With mountains, deserts, rivers volcanoes and a sky that seems to go on forever… New Mexico is both the “Land of Enchantment” and adventure! But when the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta rolls around each October, the State fills seemingly countless with balloons and tourists alike.  If you decide to explore NM and the Balloon Fiesta, but need to get away from the crowds, here are 5 awesome you can’t miss!

View from a cloudy day in the Sandia Mountains, NM

1. Trail run (or hike) the Sandia Mountains –

Only an hour drive from the Balloon Fiesta Park and downtown Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains are impossible to miss.  The 10,678-ft. tall peak rises abruptly from the Rio Grande River (at 4500 ft.).  From the top of the peak you can see the vast expanse of New Mexico, often all the way out to Mount Taylor (a dormant volcano) over 90 miles away. With multiple trail heads, climbs, scrambles, and paths up and down, trail running this area is something that will keep you busy until the Balloon Fiesta’s evening balloon glow.   For those wanting to also get a nice view of the Sandia’s, and save their legs for adventures to come, I recommend taking the world’s longest aerial tram up and down from the west side of the mountains.

Sandia Mountains to the east of Albuquerque are a result of the uplift that occurred as the Rio Grande Rift was forming approximately 10 million years ago and are also the associated with some of the most dramatic volcanism in the Southwestern United States.

Albuquerque mountains
One of the many trails in the Sandia Mountains

2. Kayak the Rio Grande –

The Rio Grande passes right through the center of Albuquerque and is the lowest point in a massive geological feature known as the Rio Grande Rift.  Often a lazy river, the Rio Grande in October is typically shallow, slow moving and perfect for a relaxing float.  From the river, you can experience the beauty of Albuquerque’s Bosque (Spanish for forest) and get a different view of the city’s historic cottonwood trees as they continue to change color in anticipation for the approaching winter.

The Rio Grande is among the longest twenty-five rivers in the world and the fourth or fifth longest in North America.  It starts in Colorado and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

New Mexico's Rio Grande
Rio Grande in New Mexico

3. Explore the Rio Grande Gorge –

If you have some extra time then you should try to check out the Rio Grande Gorge, and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, just beyond the City of Taos New Mexico.  The gorge has Class II to Class V white water rapids, numerous hiking trails, hidden hot springs and an amazing bridge that spans from one edge to another.  Absolutely worth the extra credit… plus it’s so close to other adventures mentioned above!

It is easy to assume that the Rio Grande eroded and shaped the high desert landscape that it flows through. However, the opposite is true. The Rio Grande River exists because of the Rio Grande Rift, a continental rift zone which starts in Colorado and extends to Mexico. The land here is ripping itself apart creating a natural drainage basin and the path of the Rio Grande.

Lava flows are no match for flowing water
The Rio Grande Gorge

4. Climb the highest peak in New Mexico –

If you are looking for a challenge, and want some elevation, I suggest testing your adventure skills against 13,159 ft. tall Wheeler Peak.  Hidden in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, the highest peak in New Mexico is an amazing hike any time of year, especially in fall.  Though the trail is only about 4.1 miles each way with an elevation gain of 2,961 feet, the peak will still test your route-finding skills, get your legs a workout and give you the chance to stand above glaciated basins thousands of feet below.  You will also get a chance to check out the Tao Ski Valley and I recommend getting some schnitzel and a beer at the Bavarian Inn which is both the starting and finishing point of your climb.

The preferred trail head for the Wheeler Peak trail is 1.5 miles before the Wheeler Peak campground on the scenic drive. This trail head has plenty of parking and avoids a 200-foot climb in elevation. Not crazy but after a long day the extra 200 ft. will make the finish that much better.

Part of the Rocky Mountains
North of the Sangre de Cristos

5. Mountain bike volcanoes and meander petroglyphs –

Rising subtlety from the western side of Albuquerque are 3 small volcanoes and a vast expanse of lava flow that originated from the dynamic landscape in the distance.  One of my favorite trail running and mountain biking spots, the ladies (as I call them) or the sisters as many locals call them are reminders of the areas violent geological past.  They are also one of the best spots to watch a sunrise in Albuquerque.  Though a bit exposed to the sun, the trails here are well maintained and you can even find basalt caves hidden in a couple of the craters.  I recommend running or biking the length of the volcano chain but make sure you have some time and start early… it’s a longer biking trail and more has more elevation gain/loss biking than you may think!

Just below the volcanos, you can hike in Petroglyph National Monument, one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America that features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks 400 to 700 years ago.

Known as the Albuquerque Volcanoes, 3 significant volcanic features (and two smaller features) dot the landscape along the western edge of the city. These volcanos are a result of fissure eruptions which explains why the volcanos are aligned in a row of eruption craters which were all active at the same time. The basaltic lava flow from these volcanoes extends eastward toward the city and today stands as a lava-covered plateau, known as West Mesa.

High desert plains and the Rio Grande Gorge

    *Extra Credit:

Tour a super volcano –

Somewhere around 1.25 million years ago, an apocalyptic volcanic eruption created the 13-mile wide circular depression now known as the Valles Caldera… and it’s just a short drive away from Santa Fe, NM.  If you want to explore this super volcano’s less traveled areas, October is the last month that you can get backcountry permit. If you want a more relaxing tour of the Valles Caldera National Preserve there are great audio routes, road side signs and a slew of information at the nearby visitor center.

Adventure Hydrology
Adventurer, Scientist, Explorer - Chris Wolff is the Worlds first Adventure Hydrologist

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