Otero Canyon Loop Hikes in the Manzanita Mountains

Manzanita Mountains, Cibola National Forest, New Mexico
Otero Canyon Trail


Otero Canyon provides hikes with moderate grades and a lot of dappled shade. If you’re trying to build your hiking muscles and experience, this is a good place to start. The trails are open to mountain bikes and motorcycles, so keep your eyes and ears open. Otero Canyon is at middle elevations so best visited in the spring and fall. It should also be do-able early on a cool summer morning or on a warm, dry winter day. The local trails include arroyo crossings and ridgelines, so avoid them during thunderstorms.


From Albuquerque, head east on I-40 and take the Tijeras exit (175). Where the exit splits, bear right. Once through the traffic light, continue south on NM 337 about 4 miles, past the Tunnel Canyon Trail parking area. The parking area you want is at 35 deg. 2.082 min. N, 106 deg. 22.466 min. W, on the right side of the road, and is well marked. 


Begin hiking the Otero Canyon Trail (5056) by heading through the boulders and onto an abandoned stretch of paved road. About 60 meters later, drop off the left edge of the pavement onto the dirt path (there’s a sign). Cross the arroyo bottom and head southeast. Within 50 meters the trail curls to the right. It then takes you more or less south, up the bottom of Otero Canyon. At first the area is dominated tall piñons, but those begin to give way to ponderosas as you move up canyon. 


About two miles into the hike, at 35 deg. 0.779 min. N, 106 deg. 22.204 min. W, multiple signs announce your arrival at the edge of Kirtland Air Force Base. The area behind the signs is closed to the public so if you’re doing an in-and-out hike, this is where you turn around. You also have a couple of options for turning the hike into a loop. Both involve climbing out of the canyon bottom and following ridges back towards the trailhead. The loop options are clearly shown on the local trail map.


The lower end of the Gnasty Trail (5057) begins where the Otero Canyon Trail ends, at the military reservation boundary. Despite its name the trail isn’t nasty at all. Instead it provides a long, gradual climb (with level stretches) out of the canyon bottom. At 35 deg. 1.197 min. N, 106 deg. 21.764 min. W, the Gnasty Trail ends at the Blue Ribbon Trail (5236). Turn left onto the Blue Ribbon Trail and follow it as it wanders north and west and ends at the Otero Canyon Trail (at 35 deg. 1.861 min. N, 106 deg. 22.421 min. W). From there, head down canyon about 500 meters and you’ll be back at the trailhead.


Cibola National Forest, Manzanita Mountains, New Mexico
A lunch spot just off the Blue Ribbon Trail, with the southern Sandias and Cedro Peak in the distance.


In January 2022 I tried the other loop option, which uses the Westridge Trail (5268) and Tunnel Canyon Trail (5145). There was way too much ice and mud, including on slopes. A reminder that this area is best saved for dry weather. 


To follow the second loop option, turn off the Otero Canyon Trail, onto the Westridge Trail (5268), about 35 deg. 0.814 min. N, 106 deg. 22.204 min. W. The climb out of the canyon bottom is sinuous and gradual, with an outstanding lunch ledge partway up. When you reach the ridgeline, the Westridge Trail turns right (north). (To the left, and to your left once you make the turn, is the military reservation.) The first half of this return route lacks good views, but you’ll get one or two good during the second half. 


At 35 deg. 1.774 min. N, 106 deg. 22.934 min. W, you’ll encounter a trail marker where the Birdhouse Ridge Trail ends at the Westridge Trail (5268). Turn right (northeast) to stay on the Westridge Trail as it heads down a local ridgeline. About 500 meters later, a trail marker indicates where the Westridge Trail ends at the Tunnel Canyon Trail. Turn right (east) and follow the latter trail as it drops to the bottom of Otero Canyon (closing the loop portion of the hike). From there the Otero Canyon Trail heads downstream to take you back to the parking area.


Westridge Trail, West Ridge Trail, Manzanita Mountains, Cibola National Forest, New Mexico
Along the return route that uses the Westridge Trail.