La Luz Trail – Cibola National Forest (8 miles)

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View of Albuquerque from the La Luz Trail.

 

Trip overview: The La Luz Trail is a well-known hike in the Cibola National Forest just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The trail climbs ~8 miles up the West face of the Sandia Mountains and ends at the Sandia Peak Tramway observation deck.  The one-way hike is ~8 miles long and climbs up 3,800 feet with a starting elevation of 7,000 feet and a peak elevation of 10,350 feet.  Highlights include views of the Sandia Mountains and expansive views of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley.  We completed this hike in the second week of October 2017 during the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

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Overall map of the La Luz Trail (red), Sandia Peak tram ride (magenta), and Tramway Trail (blue) that leads back to the La Luz Trailhead.

Overall map of the La Luz hike and tram (pdf)

 

Preparations:

Permits: No permits are needed to hike the La Luz Trail.  If you plan to park at the trailhead, you do need to put $3 (cash or check) in the self-service pay station located at the parking lot.  You cannot camp along the trail, so no other permits are given out.

Logistics: The GPS coordinates of the parking lot are (35.219671, -106.480804) and Forest Service Road 333 that leads to the lot is well-marked and in good condition.  There is a restroom at the trailhead, but there is no potable water source.  If you drive and park at the trailhead, be prepared to either (a) hike an additional 8 miles back down to your car, (b) take the tram down the mountain and then hike 3.5 miles from the tram station back to your car, (c) take the tram down and get a taxi/Uber to drive you from the tram station to your car, or (d) arrange for someone to drive and pick you up at the top of the mountain.  One way tickets for the tram ride down the mountain cost $15 and can be purchased at the office next to the observation deck at the end of the trail.  If you plan to utilize the tram, be sure to time your hike so you do not miss the last tram.  Depending on the time of year, the last tram heads up the mountain at either 8 or 9 pm.  Exact hours and schedules can be found at the Sandia Peak Tramway website.

Supplies:  There is not a water source at the trailhead, so be sure to acquire 2-3 liters of water before leaving home.  My 2.5 liter camelback was sufficient water for my one way hike in October.  In the heat of the summer, you may want to carry 3 liters of water.  There is no other water along the trail until you reach the tram.  Assuming the tram is running, you can re-fill your bladder at the visitor center where the tram stops (I am not certain if the visitor center is open on says when the tram is closed).  There is also a vending machine here with snacks, but the restaurant that used to reside here has been demolished and is not rebuilt as of late 2017.  We did not have any issues with bugs, so bug repellent is likely not necessary.  Sunscreen and a  long sleeve shirt is highly advised though since the trail is at high elevation and exposed in many sections.

Weather and Trail Conditions: Weather on the trail varies significantly depending on the time of year and can range from very hot to cold and snowy.  Therefore, be sure to check conditions before hiking and pack appropriately.  If hiking in the winter or spring there may be snow on the mountain, so trekking poles and crampons or cleats may be needed.  In the heat of the summer, additional water may be needed.  Definitely be prepared because this hike can be deceptively difficult and the weather can be unpredictable.

In addition to the seasonal changes in temperature, there can be a big temperature swings when hiking from the 7,000 foot base to the top of the mountain.  I advise bringing a. easily-removable light down jacket or rain shell to wear throughout the hike.  We started our hike at 7:45 am and it was chilly for the first 6 miles of the hike.  Having a layer to take on and off was very helpful!  The trail is well maintained for the most part.  Some sections of the trail are rocky, so hiking shoes are a good choice for those who want firm footing.  Having hiking shoes or boots will also save your feet if you accidentally kick a cactus.  If you are hiking the full 16 mile round trip, you will want to bring ample food and flashlights in case you end up finishing the hike in the dark.

