Southwest of Belen, a mountain about 9,200 feet in elevation scrapes the clouds.
A landmark visible from Albuquerque, Ladron Peak is a “sky island” at the heart of the Sierra Ladrones Wilderness Study Area (blm.gov).
“It’s an isolated, quiet, rugged mountain in full view from Albuquerque and most areas of the Rio Grande Valley between Albuquerque and Socorro,” said Jonathan Smith, assistant field manager for the area. “It’s not a developed area in any sense of the way.”
There aren’t even any developed trails in the 45,000-acre area, which only adds to its charm, he said.
“It’s a difficult climb,” Smith said. “It’s really for experienced climbers. Not technical rock climbers, but there is a lot of scrambling, and there’s no clear-cut trail. People do get lost up there.”
Still, for those with the wherewithal and the knowledge to make the crest, it’s worth the trouble, he said.
“Being a mountain and in New Mexico, it’s considered a sky island,” Smith said. “You go from desert environments right up into areas where you have subalpine, piñon, juniper, up into ponderosa pine, spruce and fir species. The peak itself is a commanding view of the Rio Grande Valley. The view off the top is pretty spectacular.”
But even those who appreciate mountains without feeling the need to get to the top of them will enjoy the area for other things it offers.
“It’s not a beginner mountain to wander around on, but the area will give you a taste of pretty good wilderness and some desert areas to wander in that are very quiet with not a lot people,” Smith said. “It’s just not highly used at all. It’s a nice place so close to Albuquerque.”
Rife with wildlife, the area is home to mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions and other various small mammals, Smith said.
With the wet winter and spring, the wildflower parade later in the year should be a blast of color, he said.
Likewise, the nearby Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov) should be alive with wildflowers soon, said Kathy Granillo, refuge manager.
Near the Ladrones and covering about 230,000 acres, the refuge is a bastion for many of the same animals, with large mammals including elk, pronghorns, coyotes, bobcats and bears, she said.
Identifying the animals via their waste is the topic of a March 4 tour aimed at the younger set, “Tracks and Scat,” Granillo said.
“We’ll be hiking some arroyos, looking for animals’ signs,” she said. “A lot of times, all that you see are signs. And we’ll talk about how the coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions all like to poop on top of other poop.”
Reserving space on one of the free tours (864-4021) is one of the best ways to see portions of the refuge – which is noted for its diversity in that four biomes collide – not ordinarily available to the general public because the area is a working research refuge with dozens of ongoing projects underway at any one time.
For instance, there’s an Earth Day cleanup of the scenic San Lorenzo Canyon on April 22, and a week later, there’s a staff-led hike through Pino Canyon.
San Lorenzo Canyon is one of the highlight areas of the refuge and the spot where overnight camping is permitted, Granillo said.
“It’s an arroyo, with four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles recommended, or you can hike in,” she said. “It’s a beautiful canyon with hoodoos and other really cool geological features like cliffs, springs with cottonwoods. It’s a visually spectacular place.”
For getting the basic lay of the land, stopping off at the visitor center just off of I-25, exit 169, about six miles south of the Bernardo, is the way to go, Granillo said.
There are three hikes starting from there – two fairly short and one loop of 3.8 miles that climbs atop the mesa.
“It about an 800-foot elevation climb onto the mesa top, with a 360-degree view of the Ladrones, Magdalena, the Rio Grande River valley. It’s a wonderful view up there. You’re also right along the Rio Grande fault rift. At one point, you have a really good view of the rift and the stretching of the continental plates and how it created the Rio Grande Valley.”