01 South Sandia and Crest

South Sandia Peak from Whitewash Trail

Overview

Go from sun-baked desert to wind-blasted crest and back on a track that is notable for it’s great beauty, it’s odd shape and it’s many hiking options. The first and last segments of this trip are out-and-back ventures. In the middle, draped across the bony face of the Sandia Mountains, is a loop that draws you into gorgeous terrain. Most hikers will want to go south into the loop (counterclockwise) since the northern portion of the loop is quite steep in places.

Driving Directions

02 View to Cabezon Peak

View to Cabezon from upper bowls

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) north through Albuquerque and get off at exit 232 for Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423.
  • After 0.1 miles merge into the left-most lane of the Pan American Frontage Road N. You will want to move over into the two right-most lanes on the Frontage Road.
  • After 0.3 miles stay to the right of a traffic island at the intersection with Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423. Turn right onto NM-423, going east to the Sandias.
  • After 4.8 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right (going south) onto Tramway Blvd.
  • After another 4.8 miles, at a light, go left onto Menaul Blvd NE.
  • After 0.5 miles, where Menaul Blvd bends sharply right and becomes Monte Largo Dr NE, go left through a gate.
  • After 0.1 miles arrive at the trailhead.

Trailhead

03 Camry at Embudo Trailhead

The mighty Camry, in front of the steep-sided foothill.

The trailhead is paved and provides trash recepticals. There appear to be picnic shelters in the area (although I didn’t check very closely). I did not see any toilets or water sources. Note that you could save about 1.5 miles  (total) of desert rambling if you choose to drive further south on Tramway and take the Indian School Road to the trailhead at its eastern end. The Indian School Road trailhead is also paved.

Data

  • Starting Elevation: 5960 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  9405 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3545 feet
  • Distance: 13.2 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Tijeras quadrangle

Hike Description

04 view south towards Embudo Canyon

View south towards Embudo Canyon

Hikers starting at the Menaul Blvd trailhead should depart the paved parking area at its eastern edge (nearest the mountains). Pick up Trail 401 going south. The trail angles toward the base of an exceptionally steep foothill. In 0.2 miles come to a signed intersection with Trail 365. Go right onto Trail 365. Wend your way, southerly, through a thicket of intersecting trails. At the southern end of the steep hillside you will find a set of high tension lines heading eastward. As you follow them into the canyon look south (to your right) to the far side of the canyon mouth. You may see cars parked in the Indian School Trailhead, just up-canyon of a line of housing. That trailhead is where the Embudo Trail #193 begins. You will see a large off-white water tank a few hundred yards up from the Indian School Trailhead. The Embudo trail goes past that as well. Any tread that gets you there is good.

05 return path on the north canyon rim

North rim Embudo Canyon

As you follow the power lines into the canyon you will encounter an unsigned fork in the trail. Trail  401 is the one that stays under the power lines. I took Trail 365 as pulls a short distance off to the south (to the right as you go up-canyon). At 0.6 miles from the trailhead come to a signed intersection where Trail 401 re-intersects Trail 365. Go south (right) onto 401 and follow it to the Indian School Trailhead.

06-start-of-embudo-trail

Start of Embudo Trail at Indian School Trailhead

At the east end of the Indian School Trailhead pick up the Embudo Trail  #193 (signed). This gravel road makes a bee-line to the water tank, contours around the tanks southern side and then veers toward the north side of the canyon while ascending the face of a large earthen dam. At the top of the dam go directly across the dam-crest road and onto a wide tread that enters the main canyon. That tread dwindles into a regular backcountry path. Navigation becomes routine as you leave the water impoundment behind and walk into the embrace of Embudo Canyon.

08 boulder-dodging trail

Trail amidst boulder jumbles

The embrace is close indeed. For about a quarter mile the canyon offers a bouldery, jumbling wonderland of hard-eroding walls, enormous (and seemingly improbable) stacks of rock and dense clusters of shrubbery in canyon springs or sedimenting  tanks. The trail tends to split apart. On one side of the canyon it may scramble over piles of boulders and scamper around barriers of thorn. Meanwhile, just a few feet away on the canyon’s other side, another braid is taking advantage of  cemented stone steps.

