Of all the bits and pieces of the Open Space, this is my favorite. Wedged into a wide valley, the vegetation here is more diverse than in some of the other areas of the Foothills.
This area was once part of a Spanish land grant given to one Diego Montoya. It included all the land from the top of the Sandias to the Rio Grande, a considerable chunk of property. In 1716, 35,084 acres of this land were given to Elena Gallegos. While it was unusual for a woman to inherit a land grant, the reasons Elena was given the land was, unfortunately, not recorded for posterity.
Besides the cottonwoods, chamisa, and various wildflowers, you will find yucca, cholla, bear grass, Apache plume, and dozens of other native plants. If you know where to look, there is evidence of early Indian habitation here, and huts of the shepherds who once used this area for summer grazing. Elena is also a little more civilized than the other Foothills areas in that it has restrooms, covered picnic areas with grills and tables, and a short, self-guided nature walk.
In the spring and fall, you can usually find a carpet of wildflowers in blues and yellows and magenta and white, all laid out beneath the incredibly blue sky New Mexico is noted for. On a clear day (which is most of the time) you can see Mount Taylor, a rather dramatic volcano sitting on the horizon, as well as the west mesa volcanoes just above the escarpment. Down the middle of the valley, the verdant strip of the Rio Grande meanders through the city, and the Sandias rise another 5000 feet above you.
The self-guided nature walk covers a circular path of about a mile over fairly level ground. You can borrow a copy of the Nature Trail Guide at the entrance to the park (you will also have to pay for parking, but its only $1.00 during the week and $2.00 on the weekends). Depending on how slowly you walk or how interested you are in what there is to see, the walk takes an hour or so. At the halfway point, there is a wooden blind overlooking a small pond. At dawn and dusk you can see wildlife here, though during the middle of the day or when there is a school group of loudly enthusiastic kids going through, you probably won’t see much.
A shorter, paved version of the self-guided tour is wheelchair accessible and ends at the pond, though you will have to retrace your steps to get back to your car. The descriptive signs are well worth a look – they are made of beautiful hand-painted tiles.
If you are out for real exercise, head due east from the trailhead at Elena and you will hook up with the Pino Trail which takes you steadily upward through conifer forests to the Crest 5000 feet above the city. However, be aware that backcountry hiking requires a permit from the Sandia Ranger Department.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day (more or less) hikes and evening talks are offered at Elena. I would recommend both. The Sunday Morning Hikes range from wildflower identification, nature photography, birdwatching and archaeology to a talks on the medicinal attributes of the plants along the path. The guides, each an expert in his or her field, will take you on a two-hour or so stroll into the hinterlands and the groups are usually small enough so you can hear what is being said. Just show up, most hikes are free, though a few guides have started charging a nominal fee.
The Saturday evening talks, also free, are held the at the outdoor amphitheater near the trailhead and speakers range from storytellers to astronomers to Hawk Watch representatives and their feathered friends. Bring a jacket and something soft to sit on. It gets cool at night, even in summer, and those benches are hard.
If you are going to be in town and are interested in the guided hikes or evening talks, you can contact the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division for specifics.