Trails of Albuquerque, New Mexico

Most visitors to the Albuquerque area of New Mexico associate the city with hot air ballooning. True, it’s considered the “hot air balloon capital of the world,” but what potential visitors may not know is that the city and its surrounding area are also full of other outstanding outdoor opportunities such as camping, hiking, bicycling, equestrian trails, fishing, wildlife viewing and bird-watching. The area’s mountain ranges — the Sandias and the Manzanos — and surrounding desert provide much of the outdoor possibilities, but there are protected areas within the city called Open Spaces that also offer easy-to-reach recreation.

The city of Albuquerque, bisected by the Rio Grande River, lies within the northern and upper edges of the Chihuahuan Desert. Ranging from 4,900 feet above sea level near the Rio Grande Valley to over 6,700 feet in the foothills of the Sandias, Albuquerque has one of the highest elevations of any major city in the United States. It sees an average of 310 days of sunshine, an annual rainfall amount of about 9 inches, and an average relative humidity of 44 percent. Visitors should drink lots of water and use adequate sun protection.


With its highest point of 10,678 feet at Sandia Crest, the Sandia Mountains are just east of Albuquerque. Mostly within the Cibola National Forest, part of the range is protected as the Sandia Mountain Wilderness, and a portion in the foothills belongs to the Albuquerque Open Spaces. The range is also home to the Sandia Peak Ski Area and Tramway.

The Manzano Mountains are a small range running north and south and are about 40 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 recreational opportunities, including a number of well-established hiking trails that total more than 150 miles. The most popular areas in the Sandias are near the tramway, the La Luz Trail; and in the winter, the ski area and Capulin Snowplay area are tops.

The Sandia Peak Tramway is the world’s longest aerial tramway, transporting passengers a distance of 2.7 miles to a point near the top of Sandia Peak. However, the tramway is not the only way to the top. The most popular way for hardcore hikers to climb Sandia Peak is to follow the La Luz Trail, a 7-mile trek up the west side of the mountain with about 3,700 feet of elevation gain. 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, with the southern end at Canyon Estates Trailhead. The most popular way to access the midpoint of this trail is to use the tramway, as there is a restaurant at the station on top with some nice short hikes and spectacular views from the observation deck.

The ski area with a chair lift and mountain bike routes are on the backside of the Sandia Mountains at the top of the tramway. The biking trails range from novice to more technical descents for advanced riders.

There are no established campgrounds in the Sandia Mountains, but camping in Cibola National Forest and the Sandia Mountain Wilderness is allowed. Fires, however, are prohib­ited. Camping in the Foothills Open Space is by permit only. Call 505/452-5200 to request a camping permit.

The Sandia Foothills Open Space is part of an initiative through the City of Albuquerque to acquire lands for public use. Currently, the Open Spaces are made up of more than 28,000 acres around Albuquerque, providing more opportunities for outdoor recreation. Another of the popular Open Spaces is within Albuquerque’s city limits; the Rio Grande Valley State Park contains 4,300 acres for low-impact recreation, such as hiking, bicycling, mountain biking, in-line skating and equestrian sports. Within the state park, the Paseo del Bosque is a natural surfaced trail of about 16 miles with myriad 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). Check the Albuquerque website (itsatrip.org) for a listing and locations.


South of Albuquerque, near the town of Socorro off Interstate 25, lies another noteworthy bosque. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge offers unique viewing opportunities from November to February.

During this time, wintering bald eagles, snow geese and sandhill cranes make this refuge a seasonal home. A 15-mile auto loop tour allows visitors the chance to see and photograph wildlife. Because 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. El Camino Real is the oldest and longest continuously used highway in the United States and Mexico, and it closely follows 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 1,500-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 (Spanish for “journey of the deadman”), 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 10 days (at eight to 10 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 trails.