Difficulty: The La Luz Trail makes for a strenuous day hike, especially if you plan to hike both ways (up and down the mountain).  It is important to remember that the trail climbs nearly 4,000 feet and is at high altitude.  Hikers who are not used to hiking at altitude will likely hike much slower than their usual pace and may need to take breaks to catch their breathe.  We finished the one way hike in 3.5 hours, but we are experienced hikers and had perfect hiking temperatures between 60-70 degrees.  Even with great conditions, I still had a headache from the altitude and occasionally felt light-headed.  If you suspect you are feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, take a break, drink water, and do not go further up in altitude until you begin to feel better.  If you plan to hike the trail both ways budget at least 6.5 hours and be sure to train beforehand.

The trail is pretty well marked and we did not have any issues following the trail.  However, there have been reports of people getting lost along the trail, so care should be taken.  This is generally only an issue when there is snow on the trail as it can hide the trail.  Most problems can be avoided by starting the hike in the morning so that you do not have to hike in the dark.

 

Hike Details: 8 miles one way; +3,800 feet, -500 feet; La Luz Trailhead to the Sandia Peak Tramway Observation Deck.  Then we took the tram down the mountain.

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Map of the La Luz Trail (red line).  The trail climbs from the trailhead up to the visitor center and observation deck when the tram stops.

La Luz Trail Map (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile of the La Luz hike (sourced from caltopo.com)

My friends and I were visiting New Mexico for a few days to see the famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  On one of the days when we were not going to fiesta in the morning we decided to hike the La Luz Trail to get a little exercise and to try to see the balloons from atop the Sandia Mountains.  We did not have a car, so we took an Uber to the trailhead.  The Uber cost roughly $25, and the driver had no issues finding the La Luz Trailhead.  If you are carless, Uber or taxi is a great option.

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Parking lot at the La Luz Trailhead with the Sandia Mountains in the background.
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Sign at the La Luz Trailhead.
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Follows all signs for the La Luz Trail or Trail number 137.

We initially planned to start the hike by 6:30 – 7:00 am so we could be on the trail when the hot air balloon Mass Ascension was beginning.  However, we got a bit of a late start and started hiking at 7:45 am.  Luckily, we were still able to see the balloons along the first several miles of the trail and didn’t miss too much.  The balloons take off from fairly far away, so they look small in the distance.  But, the sight is really neat, and it was very cool to see hundreds of balloons rising above Albuquerque.

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Hot air balloons over Albuquerque in the distance as seen from near the trailhead.

From the very beginning, the trail climbs steadily upward.  The first ~3 miles of the hike are exposed with no tree cover.  Since we left early in the morning, we were in the shade for this portion of the hike as the sun was still behind the Sandia Mountains.  The beginning of the hike is not the most beautiful, but you are treated with views of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley as you hike upward.  There are also plenty of interesting looking cacti and other desert plants along the trail.

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Beginning the climb up the La Luz Trail. (pictured: Osprey Escapist 25 Daypack)
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View looking Northwest along the trail.
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Cactus along the La Luz Trail.
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There are several types of cacti along the La Luz Trail.
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The beginning section of the La Luz Trail had great views of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival.
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A junction with the trail that leads to the tram.  This is ~1 mile into the hike.
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Looking ahead to where the La Luz Trail climbs.
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A yucca plant along the trail.
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Along the trail there are several spots that provide nice views of the city below.  The balloons were in the air for several hours.
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After the first few miles, the trail begins to get closer to the rock cliffs in the Sandia Mountains.
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Looking up towards the Sandia Crest, which sits at ~10,650 feet.  The trail does not climb all the way up the crest, but you have the option to hike there from the top.

After about the 3 mile mark, the trail begins to get closer to some of the large steep rock features on the mountain.  The temperature will drop, and the scenery becomes more dramatic as the trail meanders up the mountain.  Along this middle portion of the trail you pass through a variety of trees and can see groups of brightly colored Aspen trees.  Through miles 4-6.5, the trail passes through a transition zone when the foliage changes from a desert landscape to a cool Canadian Forest with Aspen, Pine, and Spruce trees.  As you pass through the forest you also hike across several several large scree debris fields where large pieces of rock have slid down the mountain.  The footing in these sections is not too bad, and it is cool to look up at the slides.

