Sandia Mountains: Albuquerque, New Mexico

March 25, 2010
Filed under Camping Destinations, Southwest Camping

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At Albuquerque, New Mexico’s heart, wilderness, city, piñon smoke, adventure, sky candy, and chili peppers simmer together, creating a family vacation like no other. Deep in the Land of Enchantment, a magical mix of flavors, colors, and textures nourishes us with a feast for our eyes, our bodies and our souls.

Jagged cliffs and thick forests shoot up from the edge of Albuquerque. Camping spots, hiking trails, picnic grounds, and abundant wildlife quietly watch the town’s busy streets below. The setting sun glows rosily upon the Sandia Mountains, forming a backdrop to the east of this small, Western city. The color gives the hills their name, “watermelon” in Spanish, and their looming presence colors the town’s personality.

Hard on the Rio Grande, desert cactus, cottonwoods, and historic adobe flavor Albuquerque’s atmosphere, and the city is America’s hot air ballooning capital.

Our first stop was the Sandia Peak Tram, on Albuquerque’s eastern edge. Claiming to be the world’s longest aerial tramway, it lifts visitors 2.7 miles into the Sandias. At the top, a panoramic view stretches over metropolitan Albuquerque to Petroglyph National Monument and Pueblo Indian lands. Here families learn about the mountains’ natural history at the National Forest Service’s Four Seasons Visitor Center.

The Cibola National Forest also manages a network of trails winding from eastern Albuquerque to 10,600 feet above sea level. Rangers recommend a section of the Crest Trail (# 130) for kids. Easy to navigate, it climbs 300 feet from the tram’s top to the crest. Ask about Junior Ranger programs there during the summer.

The Sandia Crest Scenic Byway and secluded picnic grounds run along the range’s eastern side. Tall scrub oaks and piñon pine trees shade picnic tables at the wildly pretty Sulphur Spring Picnic Area. Fire pits or raised grills provide places to cook, and some sites are wheelchair accessible. Open forest floors, creek bed willows, and excellent boulders invite kids to climb and explore.

Near Balsam Glade Picnic Area, a little dirt road sneaks off the main route, diving into the forest. It undulates through the woods and down steep slopes. Passing Las Huertas Picnic Area and Sandia Man Cave Trail, the road descends the mountain range’s western face. The Forest Service indicates the track is unimproved, but passable to passenger cars. I, however, was glad to be driving an all-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance. Even so, large rocks sticking up from the roadbed made my GMC Sierra bounce around, and I wondered if the potholes would swallow a wheel. (They don’t.) Nine miles later, we emerge near the tiny town of Placitas, and drove back into Albuquerque.

Throughout the Sandias, visitors enjoy wildlife watching. The high, rocky land mass forms a raptor migration corridor. Look for soaring hawks and endangered peregrine falcons. Mule deer watch for mountain lions here, while bobcats hunt for smaller prey. Bear and coyotes happily clean up any leftovers. Hikers must be aware of rattlesnakes in the lower elevations.

With an average elevation more than 5000 feet, Albuquerque’s climate is dry and temperate. Late summer and fall days generally warm up to the high 70s. Seven hundred and fifty thousand residents give the city energy, while still maintaining a friendly feel.

The Rio Grande Nature Center State Park preserves a cottonwood bosque (forest) along the river. Here, miles of trails meander through meadows, and along the river. Look for abundant wildlife and fantastic bird watching opportunities. We spent hours at the visitor center, with its unusual architecture and excellent exhibits about the Rio Grande.

Nearby, Albuquerque’s historic Old Town brings us to the community’s roots. Adobe buildings dating from 1706 and historic markers surround a shady plaza. Shops overflow with exquisite pueblo pottery, high-fashion clothing, sterling silver jewelry, plastic key chains, and coffee mugs. On the east side of the plaza, local vendors spread their handicrafts for sale on blankets under the portico.

Kid-friendly Tiguex Park lies just east of Old Town, in the heart of Albuquerque’s museum district. The city’s children’s museum, the Explora!, houses great hands on—and bodies-on—learning experiences. Reflecting Albuquerque’s multiculturalism, Explora! exhibits use both English and Spanish. Also near Tiguex Park, families visit the Albuquerque Museum of History and Science to see the Timetracks exhibits, the National Atomic Museum to learn the story of the Atomic Age, and the Rattlesnake Museum to see the world’s largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes.

The Cibola National Forest runs no official campgrounds in the Sandia Mountains. However, groups can reserve the Capulin Picnic Area for camping. On the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, the picnic area is about 45 minutes from Albuquerque, and has picnic tables, fire grates, drinking water, and vault toilets. The Forest Service also allows backpackers to pitch a tent in the backcountry. Because the climate is so dry, backpackers must carry in all their own water. Contact the Sandia Ranger District Office for information.

Closer to town, but still in the mountains, RV sites, tent sites and small cabins snuggle into the piñon/juniper forests of the Turquoise Trail Campground and RV Park. Facilities include picnic tables, restrooms, showers, full hookups at some sites, and a dump station. The Museum of Archeology and Material Culture shares the entrance with the campground. Other campgrounds in the Albuquerque area include the Hidden Valley Resort near Tijeras, the Coronado State Monument, and KOA North, both in Bernalillo, and the KOA Central in Albuquerque.

Each October, Albuquerque hosts the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, an international event drawing more than 700 hot air and gas balloons. Pilots meet at Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park to compete and enjoy a meteorological phenomenon called the “Albuquerque Box.” Event visitors number from 850,000 to 1 million during the fiesta’s 10-day course. Many stay in huge RV parking areas, which accommodate more than 1500 vehicles.

It is a good idea to reserve sites (dry or with hookups) months in advance. A local RV dealer and rental shop, Bates International, will deliver a travel trailer to your site if you call and reserve one ahead of time. Shuttle busses run from RV lots to the main ballooning areas, saving time and traffic jam hassles. When campers are lucky and the winds are right, balloons drift right overhead.

At a Fiesta highpoint, the dawn Mass Ascension, hundreds of balloons take off in a short period of time. Booths with yummy breakfast burritos nourish visitors as they watch the gentle airships rise. Evening balloon glows (or candle glows if its breezy) light up fiesta nights. Kids love the big new balloon museum, with historical artifacts, famous balloons, and lots of hands-on exhibits.

It was chilly as I navigated our truck through the Balloon Fiesta’s early morning darkness. We were winding through Albuquerque’s back roads when a glitter in the blue-black sky caught my eye. I looked up and saw nothing, then, there it was again. High in the air on dawn patrol, a balloon fired its burner. The flames flashed above the basket, and the whole balloon glowed in the twilight. It looked like a beautiful jewel, silently heralding the Sandia sunrise. We paused and gazed upward, held for a magical moment in another one of New Mexico’s spells.

Albuquerque Convention and Visitor Bureau

Cibola National Forest, Sandia Ranger District

Sandia Peak Tramway:

Rio Grand Nature Center State Park

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Bates International Motorhome Rental

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