Sandoval Signpost


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  Time Off

Las Huertas Canyon provides winter adventure and exercise.—Photo by Ty Belknap

Cross-county skiing in Las Huertas Canyon

—Ty Belknap

The icy blasts of December made mockery of the La Niña drought forecast. They were ushered in by a record-breaking windstorm that forced me to climb up on the roof with concrete blocks to hold down ripped shingles that were flapping in the eighty-mile-per-hour gusts and keeping everybody awake. At daybreak, I drove to Bernalillo for roofing supplies because of the blizzard forecast. After that, the fun began.

On the following day, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management urged New Mexicans to prepare for cold weather, icy conditions, and snow. The press release warned us to bring the animals inside and avoid outdoor activity, but if one must go out, he should avoid exertion. They must have been kidding. I dug out my cross-country ski gear even though there wasn’t much snow at my house. This was the storm dubbed the “Doughnut Hole Storm” because it dumped up to a foot of snow in the foothills and nothing in Albuquerque. Six inches of snow closed schools in Rio Rancho for three days. I loaded up my dog Lalo and my old rock skis, not expecting to find adequate ground cover in Las Huertas Canyon. While driving around doing some errands, the roads were clear, but the canyon had eight to ten inches of fresh powder as soon as the pavement ended. Yahoo!

I drove about a mile to find a wide place in the road to park out of the way of the usual bunch of 4WD lunatics and pickup trucks full of innertubes. Because of the cold, the road there was nice packed powder in the tire treads instead of rocks and slush. Lalo and I headed up the hill, Lalo too far out front for safety with the occasional vehicles. Time after time, I called him back, and he’d come flying down the road, ears flapping, tail wagging, practically quivering with joy and excitement.

I skied up through the Sandia Man Cave parking lot, then made first tracks on the trail up to the cave. It took about an hour. From the cave you can see down to the mouth of the canyon and far off the vastness of mesa and mountains to the west. The late afternoon sun appeared through the clouds just above the ridge—and it was all mine. Lalo doesn’t tolerate much time spent standing still and admiring the wonders of nature. He was barking and running in circles looking for a stick to fetch, so we headed back. It was getting dark anyway.

 Las Huertas Canyon allows you to ski as long as you want, then turn around and let the skis run back down to the car with little worry of over-exertion, getting lost, or freezing to death. It’s good to carry a windbreaker for the downhill, though, especially if you have worked up a sweat in a tee shirt on the uphill.

I went again the next day, retracing my tracks. This time the sun was shining, I had my good skis, and there was not a car in sight. It has been rare in recent years to have good conditions in the canyon for two days in a row.

Two days later, it was still so cold that the snow wouldn’t even pack into a snowball. I parked at the Sandia Man Cave lot and headed up the road again. I skied up to the picnic ground and crossed the creek at a place we like to cool off on a hot summer day. In a sunny glade by the creek, the dog allowed me a moment of reverie to think back on last summer when the road was closed due to fire danger. My world has changed a lot since then.

We skied around the trails behind the picnic area with no particular goal in mind. Being alone in the woods on skis is a psychedelic pleasure. Sometimes I practically have to pinch myself to see if its real. Lalo could scarcely believe his good fortune, getting to romp through good snow for the third time in a week.

It seems a bit frivolous because there is work to be done, but it’s been snowing again for the last couple of days, and the sun just broke through the clouds. I think I’ll send this Time Off story off to the proofreader and go see if there is any skiing in the canyon. If the La Niña predictions are accurate, this could be my last chance.

Later. . . Whoa, that was a little scary. Deep, heavy, slick snow with lots of traffic. I forgot about the schools being on Christmas vacation. Trucks were stuck and fishtailing by barely in control. The air was full of exhaust fumes. Las Huertas Canyon is not always the best place to ski—it’s just nearby. The best place is just outside your front door, but Placitas rarely gets enough snow for that. Maybe it did twenty years ago when Kay Matthews wrote the following article for the Signpost.

