Cibola National Forest Overview

Around the country, national forests that were once relatively out of the way are now caught in the headlights as Western cities sprawl outward. Such is the case in Cibola National Forest, which adjoins the booming Albuquerque metropolitan area. Somehow, this combination of wilderness, wildlife, and the contraptions of modern society find a way to coexist.

Cibola National Forest is a collection of land parcels scattered about central and western New Mexico. In some places, like the lowland deserts, it doesn't resemble anything remotely like a "forest." The forest ranges in elevation from an arid 5,660 feet to a snowy, windswept 11,301 feet atop Mount Taylor. Lower elevations are characterized by rolling hills cut by sand washes and small canyons. Up high, prominent canyons and exposed rock faces define the mountainsides.

How's this for contrast? Most other major mountaintops in the Cibola sprout electronic equipment, including Sandia Mountain with its vast complex of TV and radio stations serving all of New Mexico. The Langmuir Research Site on South Baldy conducts atmospheric research, primarily on lightning.

And yet, the forest is also graced with four federal wildernesses totaling 150,000 acres, among them Sandia Wilderness, a true "urban wilderness" close to Albuquerque. Water is scarce in these wildernesses, which means those willing to pack their own will relish in absolute solitude.

Head for the Crest
Try as you might, it's difficult to resist ascending the Sandia Crest. Sure the crest is the most popular scenic attraction in the forest, and with good reason. The panoramic view from the observation point—10,678 feet above sea level—is unequaled elsewhere in the state. To reach it, you have several options: Folks with big lungs and big calf muscles can bike all 3,700 feet of vertical gained on the 12-mile run from the desert floor to the mountain crest along Scenic Byway 536. You might take the aerial tram—America's longest. Or you can drive the same scenic route the bikers take up the mountain's east slope. Amateur botanists will enjoy watching the desert scrub transform to thick ponderosa forest. Bikers will appreciate the cool air as they approach the summit, and daredevils will enjoy the plunge back down.

Explore a Rough and Tumble Wilderness
The Manzano Mountain Wilderness is not for the faint of heart or weak of knee. It ranges from pinyon-juniper woodland at 5,000 feet to ponderosa pine and aspen at the 10,000-foot crest. Terrain is steep and rugged, cut with canyons and rock outcrops. A well-developed trail system is tapped by several easily reached trailheads, but trails are little used due to the lack of reliable water sources. Carry all you'll need to drink and enjoy your own private hiking estate.

More on the Manzano Mountain Wilderness

Ski Sandia Peak
Only a short ride from downtown Albuquerque you'll find some of the longest "cruiser" ski runs in New Mexico. Sandia Peak Ski Area offers 30 trails serviced by four chairlifts, a surface lift, and a mitey mite for children. Cross-country skiers can enjoy 30 miles of trails in the Cibola National Forest at the top of the mountain. The entire area is snowboard friendly. Ski facilities open usually from the first good storms in December to about the middle of March.

Ice Fish in the Zuni Mountains
Stocked with rainbow trout, native or cutthroat trout, and catfish, with trout weighing up to nine pounds, Bluewater Lake in the Zuni Mountains is the place to go in Cibola when that angling itch acts up. The lake also is a popular spot for ice fishing in the winter months. If the fish aren't biting, pack a pair of binoculars and watch for some of the 68 different species of birds that live around the lake.

Bike the Turquoise Trail
The Turquoise Trail (State Route 14) is a 52-mile roadway connecting the high desert region around Santa Fe with the lowland desert near Albuquerque. Whether you're pedaling two wheels or pushing the accelerator on four, get off the interstate and follow Route 14. The rewards are a passage back in time through old mining towns where the ghosts roam, plus thriving communities of artisans and craftsmen. The impressive Sandia Crest is rarely out of view.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 27 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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