Last October (2010) my wife Irene and I drove with our two dogs to Albuquerque, New Mexico from our home in Fairfield, Iowa, to visit Irene’s sister and brother in law.
I had two desires while there (in addition to the visit itself). One was to interview a couple of people for a show I do and the other was to take the tram to the top of Sandia Peak and then hike down. I fulfilled them both. Fulfilling the first necessitated lots of emailing, which earned me accusations of “nerding out” too much. But fulfilling the second possibly helped to counteract that image. (My wife added the word “possibly” when she read a draft of this post.)
My brother-in-law David walks his dogs every morning accompanied by nine year old neighbor and friend, Naakii. She is a lovely, bright Native American girl who absolutely adores dogs!
Naakii in Navajo clothing
David and I (both in our early 60’s) thought it would be more fun if Naakii were to join us on the Sandia Peak hike, since she loves to hike and since her enthusiasm and energy would help to spur us on. Unbeknownst to her, (in case they declined) we asked her parents’ permission first, and they consented. We considered taking the dogs along too but decided it created too many complications, one of which is that dogs aren’t allowed on the tram.
The three of us packed enough food for several hikes (including a supply of “Power Berries” which you should buy immediately at Trader Joe’s if your mouth waters at the sound of “dark chocolate covered centers of real fruit juice pieces made from acai, pomegranate, cranberry and blueberry”) and headed out at a respectable hour to catch the tram up the mountain.
You can drive to the summit (or near to it) in about 45 minutes by going around to the eastern side of the mountain on I-40, State Highway 14, and local roads, but the tram was more scenic and fun.
The Sandia Peak Tramway is the world’s longest, starting 6,559 feet (1,999 m) and traversing 2.7 miles to the 10,378 foot summit.
The day started out cloudy and the weather station at the base of the tram said the temperature at the summit was 25F, but we weren’t deterred. We hopped aboard, along with a group of tourists who evidently had no intention of hiking down, and began the ascent.
The tram has just two support towers and the span between the second tower and the top terminal is the third longest clear tramway span in the world, at a length of 7,720 feet (2,353 m).
It’s amazing how strong steel is. Mid-span, the cables are 900 ft. (274 m) above the mountainside. At this point, our tram operator cheerfully informed us that were we to fall out, it would take us eight seconds to hit the ground. The tram car is designed to make that impossible, but if we were somehow to have managed it, we would have joined remnants of the wreckage of TWA Flight 260, which crashed here on February 19, 1955.
Before we could spot any bits of wreckage, we were in the clouds. At first we could see nothing, but soon we saw nearby cliffs and trees, mostly quaking aspen and pine at an elevation referred to as the “Canadian Zone”, and then we were at the terminal.
There’s a ski area at the top (which wasn’t open for the season yet) and about 26 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Had it been a clear day, we would have had an 11,000 square-mile panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley.
Instead, we used the rest rooms, looked at photos of the tram being built (it entered service in 1966), and hit the trail.
“La Luz” trail (“The Light” in Spanish) starts right at the tram station and descends about 8 miles to a trail head, and if you hike another mile or so, as we did, to the tram parking lot.
As predicted, it was cold up there, but the trail hugs the mountainside, so it was fairly windless. But our fingers didn’t warm up until we had been hiking a while. The trees were encrusted with ice, which fell and blanketed the trail with crunchy bits, but the going wasn’t difficult or dangerous.
David dropped back every now and then and snapped the photos you see on this page, and many more. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design and if he hadn’t become a professional jewelry designer (see link at end of story), he could have become a professional photographer.
Before we emerged from the clouds, we began to encounter hikers on their way up, some looking a bit peaked and wanting to know how close they were to the summit, but one still full of energy and shirtless. Most would take the tram down, but some were planning a 16-mile round trip hike.
In August, 400 people participate in the La Luz Trail Run, honored by Trail Runner Magazine as one of the “12 Most Grueling Trail Races in North America”. More would participate, but because this is officially a wilderness area, the race is limited to 400 participants, who are chosen by lottery.
As you probably have guessed, the 9-mile run is uphill, not down. Most of the runners are in their 20’s and 30’s, but a few are as old as mid-50’s. Many complete the 9-mile run in under an hour and a half. The men’s record is 54 minutes.