08 Wide bowl above the narrows

Sandy wash in lower open bowl

At 2.0 miles the jumbling ends and the trail transitions onto the bottom of a sandy waterway. You’ve pushed through a barrier of hard rock and are entering an open and gently inclined basin carved into softer stuff. In this open terrain the trail braids out widely. There are several distinct waterways in the bowl and at least two have very walkable sandy bottoms. There is no harm in following them for a short ways. However, seek to stay on the main trail, least you follow the wash past the last intersection. As the trail rises the canyon executes a broad swing towards the north. The main tread moves to the right side (going uphill).

09 north to flat, west-trending ridge

View to flat topped rib that will be taking you home

Juniper is the king of conifers in this basin – sharing the terrain with cacti and grasses but allowing only minor competition from pinyon pine. Looking ahead, you’ll see the eastern side of the bowl rests against a low rib that descends from the main Sandia wall to the southwest. The northern side of the bowl rests against a high and strikingly flat rib that projects due west from the main Sandia wall. Take a good look at that westerly rib as it is your path home.

10 Sandia Crest from 3 Gun Springs junction

Crest viewed from ridge top on east side of bowl

At 3.2 miles from the trailhead the tread makes the first of a series of switchbacks up along the southwesterly projecting rib. Up and up you go as views open to the west. If you have a clear day then the Mt Taylor Volcanic Field is a majestic sight. When it reaches the top of the rib the  Embudo Trail turns left to ascend up the remainder of the rib and move onto the main west face of the Sandia Mountains. (Actually, there is a boot path leading down the rib as well, but a line of rocks across the tread are there to let you know it is not an official part of the Embudo trail). Reaching the main wall the trail ends at a junction with Three Gun Spring Trail (signed) coming up from the south. Continue the ascent on Three Gun Spring Trail.

11 view to not-Oso peaklet

Peaklet (left) that does not form part of Oso Pass

On this date snow started accumulating where the trail moved onto the Sandia west face. The snow was not very deep nor was the trail icy, but it could easily have gotten that way.  Water has carved the west face into a ragged corduroy that keeps the tread bumping and dodging. Rounding one particular bend, you will come face to face with a striking peaklet that has survived the water’s destructive force. That, you might reason, must be the outer end of the  formation that makes up Oso Pass. You’re nearly there! Alas, such trail hypotheses are often born to be slain. Instead of leaping boldly to the peaklet the trail  contours demurely below its base, shamelessly losing altitude in the process. Oso Pass remains stubbornly in front of you.

12a glimpses of South Sandia Peak

Glimpse of South Sandia from Embudo Trail near Oso Pass

Past the peaklet the tread weaves into and out of two major waterways, then finds a gently sloped mini-rib on which to ascend. Keep your eyes raised. The views to the Crest are wonderful. The rocky band that underpins South Sandia Peak becomes very evident, while the many bowls and canyons of the upper reaches promise tremendous hiking. You’ve left the juniper behind and now wander the domain of pine and fir. It can be spectacular in the snow. At 5.6 miles from the trailhead the trail reaches Oso Pass and ends at an intersection, signed, with the Embudito Trail. Take note of the unsigned fourth trail that comes into the intersection. It is the Whitewash Trail, a part of your eventual homeward journey.

12 Xmas tree where boots go up to S Sandia

All other boots turned left at the small pinyon and headed north to South Sandia

Are conditions questionable? You might want to simply take the Whitewash trail back (or just return the way you came). The trail to here is fantastic, more than  sufficient motivation to get you out of doors. But if the snow levels are not daunting and trail finding is possible then head right onto the Embudito Trail. It ascends a high and densely forested rib that takes dead aim at the top. At about 9000 feet, however, the terrain becomes cliffy and the tread departs the rib onto a wide, lightly forested bowl. In places the tread can be narrow and a little dodgy in the snow. Follow it into a stand of pines on the next rib, after which views start to open into a second bowl. This new bowl is carpeted with thousands of Gambel oaks, with the odd conifer scattered here and there. On this date the boot-beaten track in the snow crossed less than half of the bowl before coming to a side trail (unsigned) that takes you to South Sandia Crest. Everyone seems to be going to South Sandia since there was not a single footprint on the remainder of the Embudito as it pushed towards the bowl-top.

