There are several trails that lead from the urban borders of Albuquerque all the way to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. Of these, the La Luz trail (“the light” in Spanish) appears to be the most popular. There is little wonder why. Unlike the other treads, such as the Domingo Baca trail, this trail enjoys several civilizing influences including switchbacks and an easy-to-follow trailbed. The trail can be hiked “one way” by substituting a tramway ride for either the descent or the ascent. The latter could be especially useful alternative for hikers who are not acclimatized to altitude (that route is slightly different from the route described here – see the “Links” section below). Despite its civilized nature, the hike is puts real demands on the hiker. This is not the place to introduce young hikers to the backcountry. The La Luz trail takes you into outstanding terrain and is strongly recommended.
- Take Interstate-25 north through Albuquerque and take Exit 234 for NM 556/Tramway Road NE. The ramp is very short and merges almost immediately into the leftmost lane of the Pan American Frontage Road. Get over into the two rightmost lanes as quickly as safety permits.
- After 0.3 miles, at the end of Pan American Frontage Road, come to an intersection with NM 556/Tramway Road NE. Turn right onto NM 556.
- After 4.0 miles turn left onto Forest Service Road 333 (paved).
- After 1.8 miles, turn right onto Pinon Place.
- After 0.4 miles, at the end of Pinon Place, arrive at the trailhead
The trailhead is paved and has vault toilets and trash receptacles. There is no water. There is a $3.00 per day fee, but that is waived if you have one of the numerous passes available (a military pass or a national parks pass, for example). There isn’t a huge amount of parking here. I got onto the trail at 7 a.m. with only nine or ten open parking spots remaining and more cars arriving every few minutes.
- starting elevation: 7000 feet
- ending elevation: 10,378 feet
- elevation gain: 3,378 feet
- distance: 7.6 miles
- maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle (both the 1990 and the 2006 editions show La Luz trail, the 2013 edition does not show any trails).
From the trailhead, take a short and steep set of stairs to pull you up and eastward towards the crest. This trail enjoys a relaxed attitude towards gaining elevation, so it almost immediately laterals south over a slight rib. (This rib will hide the trailhead from you on descent). Cross the unmarked border between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties and continue south on a gently rising traverse into a small basin at the foot of the Sandias. This is a classic Sonoran life zone with plenty of sage brush, cane cholla and prickly pear cacti, plus the occassional juniper.
You are heading towards a small stream that drains the basin. Just before your feet can get wet the trail makes a short series of switchbacks and, at 0.9 miles, hits an intersection with the Tramway Trail. (If you rode the Tramway up then you will want to take the Tramway Trail to get back to the Tramway parking lot). Continue upwards, lacing the switchbacks and marveling at the sweat and concrete that has been poured into this tread. At 2.2 miles, after making a long lunge to the south, the trail hits the markedly flat rib-top. This feature separates the trailhead’s small basin from the deeply gouged hydraulic slash that is Cañon La Cueva.
The upper reaches of this canyon are divided into a northern fork and a southern fork. The trail ascends easterly, swiftly crossing the northern fork, then switches west and then east-again to contour around a massive knob of rock. At 2.8 miles and at about 8200 feet the trail hits a second markedly flat spot. Here, between the forks, the trail begins a series of long and lazy switchbacks almost innocent of altitude gain. Enjoy it!
Enjoy the vistas as well. There are terrific views west over Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and the distant swell of the Mount Taylor volcanic field. Above you, to the south, rises an enormous fin of rock called The Thumb. It looks like a climber’s dream, and the tread you are on will take you up past its base.
At 4.3 miles and about 9100 feet elevation come to a third flat patch, a place to study the the startling gash below you that is Cañon La Cueva and above you where the southern fork of that self-same canyon will be your route. Is there snow in those heights? (There was on this date). If so, did you bring a hiking pole and microspikes? You might need ’em. Those dark conifers in the canyon bottom indicates that you’ve gotten into the transition zone where the prickly pear and juniper are tapering off and the Ponderosa Pine makes an appearance.
From the level spot the trail descends gently towards the canyon bottom, losing about 300 feet. After crossing the waterway it begins to pull above the bed. Broad canyon walls tower above you to the north, the immense Thumb screams skyward to the south, and straight ahead is bedlam of cliff bands, spires, rockfall and hoodoos. A pair of fang-like spires seems to be directly in your path. However, just before you get to these fangs the trail runs into a vertical wall. You might catch a glimpse of a cave opening about 50 to 75 feet above your head. You have arrived back at 9100 feet and the start of innumerable short switchbacks that ascend up the buttress between The Thumb and the Crest. A sign warns that winter conditions can render the trail impassable. People descending from the Tramway rapidly pack down the snow, making it slippery. Moreover, much of remaining ascent is over boulder fields, which can be tricky when covered with snow. Good to go? One-two-three, switchback!
