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Walking the Sandia Mountain Wilderness

Updated: Jul 5

May 28th, 2020

Hiking uphill in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness trails

The current mandate to remain close to home has inspired Stacia and I to explore more trails closeby. We consider ourselves lucky that we can be on a trail in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness within minutes of leaving our house, though the wilderness is so large that some trail heads take longer to reach. The Sandia Mountain Wilderness encompasses 37,000+ acres of land and 117 miles of trails that stretch from I-40 in Albuquerque north into Placitas and covers much of the western slope of the Sandia Mountains and part of the eastern slope.


As Wilderness Connect emphasizes, and I can confirm, some of these trails get crowded, especially trails in the foothills area that are well suited for mountain bikes. But venture toward the northwestern end of the wilderness (access on Forest Service Road 333) for some beautiful, lightly-trafficked, hilly desert hiking trails that are mountain biker-free!


Stacia, Aspen and I spent several hours out on these trails one Saturday morning in April. Parking on one of the many small dirt lots on the side of the forest service road, our hike began with a moderate climb up to a ridge of one of the lower hills. From here, the trail splits off in four directions: south toward a hilltop that overlooks the city, north on a steep ascent to the peak of one of the taller hills in this section of trails, east back to the parking lot, or northwest downward to cross a narrow arroyo before opening back up to various other criss-crossing trails.


Juniper tree on hiking trail in the Albuquerque foothills

We walked down the trail that crossed the arroyo. This arroyo cuts through the rocky landscape leaving sharp granite walls with prickly pear cacti and juniper trees clinging opportunistically to small pockets of earth along the sides. Instead of hiking the trail across the arroyo straight away, we took a short detour to walk along the arroyo and explore what’s growing there.


Walking or hiking--what’s the difference really? For me, I use the word ‘hiking’ when we’re on a planned walk along a trail out in the wilderness and I use the word ‘walking’ when indoors or outdoors in a more urban environment. But there’s more to it than that. We walked along the arroyo instead of hiked because the walk was more leisurely as we slowed down to observe our surroundings.


Thinking about walking and hiking in true academic fashion, I logged onto the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and looked up the origin and etymology of the word ‘hike.’ Researching etymology is an activity for the nerd who has spent many years surrounded by other nerds reading about writing and language.


I can’t remember the word ‘hike’ being used in nature writing other than what’s contemporary or fairly recent. The OED says ‘to hike’ means to either “walk or march vigorously or laboriously” or to “walk for pleasure; to go for a long walk, or walking tour, spec. in the country.” The word begins to pop up and correspond with its current meaning (vigorous outdoor walk) in the early 1900s (1902, 1904).


Hiking trail views in Albuquerque, New Mexico

What does it matter what we name our outdoor adventures? Does it matter if my outdoor adventure is a walk or a hike? Maybe not, but maybe so. Maybe word choice denotes differences in perception. After all, some of the giants of nature writing spent time thinking and writing about the precise word they prefer to describe walking outdoors. Henry David Thoreau, for example, spends time detailing the origin of the verb ‘to saunter’ at the start of his essay ‘Walking,’ preferring it’s possible origin in a phrase used to describe a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (‘a la Sainte Terre’).


After exploring the arroyo, we continued on our hike up the trail. The trail we’re on curves up and over small hills with little shade but a random juniper tree here and there. Wildflowers are blooming at this time of year, leaving the trail speckled with bright yellows and oranges. April is too early for the cacti blooms around here.


yellow wildflower in Albuquerque

One goal of our hike is to get exercise, while enjoying the fresh air and beauty of our surroundings. Therefore, we do not pause often, but do take breaks to catch our breath or admire the view through the craggy canyon (and snap some pictures!). Another arroyo some hundreds of feet below us has cut through this portion of the hills and left a window looking west out to the cottonwood covered land along the Rio Grande and further west to Mount Taylor in the distance.


It seems John Muir wasn’t fond of the word ‘hike’ either, as Albert Palmer explains a lesson learned from Muir in his essay “A Parable of Sauntering”: there are always some people in the mountains who are known as ‘hikers.’ They rush over the trail at high speed and take great delight in being the first to reach camp and in covering the greatest number of miles in the least possible time.” But, Palmer says, Muir was always the last to reach camp and couldn’t understand the purpose of measuring “the trail in terms of speed and distance.”


As much as I like to track the stats of my hike on my Apple watch, I also don’t want to just measure the trail by the speed at which I made it from point A to point B. I honestly don’t think many hikers set out with that intent, but I can see how easy it is to focus more on pace than surroundings (I have been known to lead a few of these speedy hikes myself).


Looking south from the Sandia Mountain Wilderness
View south from a trail in Albuquerque

Change the name, change the perspective? I won’t use the word saunter, but maybe walking is more appropriate in the way Thoreau uses the word in terms of excursions outside of civilization.


Also, there’s more to be said about walking. This New Yorker article argues that walking has a way of organizing “the world around us” just as “writing organizes our thoughts.” In fact, recent studies cited show that the habit of walking consistently has numerous positive effects on the brain including increasing memory volume, stimulating new growth, and slowing the age-related decline of brain tissue.


I do find walking outdoors helps me develop new ideas, or old ideas for that matter. The work of writers that many of us outdoor enthusiasts look to--Thoreau, Emerson, Abbey, Muir and others--is testimonial evidence for today’s scientific studies about the benefits of walking, especially when considering creative benefits. Thoreau believes walking outdoors was essential to the works of many writers before him, recounting that “when a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”


Unfortunately, I don’t spend days on end outdoors as Thoreau, Muir, or even more contemporary outdoor adventurers do, nor is my writing as prolific or philosophical. My walks span several hours before jumping back in the car and heading home to rest. The scenery, the pictures we take, and the experience of exploring different trails does generate questions, inspire reflection, and lead to connections with topics outside of the realm of hiking.

A hiking trail in the Albuquerque foothills
A hiking trail in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness

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