13 Pecos basin and (perhaps) El Cap Range

El Capitan Range (distant, on extreme left) and Pecos Basin

It is worth taking in, however. A quarter mile past the turn-off the Embudito reaches the crest. The trail is easy to follow as it furrows through a sea of oak, even though the tread itself may be buried by knee-deep snow. The views west to Mt Taylor and very-distant snowcapped peaks (possibly the Chuska Mountains) are great. To get views to the east, continue just 100 yards past the crest to find the Sandia Crest Trail. To the south, in the far distance, lie the El Capitan mountains (one of the few ranges to be oriented east-to-west in New Mexico). To the southeast lies the enormous Pecos Basin. This is a beautiful spot in which to grab a bite to eat and soak in some sun.

14 junction on Oso passDone soaking? Then return down the Embudito to Oso Pass. At the pass the Embudito Trail makes a right hand turn about the square trail post (extreme right in photo). Three Gun Trail makes a sharp left, in front of the sawed-off log (under snow in the extreme left in photo). To make a loop, however, go straight ahead onto the Whitewash trail (past the still-leafy Gambel oak, left-center of photo). The Whitewash ascends about 100 feet and then winds leisurely through an amazing piece of old growth forest. The flat rib top seems to make Ponderosa Pine very happy. Behind you, to the east, soars South Sandia Peak. To your right are views to the high terrain of the north Sandia crest. In front of you, find the oddly stubby Cabezon peak, the sharp spires of the Ladron Mountains and the hazy blue silhouette of distant South Mt Baldy in the Magdelanas. To your left lies the Mazanita and Manzano Mountains.

15 Taylor and Cabezon from first drop-off

Mt Taylor (left) and Cabezon Peak (blip at right) at first fall-off on Whitewash trail.

At 9.2 miles the rib falls off sharply and this boot-beaten trail descends without apology. Reaching a large knoll at the head of Sunset Canyon the trail contours to the north and then continues on a southwesterly traverse of the steep terrain at the head of this canyon.  Watch closely for the moment where the trail gets off the headwall and regains the top of the rib. You will want to go left onto an unsigned trail here. I missed it. (My thanks to Barry and Baxter, who steered me back to the intersection). While you are on the headwall the terrain to the south (on your left) will be rising. When you get off the headwall the terrain on both sides of your path will be level or fall away. At this point the tread begins a small descent to the west; soon the angle of the descent begins to ease. Just ahead, as the forest opens, you will see nearly flat ground. It seems welcoming, but don’t go striding out! It is here, just a few feet above the flat area, that the new trail goes off to your left. It may not be obvious at all – especially if new snow has fallen.

16 on descent from Col to Embudo outwash

View into Embudo Canyon outwash and south to Mazanito Mountains

The new path heads south, into the outwash bowl of Embudo Canyon. In places it is quite steep. The underlying rock is made up of large crystals that have a tendency to sheer off under pressure from  your boots. These act as ball bearings and can leave a hiker skidding. Very entertaining for your audience and it is certainly a workout for your tired legs. In places the large water tank that you passed at the start of the hike will be visible. The conifers dwindle, cacti appear. An unexpected switchback (the only one on this section of the trail) first pulls you away and then brings you back towards a small col in the height of land between Embudo Canyon and tiny Piedra Lisa Canyon. At the col go left and downhill on a path/streambed that leads into the Embudo Canyon outwash. As you enter the outwash you will find yourself back under the power lines. You could turn west and follow the power lines to where they come to Trail 365. On this date, just to formally complete the loop, I headed across the canyon bottom and back to the large water tank. From there, find the  Embudo Canyon trail and return to the Menaul Drive trailhead.

Recommendations

17 Author blocking views to Manzanito Range

Author, blocking your view of the Manzanita Mountains.

This is a great wintertime hike. It offers lots of options and perfectly acceptable turn-around points all along its length. There is certainly no need to wander into those steep upper bowls if the avalanche danger has been rising.

Two liters of water was plenty, even for an exceptionally warm winter’s day. (I was wearing some polypro that I really regretted).  It also occurred to me that I should not have left my sunglasses in the car. Once the sun topped Sandia Crest it was intensely bright – even blinding – where reflected by the snow.

For those folks who do hike the Embudo Trail in winter, it would be an excellent idea to have traction devices with you. They weren’t needed on this date, but it isn’t hard to imagine conditions in which they could save the day. I was very glad to have a hiking pole with me.

Links

There is a dense press of trails around and between the Menaul Trailhead and the Indian School Trailhead. Generally it is well signed, but there can be enough uncertainty that a glance or two at a detailed map would be be welcome. Fortunately, the City of Albuquerque has a Menaul Trailhead map and an Indian School Trailhead map.

