My riding buddy, Chris Hoden, is the best at stumbling onto good trails by our homes in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The funny thing is, we haven't ridden many endurance rides together where we couldn't stumble onto the trail with a map and a compass while riding horses that had been there before.
Keeping a horse fit for endurance riding in Albuquerque is easy, because there are so many great places where we can trot to get our horses' heart rates up, and it's mountainous enough to build strength. It's finding one that doesn't take all day to complete that's hard. Chris excels at finding them. She calls this one La Luz Loop.
The loop begins in an arroyo on the east side of the paid parking area at the junction of Tramway Blvd. NE and Forest Road 333, where the edge of Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountain range meet. The United States Forest Service, Sandia Ranger District, manages the area; it charges $3 for day parking and $30 for an annual pass. www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola/districts/sandia.shtml
The trailhead is at about 6,200 feet. It starts in the arroyo behind bear-proof trashcans. The arroyo is about two miles long. At the top, take the fork to the right, go to a granite boulder the size of a plump refrigerator, and take the left fork. This trail intersects with the Tram Trail; go right on the Tram Trail. Follow it until it intersects with the lower part of the legendary La Luz trail. This intersection is a three-way junction and is marked with signage.
Follow the trail straight through - don't turn left here. This is La Luz trail. Follow it to the Juan Tabo parking area.Stay along the right edge of the parking lot, and pass through an opening in the trees that's lined with rocks. This trail turns right out of the parking lot and onto Forest Road 333. Ride along the road about a hundred yards, or so, to a culvert and a T-post. Cross the pavement, and go up to the top of the hill. The trail goes cross-country, then ends at a dirt road and a parking lot.
Turn left on the dirt road, and follow it back to Forest Rd. 333. At this road, stay on the dirt, and stay to the right of the gate; don't cross the pavement. Follow the cross-country trail in the dirt that goes down to a two-track road. Turn left on the two-track to Forest Rd. 333. Cross the pavement to the hill on the other side.
A five-foot lump of granite wedged in between two piñon trees marks the path down to a row of tree chollas. Turn right at the chollas. This is the top of the two-mile long arroyo that begins the ride. Go about 10 yards, to the first fork taken at the beginning of the ride.
From there, you can go straight and follow the arroyo back to the trailhead, or do what we did, and take the same fork at the beginning of the ride that took you to the refrigerator-sized rock. But instead of turning at the big rock, like you did earlier, go straight, and follow the trail down to the trailers. You'll be able to see houses on your left, and the arroyo on your right. At times, you'll be able to see the parking lot with the horse trailers.
Trotting the Trails
My Arabian mare, Tess, and I were meeting Chris, a retired anatomy teacher, and her Arabian mare, Mirage, at 9:30 on a Saturday morning to ride. When I arrived, I was happily surprised to see Wayne Kirkby, a retired lawyer from Michigan, and his Palomino gelding, Sundance, there to join us. Sundance is Wayne's first horse. He bought him five years ago when he and his wife retired and moved to New Mexico.
The three of us formed a freight train of trotting horses, with Mirage in the lead and Sundance as the caboose. The horses warmed and began to sweat as they labored up the two miles of semi-deep decomposed granite in the arroyo. It was lined with tree chollas that we dodged as we trotted by. Prickly pear cacti, purple from the drought, dotted the area. At the top of the wash, we left the cacti behind and started traversing the steep side of the mountain to where juniper and piñon trees struggle to survive.
We stopped for a moment to admire the vastness of the Rio Grande Valley with the snowcapped Magdalena mountain range to the south and the blue Taylor Range to the west. I looked up at the mountainside we were climbing. The morning sunlight refracted off the gold and silver flecks of the mica speckled throughout the pink granite. This is where the trail became rocky and narrow. One missed step, and it would be hooves over ears.
Riding the Ledge
We climbed to about 7,000 feet to a switchback that took us around to the north side of the mountain. Now, the mountainside was straight up and down, and the trail was a stony ledge about 28 inches wide. Tess shifted her weight to the mountainside of the trail, putting my stirrup within an inch of brushing the granite face of the mountain.
"I believe this is called 'Kelly's Lament,'" Wayne said in reference to a mutual friend who rode the loop once and has vowed to never ride it again. I twisted around in my saddle to face Wayne. He looked like a sage cowboy. I told him that I must've been an outlaw in a former life, because I didn't have enough sense to be scared.
"Horses! Horses on the trail!" a panicked hiker said in a shrill, erratic voice. "What do I do? What do I do?" Her eyes were opened so wide they looked like over-easy eggs. She had a calm Golden Retriever on a leash; in her panic, she began to spin around, entangling her legs in the leash. Chris reassured the woman that she was safe and convinced her to step off the trail to a rock and stay put while we rode past. We thanked her for yielding the trail to us. She stared at us in disbelief.
We passed several hikers before we came to the three-way intersection of La Luz and Tram Trail. We could've turned right and gone up La Luz, but the upper part of La Luz isn't safe for horses, so we turned left and went down La Luz. Down we went. Down two-foot ledges of rock staircases so steep it felt as though Tess had uncoupled her shoulders as she'd drop down a step, then drop down with the other shoulder. I gave her a loose rein and tried to stay in sync with her.
We rode along the edge of the Juan Tabo parking lot. It was busy with city slickers. We ducked between rocks and drifted off onto the cross-country trail that quickly brought us back to Forest Rd. 333.
We crossed into the foothills. Up and down and in and out of the gullies, we rode, until we reached the dirt road that took us back to the top of the same arroyo we'd ridden up. We cut across the arroyo to the small path that followed the ridge of the foothills and trotted down to our trailers.
It was non. Chris was right. We'd ridden from the city limits of Albuquerque into the Sandia Mountain Wilderness and back in less than three hours. The day still had plenty of time left in it for civilized tasks, such as shopping or taking in a movie. But, for a little while, we were pioneers or cowboys or outlaws crossing a mountain to a new life.