Updated: Jul 7, 2021
January 15th, 2020
Albuquerque is a growing city, but in a way it still carries on the legacy left behind by the author and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. When Leopold served as the Secretary of Albuquerque’s Chamber of Commerce in 1918, the city boasted barely fifteen thousand residents, so you can imagine the small city engulfed by a high desert wilderness.
New Mexico itself in the early 1900s abounded in wilderness, with five different ecosystems displaying the state’s wide variations of geology and habitation. Leopold was closely connected to the state’s wild spaces through his work with the U.S. Forest Service. During his time in New Mexico, he worked hard to enact protections for wild spaces throughout the state, undoubtedly anticipating not only population growth, but also the need to protect these wild spaces and their inhabitants from outside forces. Leopold succeeded by being instrumental in making the Gila Wilderness the country’s first designated Wilderness Area, while also petitioning to protect the area surrounding the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, now the Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Albuquerque today contains 29,000 acres of Open Space within the city limits, and though the population inches closer to six hundred thousand people, there’s still a sense of those wild spaces both within the city and at close reach. In fact, NerdWallet recently ranked Albuquerque as the number one urban destination for nature lovers!
Though I certainly haven’t compared every city in the country, I have to agree that Albuquerque and the surrounding area has a wealth of choices for outdoor enthusiasts like me. To prove it, I’ve made a list of some of the area’s best hiking trails, most within a one-hour driving distance.
The below list is sorted by season, since some areas have little cover during hot summer months, while the high elevation of others areas make them less ideal for hiking in the winter months (especially for those of us with arthritis and joint pain). Please note my list is also geared toward those of us who cannot take on a 10-mile hike or a 6 thousand foot elevation gain, such as my fellow chronic illness warriors.
This national monument sits on the western edge of the city and many of the canyon entrances plug directly into a residential neighborhood. While there are several trails at the Petroglyphs National Monument, I chose Piedras Marcadas Canyon because it’s hiking trail is a decent length (1.5 miles round-trip) and it allows dogs. The monument itself is beautifully shaped by volcanic rock formations, where you’ll find hundreds of petroglyphs etched onto the black basalt that still look as if they just tumbled from the mesa-top.
One of the city’s many Open Spaces, the Placitas Open Space covers a large area of land at the northwestern foot of the Sandia Mountains. There are many intertwining trails here at the base of the mountain which makes it a popular space for mountain bikers. I love the Placitas Open Space because the area is fairly flat, but offers a beautiful silhouette of the mountain nearby as well as a scenic overlook of the mesas to the northwest.
There’s little rainfall in Albuquerque at any point of the year, and definitely not in the spring where wind is the main force of nature. Wind in the desert kicks up the sand and dirt, is unpleasant, and can even affect visibility. Temperatures can be unpredictable too, with late spring temperatures often getting up into the 80s. Even if you’re not checking the weather here for precipitation, it’s important to check for wind warnings and temperature fluctuations!
I have to admit that this is one of two areas on my list that I have yet to visit. Much of the city’s open spaces exist in the foothills area at the base of the Sandia Mountains. The Elena Gallegos Open Space is one of the larger parks with little change in elevation, encompassing 640 acres and sitting at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
This is a must! The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is about an hour’s drive almost directly north of Albuquerque. The monument’s draw are the unique rock formations -- tall “tapered hoodoos” formed from a volcanic eruption which deposited over 1,000 feet of “pumice, ash, and tuft.” The Canyon Trail will take you through a slot canyon and to the top of the rock formations for an elevation gain of 630 feet. The trail itself is a heavily-trafficked, 1.5 mile trek from trailhead to peak. If you decide to visit in mid-to-late Spring (or summer for that matter), be sure to bring plenty of water!
Even though, due to its elevation, Albuquerque is technically the ‘high desert’ - this is still a desert landscape that experiences some pretty extreme and dry weather. In the summer months the temperature consistently rises into the high 90s and often hits 100 degrees fahrenheit. That’s why, during the summer months, it’s important to either find trails with lots of cover (head for the mountains) or plan early morning hikes to avoid the scorching daytime sun.
This trail is about a twenty-minute drive east of Albuquerque heading toward the mountains. You’ll find Travertine Falls about 1.1 miles from the trailhead engulfed in a juniper scrub landscape, but don’t be fooled--this is still the desert so water won’t always be flowing here! Early or mid summer after a rainstorm may be your best chance of seeing some water trickling down the falls, but water or not this is a beautiful and shady hike! Oh, and for those of you wanting a more rigorous hike, this trail connects directly to the South Crest Trail, which then leads into a network of trails within the Cibola National Forest on the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains.
This is my go-to most of the year when the dogs and I need a dose of nature on a weekday evening. The Bosque Trails run along the Rio Grande as it weaves its way through the city. These trails run under the shade of the cottonwood trees, many of them leading to small sandy beaches along the river. My dog Texie normally leads the way to her favorite beach and plunges directly into the water! Be careful if you’re on these trails on hot days with dogs--there are a few sandy spots that may burn their paws.
Most years, I’d consider fall in Albuquerque the best season. Typically the temperatures begin to drop in late August or early September, and by October the mornings are cool but the afternoons still get up into the 60s and 70s. Perfect hiking weather, if you ask me!
I confess, I have not been to the Fourth of July Trail in the Manzano Mountains. Though this trail is actually closer to Albuquerque than Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument as the crow flies, there’s no easy way to get there. Even though it takes nearly an hour and a half to arrive at the trailhead, the drive scenically winds its way south from Tijeras through a hilly, pine-covered landscape until you finally get a view of the Manzano Mountains ahead. I’ve heard this trail is a top choice in the fall because of its reds, oranges and yellows--a suggestion of deciduous fall foliage. Of course, it won’t compete with a trip to Vermont in October, but for the Southwest it puts on a pretty good display!
By far one of my favorite places to visit, the Ojito Wilderness Area was made famous-ish by the late 20th century discovery (by hikers!) of a Seismosaurus skeleton, deemed the largest of the sauropod dinosaurs. More recently, a group of hikers discovered a jurassic crocodile skull while hiking in the Ojito Wilderness. This area covers a spectacular landscape of mesas and badlands with colorful hoodoos all around. I have trekked the Seismosaurus Trail that leads to the dig site, though there’s little there now but a large sandy area where the dig took place. Even with few man-made signs of the dig site, the trail still offers a beautiful mesa view and some petroglyphs just beyond the dig site! This is a true backcountry area with no marked trails, which makes it a great place to explore. Plan ahead for this trip, since there’s little cover and no facilities--you’ll need cooler weather and lots of water.
Narrowing this list down to eight recommendations wasn’t easy, but if anything that statement confirms NerdWallet’s assertion that Albuquerque is a unique destination for nature lovers and those seeking a variety of outdoor adventures. Really, New Mexico as a whole has an abundance of government-owned lands open for recreation, ranking 10th in states with the largest percentage of public lands, and 9th by total federally-owned acreage!