The inspiration for this hike came from George at OndaFringe, who’s posts here and here describe these trails under warmer conditions. He has climbed the loop portion in the clockwise direction and comments on the effect of ascending 1500 feet in just 1.5 miles (while getting to altitude!).

Another good description of the Embudo/Whitewash loop can be found at SandiaHiking. That page includes some GPS waypoints and a printable map for the loop. They also comment on the desirability of finding that obscure left-hand turn off of Whitewash trail on descent. They even tell you what will happen if you continue striding straight ahead and following the tread down through the foothills. Evidently, you wind up pretty far to the north, at the end of Montgomery Blvd.

X marks the skyIf this isn’t challenging enough then consider the “figure 8” route proposed by the Albuquerque Hiking and Outdoor Meetup group. The proposal estimates that going up the Whitewash, down Three Guns Spring, up Hawkwatch to take the Crest Trail to South Sandia Peak and return on the Embudo trail would be 5800 feet of gain over 19 miles. That will give your quads something to think about.

01 peek up Embodito to Summit

A peek at the Sandia Crest from the lower reaches of Embudito Canyon

Overview:

The Embudito Trail takes you from the very edge of Albuquerque to the top of South Sandia Peak (a rocky prominence on the crest of the Sandia Mountains). It is an outstanding winter hike that ascends a striking canyon across at least three life zones. Do you have cabin fever? The Embudito trail will cure what ails you.  Do you need views into grand terrain?  The Embudito trail will provide them. Do you need to train?  The Embudito Trail will give you distance and altitude.

(Edit: in the original post this trail was characterized as a “generally safe wintertime ascent”. Several people who have longer acquaintance with local conditions have suggested otherwise – see comments. I thank them all. The upper bowls, especially, are steep and open. In a heavy snow year they could slide.)

Driving Directions:

07 Pinon shells inside cone

Pinon Pine cone with seeds (which proved to be hollow shells)

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) north through Albuquerque and get off at exit 232 for Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423.
  • After 0.1 miles merge into the left-most lane of the Pan American Frontage Road N. You will want to move over into the two right-most lanes on the Frontage Road.
  • After 0.3 miles stay to the right of a traffic island at the intersection with Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423. Turn right onto NM-423, going east to the Sandias.
  • After 4.8 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right (going south) onto Tramway Blvd.
  • After 2.6 miles, at a light, go left onto Manitoba Drive NE.
  • After 0.1 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto Larchmont Drive NE.
  • After 0.2 miles turn left onto Cedarbrook Ave NE
  • After 0.4 miles, at a T-Intersection, turn left onto Greenwood NE
  • After 0.2 miles turn right onto Trailhead Road NE
  • After 0.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of Trailhead Road NE.

Trailhead:

A shy, yet mighty Camry poised at the mouth of Embodito Canyon

A shy, yet mighty Camry poised at the mouth of Embodito Canyon

The trailhead is paved. I did not notice any water, toilet or trash facilities although it has to be admitted that I was running late and not looking very hard. The suburbs push right up against this trailhead – there are houses just a few tens of feet away from the lower parking spots. It’s likely that those folks would be glad if early arrivers minimumize the noise.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6240 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9782 feet
  • Elevation Gained: 3542 feet
  • Miles: 5.6 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle (for trailhead) and Tijeras quadrangle (for summit)

Hike Description:

04 departure point from outwash to canyon wall

Point where the Embudito Trail leaves the sandy wash and begins a gentle ascent up the northern wall of the canyon.

The trail leaves from the north edge of the trailhead parking lot. A sign at the start of the trail seems to suggest that the trail heads immediately east (toward the crest). If you immediately go east you will pass through a “needle’s eye” (essentially a maze-like opening in a wire fence) and rise to the top of a levee. You do not want to be there! Instead, from the sign go north for a few feet and get onto a trail that has a wire fence along the northern (left hand) side. This parallels the base of the levee for a short distance and then pulls out into the center of the  Embudito Canyon outwash. Both trail 365 and the Embudito Trail share this tread for a while, but eventually you will come to a prominent fork, signed, where 365 departs to the north (to your left) while the Embudito Trail follows the sandy canyon bed east towards the crest. As the trail nears the northern wall you will need to depart the  canyon bed, so watch for the small wooden sign shown above-right.

