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Around 505

An Enlightened Journey

Jul 08, 2013 08:24AM ● By Scott Blackwell

By Aaron Greenwood

Photos by Aaron Greenwood and Sue Isley


Like to hike? Is the bosque boring? The Petroglyph trail too tame? Then lace up those boots and get ready for an 8-mile trek through three ecological zones and more than 3,300 feet of change in altitude.

For some, La Luz Trail just northeast of Albuquerque’s city limits is a respectable walk. For others, the trail has become a personal quest, even a rite of passage. The hike is strenuous and will take a relatively fit walker some four hours to reach Sandia Peak or, if they choose, the upper tram terminal for a mechanized descent back to the city.

The current route opened in June 1967, starting in the parking lot at the end of Forest Service Road 333 and ending at the Sandia Crest House. Dozens of switchbacks make it easier and safer for moderately skilled hikers to reach the summit today.

“Old La Luz Trail” (or the original trail) went 4½ miles straight up the mountain to the remains of an old gold mine started in the 1920s. Even the hardiest hikers found it relentlessly steep.

La Luz means “the light” in Spanish, and the origin of the trail’s name is debated. Miners could see the lights of Albuquerque at night. Likewise, city folk could see the light of the miners’ cabin on the mountain. Just as plausible, other locations in the state are named La Luz after Nuestra Senora de la Luz, or “Our Lady of the Light” (the Virgin Mary).

Forest Service volunteer David Hammack has intimate knowledge of both the “old” and the “new” trails. He’s been walking on both since 1959. At 84, this extraordinary hiker still hits the trail three times a week. Hammack shares his expertise with hikers he encounters along the way. A recent hike from the base to the 5-mile marker took Hammack four hours, not because of his age, but because of his personal interactions with people along the way.

"How far are you going?" is the most common question Hammack asks. The inquiry is both an icebreaker and a good way to find out whether the hikers are really ready to travel as far as they’d planned.

An accomplished ambassador of the trail, Hammack skillfully cautions and teaches. He reminds less-experienced hikers not to discard orange peels along the trail since they petrify more than biodegrade in such low humidity. Young hikers are urged not to “cut the switchbacks,” as this can cause trail erosion.

"This is the age group that likes short cuts,” says Hammack.

He also instructs people about the proper gear to carry or provides guidance to help hikers decide whether they should continue their present route, given current conditions on the mountain. Hiker safety is Hammack’s predominate concern.

Signage on La Luz marks the trail itself, its intersections with the Tramway Trail and La Luz Spur. There are many unmarked trails along the way. Although La Luz Trail is well defined it is possible to wander off and get lost. First time hikers are advised to stay on the main trail.

High and Dry

While athletes favor La Luz for its physical challenge, nature lovers marvel at the variety of plant life and climate change. The trail covers three of North America’s seven ecological zones within just 7.8 miles.

The journey up La Luz begins in the Upper Sonoran life zone, also known as Piñon-Juniper Woodlands. In this region, vegetation offers little shade, so hiking is best done early in the day, particularly in the summer. The first 2½ miles meander along an ever-rising slope while passing through a boulder field. Nature has created a sublime desert garden in a zone known for its hot summers, cool winters and little rain. The area is populated by tree cholla, prickly pear cactus, chamisa, piñon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany and gray oak.

About a mile from the trailhead, along the northern edge of a small canyon, La Luz intersects with the Tramway Trail. Hikers planning on a one-way hike will often begin at the lower tram terminal. The beauty and ambiance of landscape makes crossing the foothills along this 2.5-mile connector route a pleasure and worth the extra effort.

At the top of the first run of switchbacks, the northern ridge of La Cueva Canyon bends and merges with La Luz, roughly 2.3 miles from the trailhead. This ridge is a good turn-around point for a short out-and-back hike. Many hikers opt to explore the spur trail, which runs out onto a ridge – a wonderfully scenic spot for picnicking, offering spectacular views of the upper reaches of the mountain and many of its noteworthy rock formations, as well as the city of Albuquerque, the volcanoes out on the west mesa and points further west. About 40 miles to the northwest, New Mexico's “Devil's Tower,” or Cabezon Peak is clearly visible. This short 5- mile turn-around hike is perfect for those who are just getting their “hiking legs.”

At this point along La Luz, terrain changes are evident. The trail now hugs the wall above the deep lush drainage coming out of Chimney Canyon. The trail runs east until it turns sharply south after crossing a streambed above a waterfall. It is here that the hiker leaves the Piñon-Juniper Woodland and enters the Ponderosa pine or Transition Zone.


Peaceful in the Ponderosas

Ponderosa pines are plentiful in the Transition Zone, along with blue spruce and gambel (scrub) oak. Hikers also find a variety of wildflowers along the way, though the current drought has taken its toll on the blooms.

This is the area on the mountain that offers the greatest species diversity. This zone features mild summers and cold winters, typically with significant snow cover. The trail is gentler and somewhat shaded here, and the surface is softer and easier on the feet. Sunlight filters through the forest canopy, providing a peaceful ambiance.

