The Sandoval Signpost

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David Hammack climbs La Luz trail
David Hammack climbs La Luz trail

Snow-covered switchbacks of La Luz Trail are visible left of “The Thumb.”
Snow-covered switchbacks of La Luz Trail are visible left of “The Thumb.”

Looking the other way
Looking the other way

Hiking La Luz

—TY BELKNAP
After living around here for over twenty years, I finally hiked La Luz Trail. What a waste of good legs to have waited so long! People come from all over the world to hike La Luz. It’s a major destination.

David Hammack has been hiking La Luz for nearly fifty years. As a young man, he started hiking the Sandias and pioneered the sport of rock climbing there, making several first ascents. He has hiked La Luz at least once a week since he retired fourteen years ago. He has also competed in the trail race many times.

Although he will miss this year’s race while trekking in the Andes Mountains of Peru, he plans to compete next year—he’ll be eighty years old. In fall issue of 2001 Trail Runner Magazine, La Luz Race was selected as one of the “twelve most grueling trail races in North America.”

Some of you old-timers out there in your rocking chairs might remember Hammack as a science teacher, minister at Las Placitas Presbyterian church, adobe builder, and electrical contractor. Nowadays, people know him as the volunteer ranger on La Luz Trail.

Mike Coltrin’s Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide says, “La Luz Trail is the best known trail in the Sandia Mountains. It is also the most challenging. It takes the hiker from the hot desert landscape to the cool Canadian forest. The length (7.5 miles each way) and elevation gain (around thirty-two hundred vertical feet) make La Luz Trail a difficult but rewarding outing. Each year, search and rescue teams hunt for inexperienced hikes who wander off the trail and become stranded or lost.”

I met Hammack at the trailhead after taking Forest Road 333 off Tramway Boulevard and following the signs for about two miles to the La Luz parking lot. It was an early Saturday morning on one of last month’s unseasonably warm late winter days, and the parking lot was already filling up. The parking lot ranger gave me a reprimand for speeding, along with a day use fee envelope ($3, correct change only).

As a hiker who had experienced being stuck unprepared in the mountains, I packed three layers of clothing, a rain suit, fire-making equipment, a bear knife, and a gallon of water. Hammack, by contrast, carried a tiny pack with a single water bottle. “I can’t see carrying more than I need, and we can refill at the top,” he explained.

I unloaded some water and added a pair of borrowed boot treads with metal studs before we started walking. Asked if it was really such a difficult trail, Hammack said, “Not really—strenuous maybe.” We were accompanied part of the way by a local physician who, like many La Luz regulars, spends of his most weekend days on the trail. Hammack would look around like he was seeing the incredible views for the first time and exclaim, “Isn’t that beautiful,” as he kicked horse manure and fallen rocks off the trail, picked up microtrash, and counted heads.

We shaved a mile or so off the hike by occasionally leaving the switchbacks of the main trail and heading straight up on the “Old La Luz.” (It’s still an approved trail.) The crest above gives the illusion of being really close—it’s not.

It took about an hour to climb from the piñon-juniper desert into Ponderosa pines above La Cueva Canyon, where snowmelt gushed into a one-hundred-foot waterfall hidden by a cliff. Hammack showed me the cave that gives the canyon its name. We entered an aspen forest at the base of the “Thumb,” which is a rock spire familiar from afar.

At the five-mile point, we velcroed on the snow treads. The top of a sign warning of snow and difficult conditions was just visible from a snow drift. The main trail looped back downhill, but it remained unbroken through the switchbacks above. Another of Hammack’s hiking buddies eased his way off the “Old La Luz,” warned us that the snow was getting soft, and raved about the beautiful day.

To continue on, we followed his tracks up a steep grade over deep snow with a fragile crust. Hammack led the way, huffing and puffing at a steady pace. When we stopped to catch our breath and admire the rock features and craggy cliffs that towered above, he uttered his only complaint about the aging process—“muscles and joints still work fine, but lung capacity diminishes about one percent a year, no matter what you do.”

At 10,200 feet, the trail enters a saddle and the trail splits toward the crest house, visible a half mile up and south another mile to the upper tram terminal. It seemed like a good place to turn back because the snow crust was getting too soft to support our weight, and we were starting to “post hole” to above the knee. Downhill was easier, however precarious.

Back on the main trail, we hung out for a while and ate lunch at the La Cueva Overlook (mile 4.3). It’s a good place to admire the views up toward the crest and the panoramic vista to the west—a fine destination in itself. Hammack greeted the many passing hikers, checked on their plans and preparedness, and offered advice. (Only days before, two young Texans lost the trail after dark and required rescue.) Some hikers had parked at the lower tram terminal and hoped to ride back down. Most said they were going “as far as we can.” Few were equipped for what lay ahead.

Hammack usually likes to take the main trail down so he can relax and enjoy the scenery, but I made the mistake of suggesting that we hurry back the old way. My guide cruised down with the loose-shouldered gait of a teenager, jogging around tight turns. Knees aching and blisters popping, it was all I could do to keep up—and he’s got over twenty years on me.

It was inspirational. Hammack will probably shrug if he reads this, wondering, “What’s the big deal?” The man just likes to hike in the mountains. In the parking lot, he told me to give him a call when I’m ready to climb the “Thumb.”


House passes memorial urging completion of Continental Divide trail in New Mexico

On March 8, the New Mexico House of Representatives unanimously approved House Memorial 39, which urges completion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) that traverses New Mexico. This memorial is the first of its kind passed in any of the five states along the CDT route (including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico).