Like any mountain trail, La Luz trail includes many switchbacks. At the higher elevations, the trail crosses several large rock slides. You can see evidence of the blasting conducted when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the trail in the 1930s. We were still in the clouds and couldn’t see much, but the aspens and rock formations were beautiful in the fog.
Finally, we emerged from the cloud ceiling and beheld an otherworldly vista down the canyon to the valley floor.
We moseyed along, telling jokes, talking about movies we had seen and Naakii’s exploits on her soccer team, pointing out interesting things to photograph, drinking from our canteens, and munching Power Berries.
Every now and then uphill hikers would pass us, some with dogs. And then, the clouds overhead began to disperse, revealing the brilliant blue New Mexico sky.
We were now in what is called the Transition Zone.
As it warmed, we stopped to smell Ponderosa pines. If it’s warm enough, the bark smells like butterscotch or vanilla, although some say it’s more like cinnamon, or even coconut. But apparently it wasn’t warm enough, because it didn’t smell like much of anything to us.
We stopped for lunch on a rock outcropping overlooking the valley. David was carrying binoculars, and from there, we could see all of Albuquerque, and watch planes take off and land at the airport. Behind us, we could still see the frosted trees near the summit, and an array of TV transmitters on Sandia Crest, gleaming in the sunshine.
After lunch, we called parents and wives, soaked up the vitamin D for a while, and then proceeded down the trail.
We now entered the “Upper Sonoran Zone,” where juniper and piñon trees, prickly pear cactus, and cholla cactus are found. It was getting pleasantly warm for late October, and we were starting to look forward to the hike being over. I’d hate to run this thing uphill in August.
We finally reached a fork in the trail. The right fork led to the La Luz trailhead, but our car was at the Tram station, so we turned left.
We were tired, and this final mile was a lot more difficult than we had anticipated. There was no overall change in elevation, but there were many ups and downs, and in places, the trail wasn’t well-marked and we strayed from it slightly.
It was interesting to see the multi-million dollar homes a stone’s throw below us – many with tennis courts and swimming pools – one with an observatory.
Finally, as dusk approached, we saw the tram station, with the tram still operating. There’s a nice restaurant at the top, so the tram operates until 8 or 9 in the evening throughout the year.
Naakii was a trooper. She never complained once throughout the hike, and was a joy to have along.
I’m prone to sore muscles, and for several days afterwards, I had to hold the railings while hobbling up and down stairs, especially down. I had forgotten to bring some pills that had totally prevented sore muscles the last time I went skiing. They contain Vitamin D, Calcium, Magnesium, and Lactate. Someone told me that submerging your legs in ice water after a hike also works wonders. Maybe I’ll try that next time.
If I’m ever in Albuquerque when there’s a significant snowfall at all elevations of the mountain, I’d love to come down the trail on my backcountry skis. There’s a 12 degree grade overall, and no particular section is precipitous, so it wouldn’t be dangerous if you know how to ski, but a novice could easily fall off a small cliff, and mountain weather can change abruptly, even in the summer, so precautions and preparations are always prudent.
If you’d like to learn more about the La Luz Trail, including information about finding and parking at the trailheads at the base or the summit, regulations and other red tape, seasonal conditions, the La Luz Run, rock climbing, geology, links to guidebooks, and plenty of images, visit this site.
To reach Sandia Peak Tramway,
This is Don Nadeau. On behalf of BidOnTravel, I want to thank Rick Archer and David Worcester for this fine guest post. They’ve really inspired me to hike La Luz trail. Uphill, of course. I am no wuss. :-)
Seriously, I’ll most likely hike down. That’s one steep mountain.
David Worcester’s website features handmade artisan argentium silver & fine gold jewelry. Please note that his original photos were modified to fit the format of the blog. All the photos David took on the hike may be seen in higher resolution on his Flickr page.
Rick Archer’s Buddha at the Gas Pump blog features interviews with people who have had a spiritual awakening. SearchSummit.com, a search engine optimization specialist, pays his bills.
Rick swears that he does not own stock in Power Berries.
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