Hiking in Duke City When You’re Hot | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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When we moved to Albuquerque in 2013, I thought, “Great, we’re at 5900 feet elevation, so summers shouldn’t be too hot.” My impression didn’t last beyond that first summer. It’s not Phoenix, but June in Albuquerque is warm enough that I’ve looked for cooler places to spend weekends, especially with last week’s 100+°F temperatures.

East Circle Trail, Hyde Memorial State Park, Sangre de Cristos

East Circle Trail, Hyde Memorial State Park, Sangre de Cristo Range

What’s Nearby?
Yes, there are plenty of cooler places to drive to – Ojo Caliente and Abiquiu, Chama, Taos / Red River, the Southern Colorado high country around Durango and Pagosa Springs / Chimney Rock.

But all those spots are at least 2-4 hours away, and more like 7 hours for Colorado. Within 20 or 30 minutes, we’ve found several trails in the Sandias, the mountains forming Albuquerque’s eastern border. There are more just an hour away in the Sangre de Cristos east of Santa Fe. All these options take you up above 8,000 feet to beat the heat.

Claret Cup Cactus, Atalaya Mountain Trail, Santa Fe / Sangre de Cristo Range

Above Santa Fe
When the Cajete Fire rendered our favorite Valles Caldera trails inaccessible, we opted for something closer. Hyde Memorial State Park is in the Sangre de Cristos, with trails between 8600 and 9400 feet elevation. We started short and easy with the interpretive Girl Scout trail, where I discovered this Montane forest’s dominant oak species was Gambel’s Oak, to go with New Mexico’s Gambel’s quail. My sore knee felt OK, so we crossed the highway and walked through sparse pines and fir on the East Circle trail. The dappled shade and cool air were a welcome change from Albuquerque’s blast furnace.

Another option not as high up is the Atalaya Mountain trail from Santa Fe’s St. John’s College. You’ll get some cooling here, and views back down into Santa Fe. With the right conditions, you may also get brilliantly-blooming claret cup cactus.

Aspens, Tree Spring Trail, Sandia Mountains

Around the Corner from ABQ
The next day was still hot. So we drove around the corner to the east side of the Sandias, just 30 minutes from home. After a few false starts with trailheads and lack of parking, we paid our three bucks and got going on the Tree Spring Trail. This 3.8 mile out-and-back is mostly shaded, and sports pretty aspen groves mixed in with the ubiquitous Gambel’s Oak (funny how once you know what it is you see it everywhere), ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. As late as we were, we only walked about 0.8 miles in.

On the trail to Travertine Falls, Sandia Mountains

Another option in the eastern Sandias is the Travertine Falls trail. The name can be deceiving – we expected a true falls, however small. All we got in late May 2017 was a garden hose trickle dribbling over a rock. But the walk through cooling mixed forest was worth it, especially up the intersecting Faulty trail. That teased us with views of craggy summits through the trees. Once again, though, another previously-scheduled engagement had us turning around and heading back before we broke out of the canopy.

Mountain tease, Faulty Trail, Sandia Mountains

Mountain tease, Faulty Trail, Sandia Mountains

Even with all the late starts, these trails were relaxing. Now that we know what’s up there, we’ll be back.

Shot Notes
I carried the EOS 5D mk II camera with 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, and the Fuji X-E2 camera with FD 100-300mm f/5.6L. The FD lens is manual focus. I use highlight focus peaking to make it easier with the X-E2, but it isn’t always easy to tell where the sharpness is. Narrow depth of field helps initially. But judging depth of field in a near-field shot with lots of detail is tough, especially with anything wider than 35mm. The FD 100-300mm focuses beyond infinity to allow for thermal effects on different materials, so you can’t just turn the ring to an infinity stop and forget it for distant shots either.

And autofocus doesn’t automatically solve everything. The claret cup cactus was a major closeup challenge at a 35mm focal length on the 24-70mm. I had to decide which bloom was most important, and stop down enough to get most of the other blossoms close to sharp. You don’t always see it all using depth of field preview through an optical viewfinder.

It’s also easy to blow out deeply-saturated highlights on well-lit blooms. One way to solve this is shooting raw, with most dSLR and mirrorless cameras giving you a 14-bit contrast range. That’s 64 times more forgiving than JPEG’s 8-bit range. I also underexpose 1/3 to a full stop, shooting multiple bracketed exposures so I have choices later. But experience helps me nail it – you have a feel for what works after shooting a few thousand exposures.

More Information
1. Hyde Memorial State Park, accessed from http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/spd/hydememorialstatepark.html
2. Hyde Memorial State Park map, accessed from http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/spd/documents/HMparkmap.pdf
3. Atalaya Mountain Trail, accessed from https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/new-mexico/tree-spring-trail–2
5. Travertine Falls, accessed from https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/new-mexico/travertine-falls
6. The Holdridge life zones of the conterminous
United States in relation to ecosystem mapping
, accessed from https://www.fs.fed.us/global/iitf/pubs/ja_iitf_1999_lugo002.pdf
7. Claret Cup Cactus, accessed from http://trailmob.com/field-guides/flora/cacti-yucca/claret-cup-cactus