Updated: Jul 7, 2021
March 8th, 2020
January had come and gone without our first hike of the decade. Busy schedules have kept Stacia and I off the trails at the start of 2020, so when a little time opened up in early February we snatched it up and decided to head to one of our favorite hiking spots within 30 minutes of Albuquerque.
Just northeast of Albuquerque is the town of Placitas, New Mexico. In Placitas you can access tons of criss-crossing trails that traverse both the Bernalillo Watershed Research Natural Area and the Cibola National Forest. Most of these trails remain on fairly flat terrain, which is one of the reasons I opt for this hike either when my joints are rusty or mildly sore. The Natural Area leads directly into the Cibola National Forest at the north and northwestern edge of the Sandia Mountains, so if you’re looking for a more challenging hike with some length and elevation gain, those options are available here too.
On this particular Sunday, we made it to the trailhead in the early afternoon. The small parking lot was crammed full with vehicles, most with an empty bike rack attached. We quickly unloaded the dogs and headed out onto the Fenceline Trail, aptly named.
After about a half-mile we re-routed onto a narrower trail in an attempt to avoid mountain bikers because my girl, the American Bulldog Texie, is often stubbornly unwilling to share the trail, and our boy, the mystery mutt Aspen, cowers when bikes approach. This narrow trail dead-ended in a dry arroyo, which provided a photo-op but meant we needed to either follow the arroyo until we hit another trail, or back-track.
Heading off-trail (other than following the sandy arroyo) is not an option, nor should it be, especially in desert environments. In desert environments there's a crust that forms over undisturbed ground. Biocrusts are an essential part of the environment. They contain cyanobacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that foster the growth of other plants by providing nutrients and keeping some water in the soil.
Biocrusts are a bit fluffy looking, giving “the soil a dark, pinnacled appearance, punctuated by brightly colored lichens and fuzzy bulbs of moss.” This crust is markedly different in appearance from the trail or the sand of an arroyo. Because of the presence of biocrust, it’s essential to follow Leave No Trace practices even in the desert where, upon first glance, it may not look like a step off the trail will disturb lifeforms. Instead, one step from a hiker’s boot “breaks the long cyanobacterial filaments into short ones, making the crusts vulnerable to wind and water erosion,” and disturbed biocrusts might take decades or longer to fully recover.
Back on Fenceline Trail, the four of us made good time weaving down and out of arroyos, around and through juniper trees, until we reached a straight, flat stretch running along a barbed-wire fence that gave the trail its namesake.
Here, on a clear day, the views are absolutely spectacular. To the northwest are several mesas, followed directly by the Jemez Mountains. Just south Cabezon peak--the most identifiable volcanic neck in the Rio Puerco Valley area--is visible approximately 50 miles away. Almost directly west stands Mount Taylor, the dormant stratovolcano that’s responsible for the lava flow at El Malpais National Monument.
Closer to the trail and directly south stand the Sandia Mountains. Looking east from Albuquerque, the Sandia’s show their jagged rocky face. But from the north, the mountains look slightly less abrupt as the juniper and pinion-covered foothills ease toward the crest and the crest itself can be seen sloping downward and eastward a bit less dramatically.
Since this was my first hike in over two months, Stacia had an eye on her watch and stopped when we hit the 1.5 mile mark. Being my voice of reason, and well aware of my pain levels after a hike, Stacia encouraged us to turn back. While my joint pain was minimal at mile 1.5, it’s very likely that my pain and stiffness will increase exponentially between mile 2 and 3.
But like my girl Texie, I can be stubborn. As much as I try to listen to my body with Ankylosing Spondylitis, it’s hard to fight the frustration of cutting a hike short and the desire to push forward. Pushing a hike an extra mile or two will most likely make my hip semi-immobile for the evening, if not the following day as well. Fitting in an extra mile or two might also cause my body so much stress that it triggers a disease flare-up, which brings on excessive full-body pain, inflammation, and fatigue.
I’m always thankful that my wife is my voice of reason! I’m also thankful for those moments on the trail when she can take both dog leashes and relieve my joints from the constant tug of excited pups.
On the way back my hip pain and stiffness appeared just after mile 2, as predicted. Despite increasing stiffness and pain, we made good time back to the parking lot to conclude our first hike of the decade.