The CDT was designated by the United States Congress in 1978, but is not yet finished. When complete, the CDT will stretch 3,100 miles across the backbone of the western United States, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. According to the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA), some 740 miles of the CDT will cross New Mexico, but only forty-six percent (338 miles) of the trail is complete in the state.

HM 39 urges State Parks and the State Land Office to work with local, state, federal, tribal, and private entities to complete the New Mexico segment of the CDT. The federal agencies involved with the CDT include the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The Memorial also urges the New Mexico Legislature and the U.S. Congress to provide funding to complete the CDT.

“More trails are the public’s number one recreation priority in New Mexico, and I applaud Rep. Cote’s leadership to support the CDT; State Parks is ready to do our part,” said Dave Simon, New Mexico State Parks Director.

State Parks has recently joined the interagency CDT group and has awarded several grants totaling $130,000 to help complete CDT segments. State Parks plans to provide other funding and assistance as appropriate. On April 9, federal and state partners along with the Pueblo of Acoma will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaborate on the CDT in New Mexico. This MOU will also be the first of its kind in the country for a national scenic trail.

For more information on the Continental Divide Trail and other recreational trails programs in New Mexico, visit www.nmparks.com, or contact the CDTA at www.cdtrail.org.


Legislature endorses completion of Rio Grande Trail

On March 16, the state legislature passed Senate Joint Memorial 44 (SJM 44) and House Joint Memorial (HJM 49), which endorses the completion of the proposed Rio Grande Trail (RGT) in New Mexico.

SJM 44 and HJM 49, which are identical, declare that: the State Parks Division should be the lead agency for the completion of the Rio Grande Trail; funding should be sought from federal, state, local and private sources; the RGT is a visionary concept proposed by Governor Bill Richardson for a multi-use trail (hiking, biking and equestrian use) along as much as more than five hundred mile river corridor as appropriate and feasible; the RGT dovetails with other important related Rio Grande issues, such as Bosque restoration, flood control, access for recreation and fire protection, and public education about the river/riparian system; the Legislature has provided $4 million for the first phases of the RGT project.

State Parks is currently working with the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) on the section between Bernalillo and Belen. State Parks is taking the lead on the segment from Belen to Sunland Park and expects to begin more detailed route planning and public discussions this summer.

For more information on the Rio Grande Trail, contact Jessica Terrell at (505) 827-1476 or log onto www.nmparks.com.


Winter snowpack and runoff enhance summer recreational opportunities

As a result of average winter snowpack and spring runoff, reservoir levels statewide are projected to be good for recreational opportunities in New Mexico for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

“If the state receives additional spring rains, it may open the door for an extended recreational season through Labor Day,” said State Engineer John D’Antonio. “At this point, it is too early to tell whether additional rain may be a factor in bringing that about. I do want to emphasize that it will take at least a couple of more years of average or above-average snowpack before reservoirs are returned to pre-drought levels.”

“Drought in the Southwest is a long-term phenomenon, so we’re always concerned about wildfires and low lake levels,” said Joanna Prukop, Cabinet Secretary for the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. “But, we had decent snowfall this winter, and we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a good summer for outdoor recreation statewide.”

Abiquiu, El Vado and Cochiti reservoirs are projected to be at least one hundred percent of capacity by Memorial Day weekend. In fact, based on basin reservoir projections, most basin reservoirs are expected to surpass 2006 numbers and even 2005 capacity levels—including Heron, El Vado, Abiquiu, Elephant Butte, Navajo, Ute, and Brantley.

State Parks recently revised its Annual Camping Permit (ACP) to provide a better value for visitors, especially during the busy summer season. The ACP is now good for a full year from month of purchase.

In addition, visitors to State Parks will see many new features, including a new patio at the Dam Site restaurant at Elephant Butte, several new comfort stations at various parks, and new interpretive exhibits at Sumner Lake State Park, among other improvements. State Parks provides unlimited educational, cultural, and interpretive activities throughout the year. More information is available at www.nmparks.com.

While New Mexicans and other visitors are enjoying the state’s natural resources, the New Mexico State Forestry Division would like them to remember to be safe when using campfire sites and open cooking areas. While early forecasts are calling for a less severe fire season than last year, danger still remains and all precautions should be taken, such as clearing all debris and brush from around the campfire or outdoor grill.

“We’ve already seen numerous fires across the state on private and public land this year,” said New Mexico State Forester Arthur “Butch” Blazer. “I can’t urge strongly enough that vacationers in our state be sure of any restrictions or rules on the use of fire in the area they plan to visit. While drought conditions have eased in many areas, there is still a lot of dry fuel out there that could catch fire very easily.”

Some upcoming spring/summer events at New Mexico state parks include:

• Ongoing—Rio Grande Nature Center State Park’s 25th anniversary (Albuquerque)—monthly events scheduled throughout the year, with a birthday celebration on June 23.
• April 21, 22—Percha Dam State Park (Truth or Consequences)—”4th Annual Migration Sensation”
• April 28—Elephant Butte Lake State Park (Elephant Butte)—”Southwest Regional Windrider Regatta”
• May 10-13—Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park (Carlsbad)—”21st Annual Mescal Roast”
• May 12, 13—Clayton Lake State Park (Clayton)—”Clayton Lake Trout Derby”
• May 28—Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park (Angel Fire)—”Honoring Veterans on Memorial Day”

For additional events at any of the thirty-four state parks in New Mexico, log on to www.nmparks.com.

 

 

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