Albuquerque Outdoor Recreation

December 23, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The Trails of Albuquerque Lead to the Great Outdoors

          Most visitors to the Albuquerque area of New Mexico associate the city with hot air ballooning. True, it is the premier ballooning destination, but the city and its surrounding area is chocked full of outdoor opportunities in the way of hiking, bicycling, and equestrian trails, fishing and hunting, and wildlife and bird watching. The area mountain ranges, the Sandias and the Manzanos, provide much of the outdoor possibilities. But within the city itself, there are protected areas, called Open Spaces, that afford low impact recreation.

          The city of Albuquerque, which is bisected by the Rio Grande River, lies within the northern and upper edges of the Chihuahuan Desert. That means low humidity and little rainfall. As a matter of fact, on average there are 310 days of sunshine, an annual rainfall amount of about nine inches, and an average relative humidity of only 44%. As a precaution for visitors, that low humidity and much sunshine means they need to stay well hydrated by drinking lots of water and by using sun protection. The effects of the sun are somewhat intensified because of the city's altitude. Albuquerque has one of the highest elevations of any major city in the United States. The elevation of the city ranges from 4,900 feet above sea level near the Rio Grande Valley to over 6,700 feet in the foothills of the Sandias.

          The Sandia Mountains are a range located in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, just east of  Albuquerque. The range is mostly within the Cibola National Forest, and part of the range is protected as the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. A portion in the foothills belong to the Albuquerque Open Spaces. The range is home to the Sandia Peak Ski Area and Tramway. Its highest point is Sandia Crest at 10,678 feet. The word sandia means watermelon in Spanish, and is thought to reference the reddish color of the mountains at sunset. The Manzano Mountains are a small range running north and south and are about forty miles long. The center of the range lies about 25 miles southeast of Albuquerque, and the northern foothills (called the Manzanitas) are just a few miles east of the edge of the city.

          Most of the city's best biking and hiking areas are concentrated in and around the Sandia and Manzano foothills. The Sandia Mountains offer a wide range of hiking, biking, and other recreational opportunities, including more than sixty well-established hiking trails that total over 150 miles. Some of the more popular areas in the Sandias are the Tramway, the La Luz Trail, and in the winter, the ski area and Capulin Snowplay area.

          The Sandia Peak Tramway is the world’s longest aerial tramway and it transports passengers a distance of 2.7 miles near the top of Sandia Peak. The tramway is not the only way to the top. For hikers, the most popular way to climb Sandia Peak is to follow the La Luz Trail, a seven mile trek up the west side of the mountain with about 3700 feet of elevation gain. Oddly enough, the trail has a lot of traffic, particularly on weekends and holidays. The Sandia Crest Trail traverses the entire range of the Sandia Mountains. The northern end of the trail is located at the Tunnel Springs Trailhead and the southern end is at Canyon Estates Trailhead. Hikers can purchase one-way tickets if they decide to hike up and ride the tram back down. There is also a restaurant and gift shop at the tramway station with some nice short hikes and spectacular views from the top of the tram area at the observation deck.

          The ski area with chair lift and mountain bike routes are on the backside of the Sandia Mountains from the Tramway. The biking trails range from novice to more technical ascents for advanced riders. Begin at the base of the ski area, and loop up and back down. Or, take the chairlift to the top, and choose one of several trails back to the base. There are no established campgrounds in the Sandia Mountains, but camping in Cibola National Forest and the Sandia Mountain Wilderness is allowed. Only fires are prohibited. Camping in the Foothills Open Space is by permit only.

          The Sandia Foothills Open Space is part of an initiative by the City of Albuquerque to acquire lands for public use. Currently, the Open Spaces comprise over 28,000 acres in and around Albuquerque, and provide more opportunities for outdoor recreation. Another of the most popular Open Spaces is within the city limits of Albuquerque. The Rio Grande Valley State Park contains 4300 acres for low-impact recreation, such as hiking, bicycling, mountain biking, in-line skating, and horseback riding. Within the state park, the Paseo del Bosque is a natural surfaced trail of approximately sixteen miles with a myriad of unmarked trails winding throughout the bosque (a bosque is an area of forest found along the  flood plains of streams and river banks and gets its name from the Spanish word for woodlands). The Rio Grande State Park offers an environment of large cottonwood trees and coyote willow, which provide a cool, shady forest for habitat for beaver, numerous bird species, turtles, and snakes. There are several other sections belonging to the Open Spaces, some of which will be described. Check the Albuquerque website for a listing and location.

          South of Albuquerque near the town of Socorro off Interstate 25, another "bosque" is noteworthy. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge offers unique viewing opportunities during the winter months from November to February. During this time wintering bald eagles, snow geese, and sandhill cranes make this refuge a seasonal home. There is a fifteen-mile auto loop tour allowing visitors the chance to see and photograph wildlife. Since the birds are accustomed to vehicles, it offers a good opportunity to observe wildlife more closely.

          Several "trails" from Albuquerque offer visitors a variety of tastes of the culture and countryside. A couple have excellent associated outdoor recreation. El Camino Real is the oldest and longest continuously used "highway" in the U.S. and Mexico and it closely follows the modern-day Interstates 10 and 25 from El Paso, Texas, to Santa Fe. Near Socorro is the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, a good place to learn about El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road to the Interior. The Heritage Center gives an overview of the 1500 mile historical route from Mexico City to Santa Fe. It is located in a very appropriate place because the Center overlooks the dry stretch of desert known as the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), the lower Rio Grande, and a portion of El Camino Real. The Jornada del Muerto was the most dreaded stretch of the journey because it took nine to ten days (at eight to ten miles per day) to cover that portion. It was a "shortcut" to avoid a bend in the Rio Grande.

