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Albuquerque’s Magic Mountain

Albuquerque's backyard wilderness lets hikers perform a disappearing trick.

The magic act goes something like this: Drive 20 minutes from Albuquerque to the trailhead; stride past prickly pear cactus and juniper trees as the hum of the city fades; climb high into a wild, twisting canyon; then look back for one last glimpse of the shimmering metropolis before it vanishes. Houdini couldn’t have made a better escape.

The Sandia Mountains rise to more than 10,000 feet along a rocky spine that has remained remarkably wild despite its proximity to Albuquerque and a tram that reaches the top.

Most trails in the 38,000-acre Sandia Mountain Wilderness are located on the western side of the range. Of these, my favorite for a weekend spring outing is the 21-mile loop that starts at the Elena Gallegos trailhead. I hike east on the Pino Trail, trekking through yellow and purple cactus blossoms in the lower elevations. After ascending the foothills, I climb into fir and spruce forests on the Sandia Crest, where winter snow sometimes lingers in April and Albuquerque is like a mirage. The crest is also a good place to savor a Sandia sunset, an event that explains the mountains’ name, which in Spanish means watermelon.

From the Sandia Crest Trail, I cross to the east side of the ridge, where the city is out of sight. I later descend to the west on the Embudito Canyon Trail, along a seasonal stream that runs clear and cold in spring. Near the end of the hike, I sit and watch for wildlife. Each year, from late February to early May, thousands of raptors migrate through the wilderness.

Keep in mind that the temperature at the crest will be at least 15°F cooler than in the foothills. But it’s worth it: Embudito Canyon under a light dusting of snow looks truly magical.

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