You will gain 1000 more feet to find the last switchback, but it goes pretty quickly. Do not wait for a sun break – on a December day it stays dark in this canyon until the sun is straight overhead. Instead, marvel again at the labor that went into building this passage to the Crest and keep ploddin’ along. Eventually the trail moves hard against the Crest side of the canyon, makes about a half-dozen small switchbacks in an aspen grove (a signature species of the Canadian life zone) and arrives at a small col at 6.3 miles and 10,150 feet. Here the trail branches. To your left is a trail that will take you to the Crest House (a restaurant/gift shop concession). On this date, however, I wanted to check out the conditions at the Sandia Ski Area, so I went straight ahead.
For the remainder of the trip the trail skirts below the Sandia’s uppermost cliff bands. As soon as you leave the intersection you depart Cañon La Cueva and arrive at the headwaters of Cañon Domingo Baca. On your left is solid rock. On your right is the promise of good hang-gliding. Be careful on any icy spots. Portions of the southern Sandias pull into view, along with views along the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzanos (home to Manzano Mountain).
The top of Cañon Domingo Baca is enormously scalloped. The trail whips back and forth along convoluted horizontal path even as it strives mightily to minimize the vertical change. The cables of the Tramway come into sight, but you still will have a mile or more to go. Finally, having arrived at 10,378 feet and traveled 7.6 miles, top out at the Tramway station on the Crest of the Sandias. Trees block the hard-earned views to the east, so follow a path down to the Sandia Ski Area (just a hundred feet) for views north to Santa Fe Baldy and southeast to the Pecos Basin. Return the way you came.
Winter conditions and summer conditions are going to be very different. So when I say that three liters of water was more than plenty, make a note that it is plenty for chilly December day. In summer this trail is going to be hot and, as the sun swings westerly, possibly unbearable. An REI rep told me that it is a good idea to climb the west-facing Sandia slopes in the winter and then swing over to the east-facing slopes in the summer. That seems sound to me.
If you are hiking here in the winter then it would be an excellent idea to bring along some sort of traction device (such as Yaktraks or Microspikes). In many places the snowmelt puddles up during the afternoon and freezes during the night. Creeping over long stretches of gray ice can get sketchy.
This trail is high and sometimes cold. I doubt that it is ever lonesome. Three trail runners blasted by me first thing in the morning and two separate pulses of tramway riders went by in the other direction. At the Crest House fork there is a sign dispensing advice to horsemen! This is an excellent place to exercise your trail courtesies. Safety is the first concern, but otherwise please give the runners some room, step off the trail on the downhill side for the horses (if you can) and offer right-of-way to hikers on ascent. For a popular trail the La Lux was blissfully trash-free, let’s keep it that way and pack out everything.
Conditions at the Sandia Ski Area (for those who are curious) were poor. The ski trails leading to the top chairlift were largely bare of snow.
My GPS unit went a little crazy in the deeper sections of canyon. Presumably the satellite signals were convoluted by reflections off of the canyon walls. When mapped the uphill and downhill tracks crisscrossed each other so badly that in places it became hard to interpret. (For this blog I removed the up-hill track, which had the most obvious departures from the trail). The downhill track does, at least, stay in its proper canyons. Still, this presentation does not have the expected degree of accuracy.
The La Luz Trail is shown and labeled on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the trail from the La Luz trailhead to the intersection with the Tramway Trail is labeled “Tramway Trail” rather than “La Luz”. Don’t worry, as the paths themselves are properly signed as you hike along the trails.
Unlike any other trail I’ve encountered in New Mexico, the La Luz seems to have it’s own website. It’s mostly pretty pictures, a few links and some static trail data. At the bottom is a sobering reminder that three hikers lost their lives on the mountain in 2015. (Side note, apparently the website is not completely up-to-date, as the Albuquerque Journal recounts the passing of a fourth hiker in 2015).
Additionally, there is a detailed description of La Luz in Wikipedia. If only more New Mexico trails had such acclaim!
There is an excellent description of this hike at CloudHiking. It is very detailed and offers numerous photos. There are links for GPS data and for a map. Additionally, instead of going to the tramway top (as described here), the CloudHiking guide chooses to go left at the top fork to ascend to the Crest House. That’s an attractive option as it leads to the highest point on the Sandia Crest.
There is an annual run up this trail, which appears to be run on the first Sunday in August (although I’m not completely certain of that). The run is organized by the Albuquerque Road Runners Club, which has a website describing the run here. Most hikers will want to choose another date for using this trail.
For a description of the Tramway-up, Boots-Down approach you can find an excellent writeup here.
Good directions for navigating the trail all the way from the Tramway parking lot can be found at SummitPost.
A post describing La Luz in considerable detail can be found at Around 505. It includes some input from a Forest Service Volunteer, David Hammack, who has been using this trail (and putting up other routes) since 1959. Good authority!