Adventures in Albuquerque

I knew I was in for adventure when I headed to Albuquerque, N.M., earlier this year with a travel itinerary that ranged from mountain biking to hot-air ballooning. But I didn’t anticipate how much I’d learn. Founded 300 years ago as a Spanish colonial outpost, Albuquerque is one of the fastest- growing cities in the nation, and tourism flourishes, thanks to its Southwest flavor. Located in a wide valley in the central part of scenic New Mexico, the city of more than 500,000 people straddles the Rio Grande, which I saw and thought…

The Rio Grande isn’t so grand.
Hovering several hundred feet above the 1,865-mile river in a hot air balloon, courtesy of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co., I was impressed with the breathtaking scenery, but as our basket of 10 passengers (plus pilot) dipped down closer to the Rio Grande, I saw how shallow it appeared, a stark contrast to the wide Ohio River. A lack of rainfall in recent years is part of the cause, and ecologists fear the Rio Grande may become extinct without strict water conservation measures.

Still, the region’s fair weather and predictable wind patterns were appealing. Long known as a hot-air ballooning city, Albuquerque is home to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta every October, the largest of its kind in the world, attracting more than 700 balloons. The city’s best balloon pilots double as guides, eager to share local lore and trivia like…

The difference between 6,000 and 10,000 feet is 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
I didn’t believe it when I first heard it, so I took the Sandia Peak Tramway — the world’s longest aerial tramway at 2.7 miles — to test it. Located northeast of the city, the tramway, which begins around 6,000 feet up the mountain, takes visitors 4,000 more feet up the Sandia Mountains. When I started, the temperature around me was in the 80s. At the top, it dropped into the 60s.    

What I saw once I arrived was remarkable — a panoramic view of 11,000 square miles of desert, wooded peaks, and granite mountaintops. During the winter, the Sandias make a great snow-skiing destination, but down below, the weather stays relatively warm throughout the year, creating a biker’s paradise. This is why the city invested big money in the Bosque Trail, where I realized…

The bike trail has snakes.
The official name of the 16-mile trail, which stretches north to south through the heart of the city, is the Paseo del Bosque (from the Spanish words for stroll and forest). When I biked the paved trail along the river, the Rio appeared grander than it did from above. Cyclists, walkers, and runners frequent the trail, and it’s one of the reasons why Men’s Fitness magazine ranks Albuquerque the third “fittest” city in America. Clean and well-maintained, the trail speaks to what Evansville’s Pigeon Creek Greenway Passage — the unfinished 42-mile bike/hike trail encircling the city — could be. Dirt and sand trails sprout from the Bosque Trail, and that’s where I spotted desert snakes and the legendary rattlesnake-eating roadrunner — New Mexico’s state bird. While biking along the flat trail was fun, mountain biking is thrilling, and that’s how I discovered…

When you tell a mountain biker you’re from Indiana, he sighs.
When Stephen Williamson, my mountain-bike guide with Active Knowledge Bicycling in Albuquerque, found out where I was from, his concern was this: Albuquerque is a mile above sea level. Continue up the Sandia foothills, and that’s some pretty thin air. While I never felt a shortness of breath from the high altitude, I did feel a scary adrenaline rush from rocketing down the rocky mountainside — and that was on the “beginner” paths.

Famished, I stopped at El Pinto restaurant, known for its flame-roasted chiles. The Wall Street Journal dubbed El Pinto’s nachos among the best in the nation. Owned by the grandsons of the original founder, they still use their grandmother’s salsa recipe. Many love her recipe, and I found out…

Texan George Bush eats New Mexican salsa.
El Pinto’s salsas, available online, were a favorite of President George W. Bush, who requested they be available on Air Force One. I, too, like to fly with a belly full of El Pinto salsa, only I flew in a two-man plane with no engine, known as a glider. Sundance Aviation owner Rick Kohler took me on an adventurous 20-minute ride over the desert, warning me to look into the horizon to avoid motion sickness.

I went from the glider flying to jeep riding, touring an area about 30 minutes outside of Albuquerque with Roch Hart, owner of New Mexico Jeep Tours. Hart took me into the San Felipe Desert, where I saw dramatic rock formations carved by Ice Age glaciers, but I also noticed…

San Felipe is filled with broken pottery.
Pueblo Indian tribes, known for their handcrafted pottery, have lived in this area for centuries, and artifacts from the past, dating back 1,300 years, remain. On my ride, Hart showed me fragments of fossilized seashells — remnants, say scientists, of a time some 80 million years ago when an ocean split North America. As we moved on, we came upon turn-of-the-20th-century ghost towns — some still with running water and electricity — abandoned after a promised railroad was never built.

By the dusty tour’s end, I was ready for a cold beer in Albuquerque’s trendy Nob Hill district — a mile-long stretch of bars, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants in a neighborhood that sprung up in 1937, along the original Route 66. This is where I learned…

Beer and ballroom dancing make a great combination.
Kelly’s Brew Pub has a remarkable beer menu — from a dark, oatmeal beer to a batch you brew yourself. As I drank, I watched ballroom dancers, who gather every other Sunday on the dance floor of the brewpub, which occupies a landmark — the Jones Motor Company, built in 1939 as one of the city’s first modern gas stations to service westbound motorists traveling on Route 66.

After dinner, I took in a minor-league baseball game at Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes. The stadium, renovated in 2003, has a clever 1950s futuristic-retro look that reflects its fun team and fans — a perfect reflection of the city.

When You Go:
•  El Pinto Restaurant – (505) 898-1771-
•  Kelly’s Brew Pub – (505) 262-2739 –
•  New Mexico Jeep Tours – (505) 252-0112 –
•  Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co. Inc. – (800) 725-2477 –
•  Sandia Peak Tramway – (505) 856-7325 –
•  Sundance Aviation Inc. – (505) 832-2222 –

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