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Near mile 3 where the trail begins to meander through some cliffs.
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The foliage starts to change from desert scrub to a forest with Pines.
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A view of the transition zone where the foliage changes to a forest as you go up in elevation.
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Looking ahead at the intimidating peaks.
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Looking up at the Sandia Crest as the trail wraps around to the side of it.
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Every now and then you can take a break and look back down at Albuquerque.
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The La Luz Trail begins to meander through a forest and temperature drops after mile 4.
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The La Luz Trail then meanders through a valley between some steep rock structures.
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A section of the La Luz Trail where you walk over one of the scree slide zones.
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Around mile 5 you walk through a forest with Aspen trees other beautiful scenery.
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Aspen trees, cairns, and part of Sandia Crest in the background.
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Walking across one of the switchbacks that goes over a scree slide zone. (pictured: prAna Men’s Stretch Zion Pants)
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Looking ahead at the scattered Aspen trees.
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Looking up at one of the scree zones along the trail.

From miles 6.5 to 8, the trail begins to level out and traverses the Sandia Crest.  Follow signs that lead to the tram unless you have specifically planned to take a side trip.  There are other trails near the top of the crest that will lead you far from the tram if you are not prepared.  As you approach the tram, the views are great.  Around the 7 mile mark there is a junction for a trail to the Kiwanis Cabin.  This cabin is located at the top of a crest at about 10,600 feet.  We did not hike here and instead went straight to the observation deck next to the tram.  If you hike to the cabin, it adds an extra ~1.5 miles round trip from the junction.

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There is a sign and a viewpoint at about the 6.5 mile mark.  From this point on, the trail starts to level out.
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As the La Luz Trail traverses around the Sandia Crest, you are treated to great views to the southwest.
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Views from the trail at around the 7 mile mark, looking south.
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Looking southwest, towards Albuquerque.
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Looking southwest, towards Albuquerque (zoomed in)
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Looking back at the Sandia Crest, which the La Luz trail traverses.
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Looking South along the La Luz trail at about the 7.5 mile mark.
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The Sandia Peak Tram is in the center of the picture, climbing up to the top of the mountain.
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Near the end of the trail, you reach a junction and should follow the signs to the tram and observation deck.

When we reached the observation deck, we took in the views for a bit.  You can see both the views of Albuquerque to the west and the views of the ski slopes and mountains on the east side of the Sandia Mountains.  At the top we grabbed some water from the drinking fountain in the ticket office and bought some snacks from the vending machine.  We then bought our one way tickets for the tram and waited until we were ready to head down.  There are some benches on the observation deck where you can rest and relax if you do not want to immediately take the tram down the mountain.

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Looking East from near the top of the La Luz Trail.  You go past the ski lifts before you reach the observation deck and visitor center.
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From the top of the trail you can see the mountains to the East of the Sandias.
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The view of Albuquerque from the observation deck at the top of the La Luz Trail.
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Panoramic view from the observation deck at the top of the La Luz Trail.
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View of the crest from the observation deck.  The Kiwanis Cabin is located at the end of the crest.
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Looking down at the tram cables.  The tram travels over the ridge on the right side of the picture and continues down to the edge of the city.
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The visitor center at the top of the Sandia Peak Tram.
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The Sandia Peak Tram as it leaves the visitor center and heads to the bottom of the mountain.

The tram ride down the mountain is fun and provides some nice views.  If you do not want to spend the whole day hiking, the hike up / tram down option is great!  The tram heads down the mountain every 20-30 minutes and there is not too long of a line when heading down the mountain (unlike going up the mountain when the tram line can be >1 hour long).  Note that the tram does not take you back to the La Luz Trailhead.  It lets you off at the Trailhead for the Tramway Trail, which is ~3.5 miles from the La Luz Trailhead.  Overall this is a great hike!

For more (and better) balloon pictures, see my trip report on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta!

3 Replies to “La Luz Trail – Cibola National Forest (8 miles)”

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