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.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Sandia Mountain Wilderness, NM
Drive Time: The Sandia Mountain Wilderness lies directly east of Albuquerque; from downtown, it's an easy 20-minute drive.
The Way: Take I-40 east to Tramway Boulevard and turn left. Go north on Tramway, then turn right (east) onto Montgomery Boulevard for the Embudito Canyon Trail. The Elena Gallegos trailhead is on the right, directly off Tramway.
Trails: There are 112 miles of trails, so it's easy to create a short or long hike. The Pino Trail/Sandia Crest Trail/Embudito Canyon Trail loop is 21 miles. For more solitude, cross over the Sandia Crest and use the eastern side's trails (the Cienega, Faulty, and Barts Trails, for instance) to create a longer loop.
Elevation: The wilderness ranges from around 6,000 feet at the trailheads to 10,678 feet at the crest.
Can't Miss: The view of Albuquerque at sunset or at night.
Crowd Control:Dayhikers abound in summer. Avoid hiking on the Sandia Crest near the tram, which attracts hordes who want a sweat-free ride to the top.
Guides: New Mexico's Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide, by Bob Julyan (Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $24.95). The USDA Forest Service Sandia Mountain Wilderness map ($7) is available from the Sandia Ranger District (see Contact below).
Walk Softly: The wilderness is a fragile environment. Camp only on durable surfaces.
Contact: Cibola National Forest, Sandia Ranger District, (505) 281-3304; www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola. Trailhead parking lots are locked at night. Notify the Open Space police at (505) 873-6632 if you're leaving a vehicle.