Cross Country in Placitas

—Kay Matthews

As winter approaches, those of us in Placitas who are cross-country skiers avidly anticipate the first “big one” that will dump enough snow so we can actually ski out our front doors. It usually happens at least once a year (except for the drought years we suffered during the late 1980s), and cross-country tracks are the first ones you find on all the forest access roads that provide good ski terrain on our end of the Sandias.

There are several especially good areas to ski when there is sufficient snow, Forest Road 445, which makes a six-mile loop through the Bernalillo Watershed, is a cross-country skier’s delight. The road is fairly well graded and if you ski the area immediately after a storm of over eight inches you shouldn’t run over many rocks. Starting at the east end of the road at the 3-mile marker on SH 165 (there is a parking pull-off several hundred yards up the road), the route begins a gradual two-mile ascent to the turn-off to Piedra Lisa Trailhead (FR 445A). It’s a good, rigorous climb along stretches and curves, with a few downhill swoops, as the road travels in a southwesterly direction to the base of the mountains.

Once past the turnoff to the trailhead, the road climbs a little farther to a cattle guard (be careful to step off the road to the gate through the fence) where the long 4 mile-descent begins. It’s a wonderful, long glide down the road with views extending north to the Rio Grande Valley, San Felipe Pueblo, and on to the Jemez Mountains. Most of the terrain is steep enough to facilitate a glide, with occasional areas that necessitate the cross-country stride. Where the road eventually meets the highway you can ski along the ample shoulder the quick quarter-mile back to your car.

Another popular Placitas area to ski is the Las Huertas Canyon Road. Because the road is also a favorite four-wheel drive area, cross-country skiers must get an early start before the four-wheelers tear up the snow and create unsafe skiing conditions. The road leads eight miles from the end of the pavement to SH 165 to the junction with SH 536, the Crest Highway. The hard-core skier can make it to the top and back in a day, but a more leisurely ski trip can be made to Las Huertas Picnic Ground, which lies just over three miles from the end of the pavement.

It’s a steady climb up the windy canyon road alongside Las Huertas Creek, past Sandia Man Cave to the large meadow on the west side of the creek. This is a good area for the beginner skier to practice stops and turns on the short hills surrounding the meadow.

The road continues on to the picnic ground where you can stop for lunch at one of the snow-covered tables or ski on to the upper section and practice more stops and turns. Las Huertas Road becomes steeper once past the picnic ground, through the Ellis Homestead and around the head of Capulin Canyon to the junction with the Crest Highway. A really fun way to ski the Las Huertas Road is to persuade a friend to take you around the mountain and drop you off at the top of the road. Then it’s an exhilarating eight-mile glide down the canyon to Placitas.

Kay Matthews is the author of several guide books, including Cross Country Skiing in Northern New Mexico as well as La Jicarita News.

Sandoval County Senior Olympics underway

Just a reminder to all Sandoval county residents that 2012 is a qualifying year for the National Senior Games to be held in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21 to August 5, 2013. Sandoval County registration booklets will be distributed to all Sandoval County senior centers no later than Friday, January 6, 2012. The New Mexico State Games will be held in Las Cruces from July 25 to July 29, 2012. If you have any questions or cannot obtain a registration booklet, call Romeo Sanchez, Sr. at 505-321-2334.

Ice too dangerous for fishing at Fenton Lake

—New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

Fenton Lake will likely remain closed to ice fishing through the winter because thermal activity is creating unsafe ice conditions.

Although the lake is covered with ice, columns of warm water rising from the lake bottom can weaken the ice and in some places create holes where anglers could fall through. The lake will reopen to fishing and boating when the ice clears or if officials determine the ice is safe for walking and angling. The ice is considered safe when it is at least nine inches thick throughout the lake surface, according to criteria established by the Department.

Fenton Lake State Park will remain open for camping and other activities.

For more information and updates, contact Fenton Lake State Park at (575) 829-3630. Information also is available on the Department of Game and Fish or New Mexico State Parks websites at: and

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