Dillon at the river in Costilla Park
Explore New Mexico with this series of must-see destinations from Dillon Korte, an ENMU student.

Let me describe something to you:

You're surrounded by trees. The open air sings with the quiet dignity of nature. The sun beams down through the foliage of the trees, and as you follow the rocky path that seemingly has no end, you can hear the distant quiet of a gurgling stream—almost hidden by the white noise of the pines in the breeze and various birds chirping in the distance.

You follow the mountain road for a few hours until you reach a massive clearing, and high in the mountains, you find a lake by a beautiful waterfall. You rest for a while before continuing your journey. There is, after all, so much more to see.

I was able to experience just this self-made fantasy this past summer. I went camping with some friends, and we went on a few adventures that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

In the spirit of that (and so I can show off my vacation photos—but that's subtext, guys, so you didn't hear it from me), what better way to start off the semester than to plan for the next break?

Alright, so maybe the logic's flawed, but I still want to talk about it.

Many of you must be asking the same thing: "Dillon, what do you mean by adventure?"

Really, it means whatever you feel in your heart when you hear the word. I know quite a few people who would want nothing to do with staying outside for more than nine hours without a roof over your head, a bed to return to or a shower.

Fair enough. Nature can be icky.

However, the beauty outweighs the icky for me. There is no occasion where I'd rather be spending my days in nowhere.

Let me describe what I mean when I say adventure (if the above narrative did nothing for you, which is totally okay):

  • Driving to a remote mountain town with a population smaller than your household.
  • Going past that, into previously mentioned mountains.
  • Driving for hours until you're one hundred percent positive you couldn't be more isolated.
  • Ditch the car and hike deeper into the woods.
  • Find a place to make camp. Sleep under the stars.
  • Survive. Explore. Live.

Okay, so maybe it's sort of a niche fantasy, but that is the essence of what I try to do when I go camping or hiking or backpacking or whatever else you could do.

Before we get into it, it should be said that camping, hiking, backpacking and other outdoor activities are NOT to be taken lightly. It is still a frequent occurrence for novice hikers to hurt themselves or even die on trails due to bad preparation or disregard of safety.

IF YOU ARE NOT CAREFUL, YOU RUN THE RISK OF BEING HURT OR KILLED.

This can be prevented with careful research and preparation for the place you plan on visiting. I wrote a brief overview with general advice as well as official resources to keep yourself safe in the wilderness. This disclaimer will be included in this particular series of adventure blogs. I'm not that sorry if it's tedious because it just needs to be said.

Now, with that all being said, let's launch into things to do around New Mexico. Pictures will accompany various locations to give you a sense of what it looks like in these areas.

I'm going to use a rating system out of five stars as follows for all locations in the coming blogs (five being worth it, one being not worth it):

  1. Intensity of each location. All this means is how much you need to prepare to stay there for an appropriate number of days.
  2. Entertainment factor. It can be rephrased as "What can I do while I'm there?"
  3. Natural intake. How pretty is it (in my own opinion)?
  4. Is the weather worth it for that time of year? That doesn't necessarily mean that the weather is good. In fact, many times, camping weather goes terribly, and it can definitely be miserable. But was it worth it? We'll go more in detail for each one.
  5. The Dreaded Drive. This can be summarized as whether or not the drive is worth it once you're finally there. I'll be using Albuquerque as a reference point, partially because that's how I experienced these locations and partially because Albuquerque is located smack dab in the center of New Mexico, which is pretty useful. Geography, you know?

I'm going to be using this as a general guideline, so don't expect me to follow these rules with the utmost rigidity. I'm going to try to either give these locations a full point or no point at all, and if I can't really decide, I'm going to give it half a point. Each point will be worth one singular star.

 

Location Number One: The Sandia Mountain Range – Albuquerque, New Mexico

sandias outer view

A fuller image of the Sandias from nearby my home on the west side of ABQ.

Located directly to the east of Albuquerque (it's how I stayed familiar with cardinal directions, having lived there for fourteen years), the Sandia Mountain range is literally impossible to miss if you're in or around Albuquerque.

With the highest elevation at 10,678 feet (3,255 meters), the Sandia Mountains are said to be named such due to the coloration of the mountains during sunset—"Sandia" is a Spanish word meaning "watermelon." You can see this coloration in the photo above.

However, upon further research, I discovered that the most likely reason for its name stems from Spaniards who encountered the Native American tribe living under the Sandias. These native peoples grew squash gourds, to which the Spaniards thought were watermelons—thus establishing "Sandias" as the name of the mountain.

Sandia Crest is a beautiful place to take photos and to enjoy the natural scenery. There's a trail that leads south from there towards the Sandia Peak Tramway, which is one of my favorite places to spend time. Also interesting is that same place at night.

