State of Discovery".

Pretty, historic Santa Fe is only 100 kilometres north and Taos is two hours further on if you take the scenic old highway. The landscape varies from stark mesas protruding from scrubby desert and precarious outcrops of Road Runner-style boulders, to lush valleys and fir-lined escarpments. Then there's the hairpin turns as you climb into the Sangre De Cristo mountains passing tiny townships and secluded Indian pueblos.

Like Santa Fe, Taos has an established art colony but it also has a strong adventure sport focus. The Rio Grande river which tumbles down from Colorado's Rocky Mountains is a playground for white-water rafters and trout anglers. Many operators offer half-day to week-long rafting and camping trips down the canyon for all abilities. Hot-air ballooning is popular, too, as is mountain-bike riding, llama treks and skiing.

Fortunately, our family of hikers found no cougars up on the mountains of Taos that day. After almost two hours we emerged from the forest on to the rocky rim of a giant meadowlands bowl with Williams Lake as its centrepiece spread like a giant sheet of glass before us.

We were euphoric: the kids for the opportunity to explore a mountain lake; the parents for simply reaching the top of a different world and a chance to sit down.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Los Angeles (13 13 13, qantas.com.au) with connections to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Southwest Airlines (southwest.com). From Albuquerque airport, where car hire is available, it's a one-hour drive to Santa Fe.

Staying there

For luxury, the adobe masterpiece Inn at Loretto (adjoining Loretto Chapel), innatloretto.com, or La Fonda on the Plaza, lafondasantafe.com. (If that's too pricey, be sure at least to enjoy a drink at La Fonda's rooftop bar at sunset.) Good-quality, great location three-star accommodation is Garretts Desert Inn, garrettsdesertinn.com.

More information

taosvacationguide.com; santafe.org; newmexico.org.

Hidden treasures, stunning buildings at Santa Fe

A historic, beautifully preserved town 2100 metres above sea level, Santa Fe was the base for our New Mexico adventure. Perhaps the best thing to come from a tummy bug that swept through the family was the open-sided trolley-bus tour we opted to take, not having the strength to walk the town's labyrinth of charming streets (Fiesta Tours, on the plaza, phone 505 204 9704).

The tour took us all around the interesting parts of Santa Fe, such as the winding Canyon Road, entirely dedicated to quaint galleries and sculpture gardens featuring local and international artists. Santa Fe's emphasis on respecting and preserving its Spanish/Indian heritage means all the architecture downtown and most on the outskirts is made from adobe bricks, or in the pueblo revival style.

The smooth, terracotta-coloured, curved buildings are stunning and like nothing you would see in Australia. The oldest public building in the US, the Palace of the Governors, occupies one side of the town's 400-year-old plaza and contains fascinating memorabilia, including "wanted dead or alive" posters from 1881 for outlaw Billy the Kid.

On Sundays, Native Americans come to town from their nearby pueblos. They sit along the porch of the Palace of the Governors, their beautiful handmade turquoise-inlaid silverware spread out on colourful rugs for tourists to admire and buy at keen prices.

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