Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city — a metropolitan area of nearly one million people. Sometimes living in a city can feel suffocating. Sometimes you just want to escape into the wild.
Well, Albuquerque is the right place to start. Within an hour’s drive, you can access the wild: tens of thousands of acres of true wilderness.
What is Wilderness?
In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act for federal public lands. The law encompasses national parks, monuments, conservation areas, national forests, wild and scenic rivers, and Bureau of Land Management lands, once called lands nobody wanted — 235 million acres in all. They are commonly defined as “areas where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself remains a visitor who does not remain.” Of course, the same definition applies to women; it’s just antiquated language.
For the most part, motorized vehicles including bicycles and even strollers are not permitted in wilderness areas. You’ll find places where you can mountain bike farther down in this article. The best rule of thumb for enjoying wilderness hiking is “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
You’ll find plenty of hiking opportunities. In some places, rock climbing and backpacking are permitted. Be aware, most campsites are very primitive, and, with current drought conditions, campfires may be prohibited. Check with the forest service or park service for current conditions and restrictions.
Major Wilderness Areas
Within a short drive from Albuquerque, you can access four major wilderness areas.
Cibola National Forest Sandia Mountain Component
The Cibola National Forest covers more than 1.6 million acres of New Mexico and includes the Sandia Mountains. Despite the fact the Sandias tower above Albuquerque and trails of this wilderness area may be more heavily used than other of New Mexico’s trail systems, The Sandia Mountain Wilderness has 117 miles of well-maintained trails to provide you with opportunities to get out of town.
Among the more popular trails into the Sandia Mountains are the 5.5-mile Embudito Trail through a scenic canyon; Domingo Baca Trail, seven miles of moderately difficult hiking but with great views of the mountains and surrounding forest; Otero Canyon Trail, a moderate 4.5-mile hike with great views of the Manzano Mountains to the south; and the Capulin Snow Play Area with opportunity, as the name implies, to play in the snow during winter.
Manzano Mountains Wilderness
About 30 miles from Albuquerque is the Manzano Mountains Wilderness, covering more than 36,000 acres of mountains and alpine meadows. Sixty-four miles of developed, though often primitive, trails take you through forests of pine, maple, and oak. Reaching the heights is worth the effort, especially in fall when you can enjoy the peak color.
San Pedro Parks Wilderness
The San Pedro Parks Wilderness is northwest of Santa Fe. It covers more than 41,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains, with hiking trails through lush meadows, dense forests, and over mountain streams.
Carson National Forest Valle Vidal Unit
North of Santa Fe in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest. This remote and rugged wilderness area covers more than 100,000 acres of Northern New Mexico and has hiking trails with access to pristine mountain lakes, meadows, and forests.
These wilderness areas offer a more remote and challenging hiking experience, with opportunities for backpacking, camping, and wildlife viewing. There’s a chance to explore the natural beauty of Albuquerque’s surrounding lands and provide opportunities for wildlife viewing — namely elk, deer, and pronghorn, among others — birdwatching, and simply basking in the peaceful serenity of the forest. However, it’s important to note some of these trails can be quite strenuous and require a certain level of physical fitness and hiking experience.
Mountain bikers not forgotten
If you need the thrill of hurtling down a mountain on a bike, there are a few areas where you can fulfill your passion. The Caja del Rio Trail in the Santa Fe National Forest Wilderness is a challenging 9.5-mile ride through a scenic desert landscape. The 2.5-mile North Sandia Peak Trail in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness offers a steep, technical ride. And the 3-mile-long Apache Kid Trail in the Cibola National Forest Wilderness offers a moderate ride through a scenic forested area.
Safety first . . . Always
Know your limits. Some hiking and cycling trails can be strenuous to the extreme. You don’t need the embarrassment and expense of being rescued. Be mindful of your surroundings and the weather, which can change quickly and become dangerous. Always carry plenty of water. People dehydrate quickly in the high desert.
Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, used to serenade us with “Happy Trails.” That’s as good a sentiment to close on as any. So . . . wherever you choose to hike, happy trails.