Along this segment of La Luz there are several worthy overlook sites, marked with well-worn side trails running to the south. Each overlook site is a high point, offering spectacular, unobstructed views. Here, the grand scale of the mountain becomes personal. The rocks are bold, filling the space with their overpowering grandeur. This is the realm of the rock climber, and in the winter, the extreme hiker.

Hammack is one the pioneer rock climbers of the Sandias and is able to identify many of the climbing walls and routes. Among the most prominent of these formations is the “Thumb,” rising more than 1,000 feet. In 1960, Hammack accomplished two “first ascents” on two different routes of the Thumb.

“That's Yataghan, where I did the first ascent on the southeast face,” Hammack explains as he points toward another massive rock wall in the area. Today, there are 87 established climbing routes at various points along La Luz. Hammack has pioneered many of them.

Not far past the overlook below Yataghan, the trail winds downward for a short distance over rough granite before reaching the 5-mile marker. In the trees at the base of a cliff wall, many hikers take a break prior to beginning the most challenging part of the hike. A nearby sign warns hikers that, beyond this point, the trail may be dangerous and impassable during winter.


Serious Switchbacks

The truly strenuous part of the hike now begins as the trail winds up a series of 16 switchbacks that crosses back and forth through a fully exposed talus field at more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Biologists refer to this ecological region as Mixed Conifer and Aspen or Canadian Zone.

At the eighth switchback (heading east) are two notable formations: the “Fin,” to the north; and “Donald Duck,” to the south.

Within the next 1.5 miles, the trail gains almost another 1,000 feet. For hikers unaccustomed to high elevations, a slow pace is recommended. Hammack suggests also being prepared for rain, particularly during the monsoon season. Hypothermia, Hammack warns, is more dangerous than most issues hikers might face.

The trail now traverses through extremely rocky terrain, much of it over granite. This is the playground of extreme hikers like Mike Roncadori, who is sometimes seen working his way straight up the talus field boulders.

“La Luz is a significantly difficult trail that offers fantastic vistas without having to drive a long distance. This convenience makes it very popular,” says Roncadori.

This is his favorite part of the trail because, “the beauty of this area is unsurpassed anywhere else in the Sandias.” Roncadori should know. The IT professional from Albuquerque has been hiking since 2006, in all seasons, both on- and off-trail, leaving virtually no part of the mountain unexplored.

The trail now is clearly in the upper reaches of the mountain, an extremely rugged area. Aspen, Douglas fir, white fir, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce and common juniper trees dominate steep slopes. Fir and aspen stands thrive in an environment of cold windy winters and cool summers. This part of the mountain typically receives significant moisture. Many species of colorful wildflowers add a visual spice to summer. Observant hikers may spot a Sego lily, wild geraniums, columbines and orange-rust wallflowers.

At 10,000 feet, the talus field and switchbacks finally end. Though the elevation gain continues, the trail surface becomes less harsh and rocky. The forests provide a kind respite. From here, it's a short distance to the junction with La Luz Spur Trail, which leads to Sandia Crest, the top of the mountain.


A Fork in La Luz

At this juncture, the hiker can choose between two finishes. The Spur Trail is a steep 0.6-mile climb to the Sandia Peak/Crest House, which, at 10,678 feet, is the highest point in the Sandias. The other option is to continue on La Luz Trail for another mile to the upper Tram Terminal. At one time, the Spur Trail was actually the final portion of La Luz, but today, the official trail continues southward to the Tram Terminal. Each route has its own charm.

The more difficult Spur Trail follows a narrow route between and through limestone cliffs that mark the upper reaches of the mountain. Along this route are several opportunities to stand near cliff edges and marvel at spectacular views. Just above the cement stairway built to facilitate reaching the summit, is arguably the best overlook of all. Looking down into La Cueva Canyon from this perch, the switchbacks and talus field can be seen in their entirety. The French have a word for it: magnifique. Any hiker who travels the distance should feel proud, and with good reason. It is a long way down.
The final portion of La Luz hugs the side of the mountain as it continues from this junction to the upper Tram Terminal. In some places, the trail is barely 4 feet wide and the south-facing slopes are incredibly steep. Ridge systems move south away from the trail, creating a series of canyons, including Echo and TWA canyons. Cliffs dominate one side of the trail and canyons the other. This last mile is relatively flat, but awesome vistas abound. Arriving at the upper Tram Terminal deck puts the hiker at an elevation of 10,378 feet. You’ve burned the calories, so it won’t be hard to justify a hot meal at the restaurant adjacent to the upper tram terminal.
Get Down
Hiking down off the mountain raises this adventure to another level. Going down is not as easy as it might appear. The last few miles can be particularly difficult after some 15 hard miles of hiking. Proper gear, hydration and food are even more important for the round-trip adventurer.
Fortunately, taking the tram down is an option. Unless you want another hike after getting off the tram, leave a car at the lower terminal or arrange a shuttle back to the trailhead where you started hours earlier.

Aaron Greenwood lives with his wife and two dogs on Albuquerque’s West Side. He prefers Twitter over Facebook, women's soccer over men's, the individual over the collective and popsicles over chocolate. Greenwood has been told that "The RNA of Turnip Yellow Mosaic Virus Exhibits Icosahedral Order," would be a good name for a poem. He is thinking about it.