If you do decide to go night hiking, be sure to bring flashlights, lamps or headlights with new extra batteries for each one you take. It looks like the video game "Slender" and it's sort of freaky, which is pretty fun.

dillon sandias trail

This is a photo my friend took. Very kind of him, since we were preparing to film a clip for a video when I posed like that. He saw his chance, and he took it. This is about fifty feet from the top of Sandia Crest at about 5:45 p.m. in late July, which is why the sun seems to filter gently through the trees and around my figure.

sandias trees

Further down the trail, there's a large clearing that tends to have herds of deer grazing in it. This shot is pointed towards the trail in between said clearing and the tree line.

sandias peak

Halfway between Sandia Crest and Sandia Peak Tramway is a rocky outcropping upon which sits a dilapidating house. From that point, you get a sparkling clear view of Albuquerque to the west and Edgewood and Moriarty to the east. The line of lights you see behind the mountain is I-40, and the lights on top of the mountain is Sandia Peak Tramway. The photo was taken at 7:30 or 8-ish.

sandias city view night

The view you receive of Albuquerque at the previously mentioned outcropping at approximately 7:45 p.m., give or take ten minutes. You can see miles in nearly every direction.

sandias peak sunset

Another photo taken by a friend, albeit at my insistence. It's a nice aesthetic. Plus, look at that sunset! I did not edit this photo at all—not even my normal tweaks to enhance lighting and color.

SANDIA RATINGS

Intensity – 1 Star

No need to go crazy. Although I believe there are camping sites, the Sandias tend to be a better place for a day trip. Water, rainproof gear, a flashlight, first aid kit and some trail snacks are all I feel you'd need to traverse the mountain.

Entertainment – 1 Star

If you like (relatively) easy-going hiking, the Sandias is the place for you. At each summit, there's a store and restaurant—so you can grab a soda or something before traveling back down. Both places are great. If you go to Sandia Crest via driving up through Tijeras, you also can visit Tinker Town—a cute privately owned museum of stuff that belongs to the owner. It's also a wonderful place for a date with your significant other.

Natural Intake – 1 Star

I don't exactly keep my obsession with the band Lord Huron secret, and I feel the imagery off of their "Strange Trails" album mirrors the natural beauty of the Sandias perfectly.

Weather – ½ Star

Most people visit the Sandias during the summer, as did I. For the summer and fall months, I'd say the weather is worth it. It's exactly how you imagine a mountain should be. However, for the winter and spring months, I don't like going up there unless there's snow. Sometimes there isn't, and that's when the mountain gets dry and frigid, and that's when I'm miserable. In spring, it's just kinda gross due to lots of wind.

The Dreaded Drive – 1 Star

I only ever drive to the crest. The Sandia Peak Tramway is the second-longest in the world, covering 2.7 miles (4.3 km). I went up and down once in my life, and those collective thirty minutes were the scariest in my life. As for Sandia Crest, you'll have to drive carefully to get there—roads in Albuquerque are infamously dangerous, not to mention the winding nature of the road up the back of the mountain—but once you get closer to it, the more worth it I think it is. Gorgeous scenery, and plenty of places to stop in case of an emergency. Fun fact—my mom's minivan broke down once when we were only halfway up there back in 2006 or something. Good times.

OVERALL TOTAL:  4 ½ STARS

The Sandia Mountains are gorgeous, as well as simultaneously difficult and effortless. It's a popular destination for Albuquerque citizens, and the trails can be rather crowded on occasion, but it's totally worth it—whatever you're trying to do in them. If you're in New Mexico for longer than two months, you should make a pilgrimage to Albuquerque just to experience the Sandias.

Location Number Two: Rio Costilla Park – Costilla, New Mexico

I had no idea this place existed until my buddy Jarrod told me about it when I returned to ABQ this past summer. Thanks, man, you're super rad.

Located about an hour from Taos and maybe twenty minutes from the Colorado border, this small community is home to Rio Costilla Park—a beautiful stretch of land in Taos County. Fun fact, it was part of the original Sangre de Cristo (Spanish for "Blood of Christ") Land Grant.

A vast 80,000 acres in the area are owned and maintained by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association (RCCLA). Anything that is not part of the park is owned by private citizens of communities that are within a 20-30 minute drive from Rio Costilla, including Costilla, New Mexico, Amalia, New Mexico, or Garcia, Colorado.

The park was opened to the public in 1983, although not many people know about it today.

"If you walk around wearing anything that says RCCLA on it in Albuquerque, people will occasionally notice it and go up to you," Jarrod once told me while we were preparing for our trip. "'Oh, you've been to Costilla, huh? Who do you know from there?' And there's a big chance they'll know your family. It's a very tight-knit community."

