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10 ways to celebrate New Mexico's piñon trees

The sweet, woody aroma of the piñon pine smells like home to many New Mexicans.

The sweet woody aroma of the piñon pine smells like home to many New Mexicans. In late fall and early winter, you might catch the wafts of burning wood or roasting piñon nuts, subtle cues to cozy in with loved ones. 

Families start collecting piñon nuts in August, unearthing them from cracked pinecones, selecting the darkest ones, and roasting them to release their buttery-earthy flavor.

“It brings families together, and it is a fun thing to do in the fall, especially, when the days are a little cooler and the New Mexico skies are just so beautiful,” says Janice Dunnahoo, an author, archivist, and historian from Roswell. “The weather is perfect that time of year, right after the first frost.”

Close-up of a piñon tree branch

Piñon nuts are harvested from cracked pinecones like this one. Photo by Cynthia Drake

Keep this fall tradition alive on a hike at Bandelier National Monument, Gila National Forest, or Santa Fe National Forest to do some foraging on your own. If you’re lucky, you might spot a beautiful blue pinyon jay flitting around the pines. Be sure to leave some behind for animal friends before heading out to enjoy the treasures encased in the boughs of these iconic trees.

If gathering nuts doesn’t sound like your thing, there are several ways you can still enjoy piñon season in New Mexico.

1. Coffee

Albuquerque-based New Mexico Piñon Coffee (starting at $11.49) is created with Arabica coffee beans and natural piñon flavoring (though piñon nuts were included in the original recipe, they aren’t used in the coffee nowadays). Fancy an iced latte? There’s even a signature piñon syrup you can add to make specialty coffees at home.

It’s a tradition to start the day at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October by pairing a hot cup of piñon coffee with a breakfast burrito.

You may also like: Albuquerque balloon festival celebrates 50 years

2. Lotion

Indigenous- and family-owned Bison Star Naturals in Taos includes piñon throughout its product line. Its Sage Pine Lotion (starting at $10) captures “a day in the piñon-covered New Mexican hills,” according to the company’s description.

3. Soap

Bar of piñon soap beside a vial of piñon essential oil

Los Poblanos in Albuquerque offers a piñon bar soap and essential oil.

Albuquerque-based Los Poblanos offers bath and body products infused with piñon, including a bar soap ($12) that combines piñon essential oils with fir, juniper, cypress, and nutmeg.

You may also like: 5 romantic hotels in Albuquerque

4. Incense/candle

They say that piñon wood burns faster and longer than other kinds of wood. Get the sensory experience of a toasty warm fire, minus the wood, any time of year by lighting piñon incense from Incense of the West ($4.49). The small bricks really do pack that signature scent.

A non-wood option is to light a Piñon Firewood Candle (from $12) from the Enchanted Sugar Store in Albuquerque or piñon candles by Taos Light Goods ($24), which you can purchase from Ojo Spa Resorts.

5. Facial

Soothe your spirits with the sweet earthy fragrance of piñon at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado Spa in Santa Fe. Its 80-minute Lavender Piñon Facial ($295) includes application of an amethyst face mask, along with a relaxing ground piñon hand and foot exfoliation. After your treatment, linger near the fireplace in the warming room with a cup of herbal tea.

You may also like: 3 beautiful New Mexico mountain towns

6. Gin

Bottle of Sigil Gin

Sigil Gin is created with 14 botanicals including piñon, juniper, and sage.

Sigil Gin ($36), from As Above, So Below Distillery, located in Santa Fe’s Railyard district, was created with 14 botanicals—chiefly piñon, juniper, and sage. One sniff will transport you to the craggy cliffs filled with pine trees and birdsong. “The idea is to bottle the scent of a hike in Northern New Mexico,” says co-founder and master distiller Caley Shoemaker. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

7. Pancake

Fancy a piñon pancake? Head to Santa Fe Culinaria to get the goods to whip up your own batch of Saturday Blue Corn Piñon Pancakes ($7.20 per package). This traditional recipe has been served at the historic Santa Fe La Fonda’s La Plazuela restaurant for years, frequently topped with fresh berries, cream, syrup, and a garnish of pine nuts.

You may also like: La Fonda, the beloved Santa Fe inn, celebrates its 100th year

8. Chocolate

Brownie studded with piñon nuts

Kakawa Chocolate House is based in Santa Fe and uses roasted piñons in its desserts.

If you prefer your piñon in chocolate form, there are several options. In Santa Fe, Kakawa Chocolate House makes piñon caramels topped with roasted piñons ($22.50). Or try the piñon tortugas from Señor Murphy Candymaker ($31.99).

A stack of chocolate bars studded with piñon nuts

The mango piñon chocolate bar from Eldora Craft Chocolates turns up the heat with a bit of spice and zest.

Albuquerque turns up the heat at Eldora Craft Chocolates with a spicy zesty mango piñon chocolate bar ($9.50). You can also nibble your way through a piñon and chile sampler from Chocolate Cartel ($39).

You may also like: Where to find New Mexico’s best hot chocolate

9. Soda

Sip on fizzy sweetness with a bottle of Piñon Cola from Zia Craft Sodas ($38.95 for a 12-pack). The beverage is made of actual kola and piñon nuts harvested from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A sweet, refreshing pine flavor comes through, with hints of vanilla and cinnamon.

You may also like: 7 New Mexico food halls you’ll want to visit

10. Culinary experiences

Culinary experiences that celebrate the humble piñon tree are plentiful. The menu at Indian Pueblo Kitchen, located inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, is one of the best.

Among some of the piñon-related dishes: griddle cakes, atole, and a roasted piñon triple berry salad. Elsewhere across the state, you might find piñon chip cookies, piñon caramel corn, and even piñon soup. 

Cynthia J. Drake is an Austin-based freelance writer who loves traveling solo and with her family throughout New Mexico. Her favorite cool weather activity is finding the spiciest mug of hot chocolate she can while breathing in the crisp, piñon-scented air. 

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