Los Lunas Volcano

Traveling south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25 the flat desert landscape is briefly interrupted just to the west of Los Lunas by the remnants of an eroded volcanic cone that thrusts up from the surrounding sandy hills. The black-colored rocky slopes and peaks can be explored on a series of trails within the boundaries of El Cerro de Los Lunas, an open space maintained by the village of Los Lunas. Although there are nice panoramic views of the Rio Grande Valley, this isn’t exactly a scenic hike, especially in the brown, dry winter days of December.

The first couple of times that we went out there we didn’t have a map of the trails and we just stayed on the west side of the summit, doing hikes up and back. Last winter we discovered that it’s possible to do a loop hike of 7.4 miles and completely circle the highest parts of the lava remnants. I had forgotten just how long the hike gets as it winds back and forth around and through the lava flows and sandy arroyo bottoms. When we finished the loop yesterday I felt like I had gotten a good winter workout.

We started at the north end on the Bowl Trail, took the outer loop on the Overlook Trail and then back down the Bowl Trail.

Besides providing a place close to Albuquerque for getting some outdoor exercise, the Los Lunas volcano is an interesting study in New Mexico’s plentiful examples of past volcanic activity. In the hike photos I took there weren’t any that give a sense of how prominent the mound of black rock is in the wide expanse of surrounding desert scrubland. I cheated a bit in the next photo by taking a picture captioned Los Lunas Volcano from a page in the book “Albuquerque: A Guide to Its Geology and Culture.

Los Lunas Volcano

The book is a publication by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, which I have found to be an excellent source of books and publications. Another good explanation of the volcanic features in the area south of Albuquerque can be found on one of the pages of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History website. This gives an overview photo of the chain of volcanic eruptions running on a line north and south in the Rio Grande rift. It puts into perspective the Los Lunas volcano along with the five familiar black humps of the Albuquerque volcanoes that form the western skyline of the city.

In addition to leaving behind eroded cinder cones, the Albuquerque volcanoes oozed out massive lava flows that hardened and formed distinctive escarpments of black basalt rock. Prehistoric peoples left behind petroglyphs on many of the rock faces and today they can be viewed from several different walking trails at Petroglyph National Monument. What we like about this area is that it is right at the edge of town and takes us only a few minutes to get there. Many a day when we have just a couple of hours to be outdoors we head over there to walk the trails. Mountains are wonderful for hiking in warmer months but in the cold days of winter I am thankful that there are interesting desert hikes so close to home.

The next four photos are from past excursions in the petroglyphs.

Montezuma Ridge

Lee sometimes gets inside information on Cibola National Forest projects that are in the early planning stages. Several months ago he began talking about an area east of Placitas where the forest service was working on a trail up Montezuma Ridge. Neither of us had heard of Montezuma Ridge, but Lee found it on some of his maps and I could see that Google Maps has a spot in that area that is labeled Crest of Montezuma. But my usual sources of information on hiking destinations yielded nothing. If I can’t find published hike descriptions I tend to lose enthusiasm for an exploration. Lee, on the other hand, thrives on finding a hike that no one else has done.

With very little information to go on, our first attempt several weeks ago to hike up Montezuma Ridge was a dead end–literally a dead end. Lee’s maps showed that the Ridge was at the end of Diamond Tail Road in Placitas, an area of fancy estates and homes in the foothills at the northern end of the Sandia Mountains. Diamond Tail Road, on the map, appeared to lead through a subdivision before ending at the base of the mountain. Our plan was to drive to the end of the road, park our car, and look for a trail. After several miles of winding through the back roads of Placitas, just before the hill that hid the wealthiest homes, we discovered that the last part of Diamond Tail Road passed through a gated community. With no access for the public, no obvious way for us to get any closer to the ridge and no place nearby to park, we were forced to turn around and find another place to hike in Placitas.

There are two official Forest Service trails at the base of the Sandias that have parking areas on the outskirts of Placitas, as well as a county Open Space Park with hiking trails. Information on the trails at the Open Space is limited and a couple of our attempts in the past to hike there haven’t been very successful. But one unexpected source of maps for the Placitas area is a real estate office on the main road just outside the village limits. We stopped in there to refresh our map supply and Lee was helped by a friendly and quite knowledgeable agent who gave him some tips on local hikes. We were on our way out of Placitas, having hiked at one of the places we knew, but Lee filed away what he learned about Montezuma Ridge for a future Placitas exploration.

The real estate agent had said that there was a parking area on Diamond Tail Road shortly before the gated community and she knew that people parked there to hike. Other than that, she didn’t know specifics about the trail. And in the weeks following our failed attempt Lee hadn’t come across any additional information about the hike. So yesterday when he proposed we make a second go at finding a Montezuma Ridge trail I was not thrilled. I envisioned another one of our unexciting meanders through the arroyos and brushy desert scrublands of Placitas. When we parked and got out of the car I wasn’t even going to bother with taking a hiking pole. The first slippery, snow covered embankment we had to scramble over to get out of the parking lot convinced me otherwise. Lee offered to go back to the car and get my pole I didn’t argue with him.

As the hike progressed upwards through some rocky and steep terrain I was very thankful that I had a hiking pole. I wasn’t expecting an uphill climb, not having the faith that we would even find Montezuma Ridge. As expected there were no signs to indicate a trail so we headed into the scrub, following tracks made by off road ATV’s. That led us to one of the all too common New Mexico clearings that is used for target practice. Fortunately, looking just east of the clearing on the opposite side of the arroyo, we noticed what appeared to be a trail winding around a bend in the arroyo. We backtracked and shortly found ourselves on a trail that actually had a nice series of rock cairns leading off into the pinyon pines. The cairns weren’t always visible when needed and we made several false turns. But with tracks in the snow made by previous hikers and, once in awhile, even a trail marker on a tree we managed to get up the ridge.
We didn’t make it to the section of the ridge that shows up on maps as the Crest of Montezuma but we could see how to get to it from our turnaround spot at the top. It didn’t appear too difficult to get there and we filed that away as a future hiking destination. With 2.4 miles of exploratory hiking and a 700 foot elevation gain we figured we had earned our lunch break before heading back down.