Shaded Trails for Summer in the High Desert - Hikes Around Albuquerque
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
July 16th, 2020
If you live in the American Southwest, I don’t have to tell you how HOT summers can get. Even in the high-elevation desert around Albuquerque, it’s not wise to be hiking out in an open, unshaded area during the summer months unless you’re hiking at night. The Albuquerque area sees an average of 310 days of sunshine a year, mix that in with low humidity and the intensity of the summer sun, and you have a recipe for dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Despite my Portuguese blood (I tan quickly and have only sunburned after long days out on the ocean with no sunscreen), the summer sun around Albuquerque wears me down pretty quickly. My wife Stacia’s light complexion is especially not well-suited for summer in the high desert climate, and my seven-year-old American Bulldog Texie is partial to temperatures below 60 degrees. That means, to continue hiking during the summer in New Mexico, we seek out forested mountain trails.
Here are some quality, mostly-shaded trails, rated within the easy to moderate range, within 60 miles of Albuquerque:
1. South Piedra Lisa Trail
The closest trail on my list, South Piedra Lisa Trail is located in the far northeastern corner of Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains. From a crowded dirt parking lot, this well-trafficked trail heads north at a slow incline, offering spectacular views of the Sandia Mountain range as it descends south in ever lighter shades of blue, before gaining elevation quicker about a mile and a half in. This trail gains about 1,300 feet in elevation in 4 ½ miles and leads to the top of a mountain ridge. There, hikers have the option to continue on Piedra Lisa and descend the north side of the ridge toward Placitas. Stacia and I have hiked this trail several times, though with the limitations I face due to my Ankylosing Spondylitis, we’ve only managed to explore the first two miles of the trail.
2. East Fork Trail
Following the closest, The East Fork Trail is the furthest from Albuquerque on my list, but by far my favorite! The East Fork Trail trailhead is located along NM 4 not far from Jemez Springs and just south Valle Caldera National Preserve. The trail begins by weaving through a forest of tall pines and is cushioned by a layer of auburn pine needles. There’s an intersection at about the 2-mile mark with the option to continue straight on the East Fork Trail or head left down some switchbacks and a set of wooden stairs to a river. The detour left runs about a ½ mile but is well worth it since the trail leads to a sandy beach along the East Fork Jemez River at almost the exact point the river exits an incredible box canyon of Bandelier Tuff--“a thick ash flow unit that covers almost all of the earlier volcanic rock” in the area. My advice: take the trail down to the river (and bring your sandals)! There is an easier way to get to the box canyon by following the river directly from NM 4, but that route is not shaded.
3. Otero Canyon Trail
I’ve been seeing lots of trail courtesy signs posted around trailheads in the National Forests lately. On typical trail courtesy signs, mountain bikers yield to hikers and everyone yields to equestrians. If you’ve ever been on a trail that’s popular with mountain bikers, these rules of who yields to whom are hardly followed (partially because of the practicality of it). This is a long-winded way of saying that, though Otero Canyon Trail is shaded and a fairly flat, easy trail, hikers beware: this is a popular trail for mountain-bikers. Be that as it may, Otero Canyon, located in the Tijeras section of the Cibola National Forest, is a 20-30 minute drive from most areas of Albuquerque and is an excellent summer trail for those days when you’re looking for something a little less challenging.
4. Travertine Falls / South Crest Trail
What! A waterfall that’s 15 minutes from eastern Albuquerque? Well, not really. Travertine Falls may produce a steady trickle of water in the spring, but don’t expect to see much water by the time summer rolls around. The Travertine Falls/South Crest trailhead is located in the village of Tijeras, not far from the Interstate 40 exit. The trail itself is a strong moderate for difficulty, and begins gaining elevation right off the bat. The ‘waterfall’ itself is barely ½ mile up from the trailhead, which may partially explain why this trail is well-trafficked (as evidenced by a considerable amount of litter scattered along this first short stretch). Don’t be discouraged, though. Continue past Travertine Falls up South Crest Trail to reach the southern edge of the Sandia Mountain Wilderness trail system, which offers several trail options and considerably less traffic.
One of my favorite aspects of life in New Mexico is the abundance of wild landscapes and outdoor adventures right at my doorstep, basically. Even in New Mexico’s largest and most populous city, access to exceptional mountain trails are only a short drive away!