Everybody knows it’s cooler in the mountains, so get out and explore them already. You don't need climbing gear or a Sherpa to scale tall peaks—just a thirst for adventure and, perhaps, a beer or two. Here are a few of my picks for an elevated summer.
Cerro Grande Peak shows scars a year after the Los Conchas fire, but Bandelier National Monument is open again and ready to welcome back explorers.
As of June 30, monument visitors who want to access the main part of Bandelier National Monument to see the ruins and waterfalls along Frijoles Canyon will have to park in the town of White Rock and ride a shuttle bus to the park. The monument’s parking facilities were impacted by the fire, and due to post-fire erosion and the threat of flooding that follows it, the historical visitor center, museum and theater remain closed. Check the website before you go, and chat with a ranger when you stop at the gate. They’ll have the most up-to-date info on park conditions.
If you want to hike the 10,199-foot-high Cerro Grande, you’ll find the trailhead 13 miles west of the main gate to Bandelier Monument. The twisting drive to the trailhead offers spectacular views of red rock hoodoos and huecos as you climb ever higher to the mixed conifer forest at the start of the hike.
This well-marked, two-mile journey (four miles round trip) ascends about 3,000 feet from top to bottom. It’s a whole lot of elevation gain in a short distance, and the trees grow out of the mountain at an angle. Hikers willing to work are rewarded with panoramic views of the lush green Valles Caldera, the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east. Three-quarters of the way up, there’s a lush, secluded alpine meadow that begs you to spin in circles and sing like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. This hike is steep, there’s no water, and dogs aren’t allowed at the monument, but anyone who’s made it to the top will tell you every sooty step along the way is worth it.
A small, handmade sign points the way to this tiny cabin nestled next to Touch-Me-Not Mountain in Eagle Nest (halfway between Red River and Angel Fire). There’s no way to stumble across Comanche Creek Brewery. You have to be looking for it. The pint-sized place is a haiku to hops, where owners Kody and Tasha Mutz make small batches of great beer. It’s a perfect place to kick back on the porch and pretend you’re at home in the mountains. The outdoor patio is open noon to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
Taos has always been a retreat for artists, and the legacy continues with a summer-long selection of workshops for writers and photographers. This brings a diverse, worldly bit of culture to the sleepy pueblo town. On a summer afternoon there’s no better way to soak up the scene than on Eske's patio. This cozy brewpub in an old house serves up live music and New Mexico comfort food with a selection of handcrafted beers.
Who says you have to leave town to get high? Explore Albuquerque from two miles up on the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway. Seriously, it’s not just for tourists.
This feat of engineering offers 11,000 square miles of views as it chugs up to the 10,378-foot summit. If you take it up early on a summer’s day you might even catch a glimpse of hot air balloons floating in the west. The steep ascent over the canyon will flip even a seasoned mountaineer’s stomach. The folks who aren’t terrified during the ride think it’s great.
Once you reach the top, you can reward your date’s bravery with a meal at High Finance. Everyone is a cheap date at 10,000 feet, where one of High Finance’s signature watermelon Martinis feels like three. Enjoy the buzz as you survey the twinkly lights of the metropolis below. The stalwart restaurant is the only game in town with a view—or, for that matter, a business model—like this. There is no road to High Finance; it’s accessed only by the Tram and the Sandia Peak ski lifts, so even the water has to be shipped in.
For folks who prefer to get up and down the mountain the old-fashioned way, Sandia Peak will fire up the chairlifts for hiking and mountain biking on May 26. Summertime chairlifts run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There’s a variety of options, from challenging expert downhill thrill rides to novice out-and-back routes. If you’re a total newbie, you can rent all the gear you need to get started. A rental package with an all-day lift ticket will set you back $58. Remember: The mountain requires that you wear a helmet. And because the Tram does not allow bikes (or pets), you’ll have to make the drive to the ski area via Cedar Crest.
While it’s generally associated with wintertime pursuits, there’s more than one season to enjoy Taos’ mountain. Summer chairlifts at the Taos Ski Valley get cranking on June 23 and offer mountain-bikers access to 25 miles of alpine single track. Even if you’re not looking to bag some gnarly downhills, the chairlift runs Thursday through Monday ($9 adults, $6 children), offering mountain majesty to all without the hike or a bike. The village also has a free disc golf course near the lodge on Strawberry Hill. Taos Ski and Boot Co. rents discs if you’re looking to throw an impromptu round.
Hike around this state long enough and you learn to appreciate a marked, maintained trail. If you like being outside and using power tools (who doesn’t?), New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors is the group for you. When members aren’t backpacking into remote locations to rebuild trails, they’re getting together for day hikes and generally having a good time.
To help hikers stay on the beaten path, NMVO will host a National Trails Day work session on June 2 at Santa Fe’s Hyde Memorial State Park. This one-day work trip will focus on improving trail intersections. Volunteers should pack a lunch and show up ready to work and dressed for the terrain (boots, long pants, work gloves, etc.). Team leaders provide tools and expertise. You provide sweat equity. Visit NMVO’s website for a teeming list of upcoming projects that meander all over New Mexico.
Burqueños are adjusted to life at 5,000 feet, but trips up the Tram or treks in the Taos mountains are more fun when you’re properly prepared. Don’t forget to bring:
• Water, extra water, lots of water and then some more water. Remember that alcohol’s effects are felt more strongly at higher altitudes, so when you’re in the mountains, do have a glass of water between beers.
• Sunscreen. Direct UVB rays are 60 percent more potent at 8,500 feet than at sea level. While the air may feel cooler than at home, the sun’s rays are more powerful. Layer on the sunscreen.
• Chapstick. The air is thinner, the wind is harsher, and the sun’s rays are stronger. Your lips are going to need a little extra moisture with some SPF protection to stay comfortable.
• A hoodie or a jacket. Half of New Mexico’s summer season includes monsoons. When a thunderstorm rolls into the mountains, conditions can change quickly. Be prepared. A windbreaker and long-sleeve shirt will keep you as comfortable at the top of the mountain as a T-shirt will at the base.
For those weekends when you’d rather sit in a dark room, watching a cool adventure documentary can take some of the sting out of your sunburn. Two films at the top of my list:
If the breathtaking views of Patagonia don’t draw you into this documentary, the soundtrack will. The score is by James Mercer and Ugly Casanova, among others.
Ride the Divide
Accompany a group of mountain-bikers as they race from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Watch the diverse scenery scroll by and feel some sweet schadenfreude that you’re not in the bike seat.