Northward along El Camino Real (and I-25) is another small town worth visiting. Just outside the town of Tomé is the site of an annual Good Friday pilgrimage. Edwin Berry began fulfilling a promise he made during World War II, building three crosses on top of Tomé Hill. The half-mile climb up the 500-foot hill is steep, but worth it for the views of the Rio Grande Valley. In addition to the crosses, there are more than 1,800 petroglyphs (rock drawings) on the hill.

More rock art is located at the Petroglyph National Monument, which is just outside the Albuquerque city limits. The remains 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 takes visitors 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 and hiking trails. The Boca Negra is the most visited with well-marked trails.


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

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

North of the town of Jemez Springs lie Soda Dam, Battleship Rock, and Jemez Falls. 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 three-quarters of a 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. The Jemez Falls Campground is about one mile off Route 4. Jemez Falls, a spectacular 70-foot waterfall, can be reached after about a mile round-trip hike from the campground.

Fishing is a popular activity in the Jemez Mountains, and there are many small streams in the area that are loaded with rainbow and brown trout. 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 said to be another hot fishing spot as well as Fenton Lake.

Fenton Lake State Park is located off Route 4 on Highway 126. It covers 700 acres of land with a 37-acre lake that offers year-round fishing. Species are rainbow trout stocked from a local hatchery and German brown trout. Only small rowboats are allowed on the lake, and overnight camping is available at the park.

Fishing on the Valles Caldera National Preserve is just one of the many recreational opportunities offered on its unusual 89,000 acres. The caldera was formed from a volcanic eruption and the land collapsed around the volcanic rim. Depending on the time of year of the visit, travelers can expect to see varied wildlife such as elk, prairie dogs, coyote and black bear. In winter, cross-country skiing is popular. Visitors should call for reservations prior to visiting, but can be assured of fewer crowds and greater opportunities to experience solitude while fishing or wildlife watching. Check out the Valles Caldera website (vallescaldera.gov) for all the different activities available. Its visitor center is located in Jemez Springs along Route 4.

Two trailheads along Route 4 provide free hiking opportunities on the preserve. The Coyote Call trail is a three-mile round-trip hike and the Valle Grande trail is a two-mile round-trip hike. No reservations are required for these trails, but it is necessary to sign in and out at the visitor center.

The Jemez Mountain Scenic Byway continues along Route 4 to the city of Los Alamos and then to the Bandelier National Monument. The main attraction in this area is the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is where physicists created the world’s first atomic bomb. However, Los Alamos County also has more than 50 miles of pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian trails that connect to literally hundreds of miles of cross-country trails in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest.

A set of connecting trails 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 a bit more than a mile in length one-way to the Rio Grande below. The Santa Fe National Forest almost completely surrounds the town and offers many more recreation opportunities such as hiking and exploring its four-wheel-drive trails.

Bandelier National Monument, which features the remains of cliff houses from 13th-century Pueblo culture, is southwest of White Rock along Route 4. The main attraction of the monument is Frijoles Canyon, which contains a number of ancestral pueblo homes, kivas (ceremonial structures) and more petroglyphs. Some of the dwellings are 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 a mile long, mostly paved, and provides access to these dwellings. A good option for camping is Bandelier’s Juniper Campground, but check the park’s website (www.nps.gov/band) for conditions prior to visiting.

Bandelier is a great place to see some of the region’s ancient history, and it’s a perfect example of how — even though hot air ballooning is most often associated with the city — places such as Bandelier and the other trails around Albuquerque offer visitors many other forms of outdoor recreation including camping, biking, wildlife viewing and much more.

The area’s ecological diversity along with its rich history and beautiful landscape will make you want to come back for more, and maybe even stay a while.

For More Information

Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800/284-2282; itsatrip.org.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge: 575/835-1828; www.fws.gov/southwest.

Petroglyph National Monument: 505/899-0205 ext. 331; www.nps.gov/petr.

Sandia Peak Ski Company: 505/856-7325; sandiapeak.com.

Valles Caldera National Preserve: 866/382-5537; vallescaldera.gov.

Courtesy of Camping Life Magazine

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