On Sunday afternoon, vehicles lined the road leading to a packed parking lot at the La Luz trailhead, mountain bikers cruised the single track near Otero Canyon in Tijeras and families filled picnic tables on Sandia Crest Road.
It marked the final day to access the Sandia and Mountainair ranger districts of the Cibola National Forest. The districts, and their trails, will be closed to the public from today until rains improve fire conditions. Sandia Crest Road will also be closed to non-residents.
“For so many of us, this is a staple to our life. We camp, we go out and use the mountains and the recreation centers for our vacations, our holidays, our weekend activities,” said Jill Anderson, of Albuquerque. “So it puts a big damper on our way of life.”
Anderson’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary Sunday with a family picnic off Sandia Crest Road.
Many people out getting their last licks of the trails for the near future said the weather-based closure has become an expected frustration.
“It’s understandable because people can’t seem to make wise choices to not cause a fire,” Anderson said. “But for the rest of us, it stinks.”
The Albuquerque-area restrictions are the only planned forest closures in the state. Cibola National Forest’s Mount Taylor and Magdalena ranger districts are staying open, and the Gila, Lincoln and Santa Fe national forests have stage one fire restrictions, which means campfires are only allowed in designated grills or fire pits. Bernalillo County will announce fire restrictions for the East Mountains today. There are no fire restrictions in the Carson Nation Forest.
The Sandia Peak Tram and Albuquerque open-space trails, including those in the foothills and bosque, will remain open.
But the crowds Sunday suggest many Albuquerque residents will be praying for rain.
“Last hike before it’s shut down for who knows how long,” said Meng Khou, who started up the La Luz Trail at 6:30 a.m. “When I got here the parking lot was full.”
Forest Service officials have said the Albuquerque-area closures will be in place until monsoon rains arrive. Monsoon season in Albuquerque is June 15 through Sept. 30, and forecasts predict some rain and thunderstorms could roll into Albuquerque on Tuesday and last through the weekend, said Amanda Martin, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
Shane Gilbert, of Albuquerque, hiked the trail with his family and a friend on Sunday. Gilbert attends college in North Carolina, and the group set out for the trail because of uncertainty if the trail would reopen before Gilbert goes back to school.
“It was pretty much the most people we’ve ever seen on a hike,” he said. Among hikers “there was consensus that it was a last-day effort.”
For mountain bikers, the closure puts most of the popular trails within a half-hour drive from Albuquerque off limits, said Hugh Martin of Albuquerque.
“For people in the Albuquerque and surrounding area who like to ride, it’s a huge hit with probably very little actual fire mitigation,” Martin said after a 3½ hour mountain bike ride near Otero. “You look at how fires start, it’s not mountain bikers, hikers or bird watchers or backpackers. The risk is lightning, power lines and uncaring smokers who toss their cigarettes out the window.”
Martin said it appears the closures have expanded to include more land in the last 10 years or so. He said many cyclists will be making trips to northern New Mexico, Colorado or cycling on the roads or the Paseo del Bosque Trail instead of mountain biking.
John Chavez, of Albuquerque, ran on the La Luz trail for about 2½ hours Sunday morning. He is preparing for the La Luz Trail Run on Aug. 3, and he said a lengthy trail closure could make it difficult to prepare for the grueling race.
“It’s nice to get up and get familiar with the course,” he said. “When they shut it down, we’re running blind come race day.”