The granddaddy of Albuquerque hiking trails is the very scenic yet demanding La Luz Trail that climbs from the Juan Tabo Picnic Area up the west face of the Sandia Mountains to the Sandia Crest. Its base is at a low elevation with little shade, and as the trail basically faces the afternoon sun, it can be dangerously hot in summer. Get an early start on this one!
If you make the crest, you will have toiled up 3,060 vertical feet and covered 7.5 miles. So, either plan to only go up halfway, take the Sandia Peak Tram back down as described below, or be in super-human condition for the full 15-mile round-trip.
How Long Will It Take to Hike La Luz Trail?
If you’re planning to do the round-trip hike, depending on your fitness level, count on four to six hours for the hike up, plus another two hours or more to get back down. Be aware of the time for sunset and make sure you have time to be off the trail before dark.
Another option is to take a spur trail near the summit for 30 minutes or so to reach the top terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram and ride it down, making it a far easier — yet still very strenuous — outing. This works best if you can park a second car at the tram base, so you don’t have to walk two miles back to the trailhead.
What to See on La Luz Trail
Since you’re starting near the Juan Tabo Picnic Area, as you get ready to hike, take a moment to look around. This picnic area was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed young men during the Great Depression to develop a wide range of projects like this. Here you’ll find buildings and tables made of stone and tucked into the environment.
The La Luz Trail climbs through five life zones past granite spires to the limestone rim and is a truly memorable ascent, offering spectacular views of Albuquerque and beyond.
In addition, you can enjoy the wildflowers and watch for birds. Birds spotted on the lower part of the trail include hummingbirds, wrens, woodpeckers, warblers, swallows, and sparrows, plus our state bird, the greater roadrunner. The Sandia Crest offers opportunities for even more birds, like nuthatches, bluebirds, crossbills, and hawks, depending on the season you hike.
This hike may be a good training exercise for an Albuquerque backpacking trip because once you’ve accomplished this hike, you’ll feel like you’re ready to take on anything! Since there’s no camping allowed on this route, you can’t turn this into a backpacking adventure. In addition, while there’s plenty of great cycling in the area, this trail is not open for mountain bikes.
Timing is everything!
Hiking this trail in late spring, summer, and early fall is best. In the winter and early spring of 2023 alone, there were several rescues performed on this trail. Check the weather, be prepared for forecasted conditions, and consider postponing your hike if a storm is brewing. During summer’s monsoon season, afternoon thunderstorms can pop up unexpectedly, so be ready for foul weather.
Be Prepared to Hike La Luz Trail
This trail is not for the out-of-shape or the faint-hearted. Do some easier hikes at a similar elevation before tackling this challenge. Keep in mind that this hike starts at an elevation of 7,000 feet before you even begin climbing that additional 3,060 feet. Watch for signs of altitude sickness, like being lightheaded or dizzy. Drinking plenty of water can help prevent this, but if it continues, it’s best to head back downhill.
What to Bring on Your Hike
• Staying hydrated is essential, so bring plenty of water. More is better than not enough! The National Park Service recommends drinking an average of one liter per hour of hiking. One experienced hiker commenting about the trail said he hiked it in October on a 60–70-degree day and used 2.5 liters one way, which he was able to refill at the tram visitor center (check to see if it will be open when you hike).
• Bring high-calorie and nutrient-rich snacks to keep you going. Trail mix with nuts, raisins, and chocolate is the classic, as are energy bars, jerky, and other eat-as-you-go foods.
• Be sure to pack a first aid kit with supplies for cuts, scratches, and blisters.
• Sun protection is essential; take hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
• Dress in layers so you can adapt to the weather.
• Consider hiking poles any time of year, and if you’re braving the trail in winter, you may need crampons or cleats.
• Bring along a map to help keep yourself and your group on the right track. The trail is well-marked, but if there is snow, the trail may be obscured.
• Emergency supplies such as a whistle, a flashlight if you get caught out after dark, and an emergency blanket may save the day.
• Bring along some cash. If you’re parking at the trailhead, there is a $3 self-service pay station at the parking lot.
The La Luz Trailhead
Your adventure begins at the parking lot adjacent to the Juan Tabo Picnic Area. You’ll climb a series of switchbacks with an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet to the junction of the Crest Spur Trail. This trail continues up a steep half-mile section to the crest itself, home to dozens of huge radio and TV antennas. Here you could arrange for someone to drive you down and back to your car. Or you can hike an additional 1.6 miles southeast along the crest rim to the upper terminal of the Sandia Peak Tramway, and take the tram down to its base, getting a birds-eye look at the challenge you just conquered.
The U.S. Forest Service’s map of the Sandia Mountain Trails can be viewed here.