According to the Rio Costilla Park website, the park itself is home to several significant mountain views and peaks, including the "Latir Mountains and Mount Blanca." The biggest peaks in New Mexico are in that same area. Wheeler Peak itself, the highest summit in New Mexico, is just northeast of Taos—maybe an hour away from Costilla.

From my experience, it was simply beautiful. I couldn't recommend going more. I keep thinking about going up there and spending more days in the area. It's been stuck in my mind since I returned.

Be sure to get permits for hiking and camping. Also available are hunting licenses, Rio Costilla being home to game such as Rocky Mountain elk and wild turkey. For more information, you can find them on Facebook or call them at 575.586.0542.

costilla landscape

You'll be greeted on your way out of Costilla and into Amalia by this view. We stopped in the middle of the two-lane road so that we could take this photo, as I had drawn an image shockingly similar to it only a few days prior. It should be said I'd never seen this area before I drove up and saw it in person. Rio Costilla Park is down the road, in between the two mountains you see pictured.

costilla trees mountains

A view from Jarrod's family's property facing the road. HUGE "thank you" to them for letting us use their campsite while they were away! There's a river just thirty feet from where this picture was taken.

costilla river dillon

Here's me standing in said river. It was always moving fast and went as deep as my waist further downriver. The river was so clear that I felt safe to drink from it directly, and I didn't get any parasites from it (as far as I can tell). Really, it looked clearer than the water at home from my refrigerator.

dillon by sign

Me, standing in front of a cool looking sign by a winding road. I just thought it looked neat. That's it.

costilla trees

A view we captured while driving up to Latir Peak, in the heart of the park.

costilla river and trees

I nearly dipped my phone in the creek pictured when I took this uphill from one of the nine lakes you can find in the Latir mountain range.

costilla trail and trees

An image taken on the way back down the mountain after we had our fun. It should be said that the road turns to rocks at the mountain's base, so if you don't have four-wheel drive, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DRIVE TOWARDS THIS PEAK.

costilla sunset and trees

We were concerned about driving back down the mountain in absolute darkness, but that didn't stop us from stopping for the 'gram on the way. This is a couple of miles away from the lake we located.

costilla sunset

As we exited the forested mountain slopes, we reentered the camping part of the park and were met by this. Jarrod's property is located on the other side of the mountain you see in the far back.

COSTILLA RATINGS

Intensity – 1 star

We packed two of our cars to their max capacity to be able to incorporate all our food and stuff, but it was totally worth it for three days. The worst part about it was that we forgot the shredded cheese, eggs and sausages that we were going to use for breakfast.

Entertainment – 1 star

We did a lot while we were there and we didn't even do everything we wanted to do. Definitely worth another trip.

Natural Intake – 1 Star

Perfectly captured the sound of Lord Huron's early EP's. Basically, if I can listen to Lord Huron while I'm there, it's PERFECT.

Weather – 1 star

We were expecting it to rain while we were there—then it did thirty minutes after we finished unloading the cars. I was setting up my tent and did not have enough time to finish before we had to carry everything into the one tent we already set up so it wouldn't get wet. Other than that, it was sunny skies all around accompanied by spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The Dreaded Drive – 1 star

It's hard for me to drive to Portales from Albuquerque because once you hit Santa Rosa, it goes flat. In comparison to driving to Costilla from Albuquerque, it was incredible, and I did not yawn once. There is so much terrain on that northern-bound drive, and once you pass through Taos, it gets SO GREEN. It was gorgeous.

OVERALL TOTAL: 5 STARS

Costilla is, quite literally, the most incredible space in New Mexico or Colorado that you could choose for camping. You may have to overpack to accommodate yourself and anyone else you might want to journey with, but it's totally worth it. I want to return there every day. I miss it so much. I love you, Rio Costilla… just wanted you to know…

So that's how I spent my summer. If you'd like to see some visuals of the Sandias in Albuquerque, I created a video, where me and some friends filmed some stuff in said mountains and grabbed some beautiful images (in my opinion) and backed to the only thing I enjoy listening to when I'm in the mood for an adventure: Lord Huron.

I also filmed a lot of stuff from Costilla, but I plan to push that into a different video with EVERYTHING. And yes—we listened to Lord Huron non-freaking-stop on a three-hour loop, and we were never bored.

Spoilers: I hardly listen to anything that isn't Lord Huron.

That's all I got for this blog, but don't worry—we have two more on the way to detail some other places in the Southwest, including Socorro, Jemez, the Grand Canyon and a few others. Be sure to check back in to find those!

See you guys on the trail!

- Dillon