          At the Heritage Center there are short trails to see the native plant life and longer trails, developed by the Bureau of Land Management, to allow visitors to enjoy the remote, pristine desert on either foot or horseback. If visitors want to take the longer trails, they should stop at the Visitors Center for the current conditions, and always notify Center personnel before departing on the BLM trails.

          North along El Camino Real (and I-25) is another small town worth visiting -- Tome'. In March 1947, Edwin Berry began fulfilling a promise he made during World War II. He built three crosses on top of Tome' Hill, just outside of town. The one-half mile climb up the hill is steep, but definitely worth the effort for the views from the top. Tome' Hill rises 500 feet above the Rio Grande Valley, which is one landmark viewable from the top. Besides the crosses, there are over 1,800 petroglyphs (rock drawings) documented. The oldest petroglyphs are believed to be about 2,000 years old. Many are of the animals that are still in the area today, such as the coyote.

          More petroglyphs are located at the Petroglyph National Monument, which is just outside the Albuquerque city limits. The core of five volcanoes are visible along the horizon. According to geologists, these "extinct" volcanoes produced dark gray basalt upon which the petroglyphs are carved. A moderate hike will take a visitor near some of these volcanic cores. More strenuous hikes are required to reach the top.

          The national monument is composed of three sections -- Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and Piedras Marcadas Canyon (another Open Spaces area of Albuquerque). All three have petroglyphs. All have hiking trails. The Boca Negra is the most visited and has three well marked trails.

          Another "trail" in the Albuquerque area with many possibilities for outdoor recreation is the Jemez Mountain Scenic Byway. It is north of the city and begins at San Ysidro, a small town at the junction of US 550 and State Route 4. The Pueblo of Jemez, an Indian village, is five miles north of San Ysidro and is located in the Red Rocks area. There is a hiking trail from the Walatowa Visitor Center through the Red Rocks. Information is available at the visitor center on the Jemez Pueblo, which is open to public only on feast days a couple times a year.

          Farther north on Forest Road 485 the Gilman Tunnels border the rock walls along the Guadalupe River. Pullouts allow visitors views of the scenic area. The tunnels were products of the 1920s, when logging trains needed access to the timberlands.

          North of the town of Jemez Springs, are the Jemez State Monument, Soda Dam, Battleship Rock, and Jemez Falls. Jemez State Monument is the location of remains of an ancient pueblo of the Jemez Indians and a 17th century Spanish mission called San Jose de los Jemez.

          Soda Dam, a natural dam in the Jemez River formed by water flowing from underground hot springs, is a unique geologic formation. It is located 3/4 mile north of Jemez Springs. A 200-foot tall rock formation called Battleship Rock has a picnic area and trails along the base of the formation and along the Jemez River. Hiking to the top of Battleship Rock is not permitted. The elevation at the picnic area is 6760 feet.

          Jemez Falls, a large 70 foot waterfall at an elevation of 7880 feet. The Jemez Falls Campground is about one mile off SR 4. A parking area at the campsites allows for about a mile roundtrip hike to the waterfall.  

          Fly fishing is a popular activity in the Jemez Mountains. There are many small streams in the Jemez area that are loaded with rainbow and brown trout. Many remote areas of the Jemez River see very little fishing action so there is plenty of opportunity to avoid the crowds. According to local fishermen, the main stretch of the Jemez River is a good place to start, particularly above the town of Jemez Springs. The Guadalupe River is another good area to test fishing skills. One of the most popular areas to fish in the Jemez Mountains is Fenton Lake.

          The Jemez Mountain Scenic Byway continues to the city of Los Alamos and then to the Bandelier National Monument. The city of Los Alamos' main attraction is the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where physicists created the world's first atomic bomb during World War II. Los Alamos County has over fifty miles of pedestrian, bicycle, and equestrian trails that connect to hundreds of miles of cross-country trails in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest. There are a set of connecting trails that lead into White Rock Canyon from several points around the nearby town of White Rock. They are known as the Red Dot and Blue Dot trails. White Rock is just southeast of Los Alamos and has an amazing overlook into White Rock Canyon and the Rio Grande. Getting to the overlook is by way of Overlook Road, which is on the east side of town. The steep Blue Dot Trail starts about 100 yards from the overlook observation platform and is just over one mile in length one way to the Rio Grande below.

          Bandelier National Monument, which has remains of cliff houses from 13th century Pueblo Indians is southwest of White Rock along SR 4. The main attraction of the monument is Frijoles Canyon, which contains a number of ancestral pueblo homes, kivas, which are ceremonial structures, and more petroglyphs. Some of the dwellings were rock structures built on the canyon floor and others were produced by carving into the canyon walls. The "Main Loop Trail" from the visitor center is one mile long, is mostly paved, and provides access to these dwellings. A good option for camping is Bandelier's Juniper Campground. But check the park's website for closings prior to visiting.

          The "trails" around Albuquerque offer visitors many forms of outdoor recreation, with the surrounding mountains providing the most. Among all the cacti and lovely plants, there are rattlesnakes, so beware. Remember the sunscreen and have lots of water available.

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      Thanks for visiting.


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