Summer Rambles in Northern New Mexico Trails -
big horn northern new mexico trails

There are few better ways to spend a summer day than a nice hike on Northern New Mexico trails, particularly one with expansive views, the bracing fresh air of Northern New Mexico, and our priceless solitude. Many a day I’ve left the house shrouded in a mental cloud, and then, under turquoise skies or even a gentle rain, found my mood lifted and my body infused with the glow that comes from a bit of exertion.

But, you say, “It will be too hot! You’re crazy!” But in New Mexico, we have the advantage of altitude and cool nights. In summer you can go up to higher elevations, or get out early in the day, to escape the worst heat. Many options exist. Here are a few of our favorites.


Cienega Canyon

The La Cienega/Armijo Trail in the east face of the Sandias provides wonderful views, such as this image of the nearby San Pedro Mountains. Photo by Dan Shaffer.
The La Cienega/Armijo Trail in the east face of the Sandias provides wonderful views, such as this image of the nearby San Pedro Mountains. Photo by Dan Shaffer.

The Cienega Canyon Picnic Area on the backside of the Sandia Mountains, just off NM 536 (Crest Highway), includes a short interpretive loop trail in a lovely valley with a small stream, lush vegetation, and wildlife. There is a day-use fee. The site also provides access to a much more ambitious trail, Cienega Trail (#148), which runs 2.2 miles up to the rim of the Sandias, where it intersects the Crest Trail. You can turn around at any point and retrace your path. At a relatively high elevation with ample tree cover, it is a good summer choice.

La Luz Trail

The granddaddy of Duke City trails is this very scenic and demanding trail that climbs from the Juan Tabo Picnic Grounds up the west face of the Sandias to the crest. Its base is at a low elevation with little shade, and as the trail basically faces the afternoon sun, it can be dangerously hot. Get an early start on this one! If you make the crest, you will have toiled up 3,060 vertical feet and covered 7.5 miles. So, either plan to only go up halfway, or be in super-human condition for the full 15-mile round-trip.

Another option is to take a spur trail near the summit for 30 minutes or so to reach the top terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram and ride it down. This works best if you can park a second car at the tram base, so you don’t have to walk two miles back to the trailhead. The trail climbs through five life zones past granite spires to the limestone rim and is a truly memorable ascent.

Paseo del Bosque Trail

Albuquerque is split by the Rio Grande, which is flanked by a beautiful forest, or bosque, of massive sculptural cottonwood trees providing great shade. Few people visited here until a 16-mile-long trail paralleling the river was established some years back. With both paved segments for bikes and dirt paths for walkers, it has now become quite popular, but its expansive character still allows for solitude, views of waterfowl on the rio itself, and other recreational opportunities. There are numerous access points, including Central Avenue, Montano Road, and Alameda Boulevard.


Santa Fe offers still more summer hiking options because of all its nearby high country, and even a morning hike in the city is a pleasant excursion due to its cool nights.

The Dale Ball Trails

On Santa Fe’s northeastern fringe, the Dale Ball Trail system in the Sangre de Cristo foothills offers a plethora of looping and intersecting routes that provide almost limitless possibilities. You can go out for 30 minutes, pack some snacks and be gone all morning, or enjoy cloudy, cooler afternoons. Maps at each trail juncture, with distances noted, make navigation easy on this 25-mile system.

Northern New Mexico trails provide lovely views of the Galisteo Basin and southward across the city to the distant Sandias, west to the Rio Grande Valley, or northeast to the Sangres. Vegetation consists mostly of piñon and juniper, with an occasional ponderosa at higher elevations, and cottonwoods and willow in rare wet spots. The terrain is mostly gently rolling hills, small arroyos, and pocket meadows, so the walking is easy. Dogs and bikes are allowed. Details at

The Nature Conservancy’s lands along the Rio Santa Fe at the end of Upper Canyon Road as seen from the grounds of the Randall Davey Audubon Center
The Nature Conservancy’s lands along the Rio Santa Fe at the end of Upper Canyon Road as seen from the grounds of the Randall Davey Audubon Center

Nature Conservancy Trails

Tucked into the Santa Fe River Canyon at the end of Upper Canyon Road is a set of short Northern New Mexico trails trails wandering around the beaver ponds in the bed of a former lower reservoir. These easy strolls offer opportunities to see birds attracted to water and, of course, the busy beavers. Tree cover makes for pleasant summer outings.


This route, located just east of St. John’s College, has the highest summit elevation of any destination described here, 9,121 feet, so it is sure to provide summer heat relief. Though fairly strenuous, it is one of the most popular local hikes year-round, so expect to run into other hikers on this trail. Details at

Santa Fe River

An easygoing ramble takes one along the course of the Rio Santa Fe, right through the city. You can stick to a paved biking/hiking path or walk in the usually dry riverbed, admiring the water-sculpted rocks. Access points include downtown spots along East Alameda, Frenchy’s Field Park on Agua Fria Road, or any dead-end street off West Alameda west of Alire Street. Details at


Diablo Canyon

Located 30 minutes west of town in the low-elevation Caja del Rio area, this hike is best done in the morning. Easy-going terrain slopes down to the Rio Grande through a wide desert wash cutting through two fantastically carved volcanic features favored by painters and filmmakers. The 18-mile road to the trailhead from Santa Fe can get muddy after summer rainstorms. Details at

Galisteo Basin Preserve

This basin, 13 miles south of Santa Fe, was once home to a handful of pueblos, and a visit here shows you why the Native people were attracted to the locale, with tremendous sweeping skies, low hills carved by arroyos, grassy meadows, and abundant wildlife — including deer, antelope, fox, coyote, rabbits, and many bird species. Some 41 miles of easy trails, including some for horses and bikes, are currently available across this 10,000-acre preserve Details at

Borrego/Bear Wallow/Windsor

This is a much cooler hike, due to its relatively high elevation and almost total tree cover. It descends through pine and aspen forests to the small but lovely Rio Tesuque, where you can soak your feet in the cold creek water, and even lie down in a shallow pool!

Three linked Northern New Mexico trails — Borrego, Bear Wallow, and Windsor — form a loop and provide options on length and difficulty. The full loop runs 4 miles and ascends 700 feet. Or you can go out and back via the Borrego Trail to the creek, and only have to climb 400 vertical feet, which cuts the distance to just 3 miles. Lots of flowers, butterflies, and streamside foliage add additional interest. It’s popular on summer weekends, so it’s best to get an early start. Find details at

Nambe Lake is tucked away high in the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe and is a great northern new mexico trail
Nambe Lake is tucked away high in the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe.


Nambe Lake via the Windsor Trail is another great high-altitude, daylong hike in the Sangres. Aspen Vista Trail sits above Santa Fe at a cool 10,000 feet or so. It is almost flat for about a half-mile, before switchbacking upwards, making for an easy excursion. Expect many fellow amblers on this trail. The Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos offers dozens of miles of trails ranging from simple strolls to multi-day rambles.


West Rim Trail

The wow factor on this walk is off the charts as it winds along the basalt-blasted rim of the Rio Grande Gorge just west of town, with the Sangre de Cristos rising to the east and sage plains stretching out to forever. But there is almost no shade here, so consider this just an early morning outing if you go in the heat of summer. Greet the sunrise!

There are several access points along Taos County Road 115 and the Rio Grande Rest Area on US 64 on the west side of the “High Bridge.” Details at

For mountain hikes, head up the Taos Ski Valley road where numerous options exist, including the most popular — for good reason — Lake Williams Trail at the very end of the road.



Story and photography by Daniel Gibson

Additional photography by Dan Shaffer

Originally published in Neighbors magazine

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