You will encounter several side trails that depart steeply to your left as you leave the outwash. Stay right on the gently ascending trail. This is cacti and juniper terrain on an obvious and well maintained tread. It pays to look over your shoulder for the views west to Albuquerque and the snow-capped upper reaches of Mount Taylor, as well as balloonists taking advantage of the early morning calm. It makes for quite a scene.

Above the outwash bowl the canyon walls begin to steepen. Pinyon pines become dominant and reach a surprisingly dense, near-monoculture. As the canyon walls steepen the tread narrows. Pause to admire the engineering needed to build a trail wide enough to accommodate a single boot-shod foot. From time to time the trail becomes skittish and bolts up the canyon wall in search of a shelf or a rib-top on which a reasonable tread might rest. The views down into Embudito Canyon become proportionally dramatic.

At two miles, as the tread rises to about 7400 feet, the trail crosses a pretty bench. Nice views open up to the crest. From this position the canyon begins its bend to the south, and I believe that the highpoint you see on the crest is South Sandia Peak. As the trail ascends it weaves into and back out of water-carved hollows on the north wall. Each protected hollow would seem to be pinyon heaven. These heat tolerant trees have short needles  in groups of one or two, short cones (sometimes described as near-spherical or simply “chunky”) and usually overlap the the growth range of juniper trees. Here, however, pinyon reign supreme.

08 Ponderosa, first snow and sandy arroyo

Sandy wash, tall Ponderosa and first snow

Shortly after leaving the bench the trail braids out into several short gulches, all of which descend into a steep-walled waterway. Pick your favorite gulch, enter the waterway and climb the far bank. From this point the trail descends for a while, loosing a little over 100 feet of elevation. It crosses several sandy-bottomed washes where you will find some impressive Ponderosa pines. At 2.3 miles the trail encounters the canyon bed and leaps to the south wall. This is the domain of Ponderosa Pine, Doug fir and a spruce that I haven’t been able to identify. At the PaintDigWriteHikeGaze blog this section is named as “Mirkwood”. This is descriptive of the wintertime illumination onto a trail wrapped in a forest inside a canyon**, but much too sinister.

09 N wall from Mirkwood

Glimpse of opposing wall

The angle of the tread steepens. The direction of the tread veers south. Views are reduced to glimpses of the crest and the opposing canyon wall. It was here that trail ice made its appearance: gray, slippery, troublesome and at first intermittent. Put on your spikes. The intermittency vanishes quickly and the remaining tread seemed more like a frozen stream than a national forest trail. I brought along just one pole but two would have been very handy.

10 trail sign above Oso Pass

Sign for Trail 192 on the rib above Oso Pass

Rounding a small waterway at about 8400 feet the trail takes a switchback or two and arrives at Oso Pass. The Three Gun Springs Trail (#194) comes in from your right. The Embudito trail (#192) makes a hard-left turn here, which makes it look as if the continuing tread is an extension of #194 rather than #192. Give the intersection a little study since it can be confusing on the descent. Turn left and ascend. The trail, formerly encased in canyon-bottom now perches on rib-top. The rib is forested, so views open only when switchbacks bring you to the extreme north or extreme south sides of the rib. At a little over 9000 feet, about 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail rounds to the southeast and begins contouring across a huge open bowl. This bowl is a complex of waterways, beehive-shaped rock outcrops, brush and short conifers. Reaching the far side of the bowl at 4.3 miles the trail swings east over a major rib and into a second large bowl.

11 Crest near departure from 192

Steep walled home to scrub oak

This upper bowl is the steep-walled home to a cornucopia of scrub oak. The trail crosses the bowl’s upper reaches, just below the crest. Catch your breath and up your game. Out in that bowl you will need to find a secondary trail that pulls you off of the Embudito trail and rises north (uphill to your left). The new trail will bring you to the ridge in the direction of South Sandia Peak. The trail is unnamed and unsigned. Other trail descriptions say it  can be marked by cairns, but on this date no such cairns were found. Instead, look for a Christmas-tree-like conifer about four feet high on the uphill side of the trail. Immediately past this tree find a trail masquerading as a minor rock outcrop. Hoping that it is not just a rock outcrop, cross your fingers and follow it steeply uphill towards a larger conifer. As you ascend your doubts about navigation should disappear; the outcrop submerges into the soil yet the tread bulls upward through grass and scrub oak. Follow this path, panting, to reach the crest.

14 Summit View to North Sandia Crest

Northern end of Sandia Mountains seen from South Sandia Mountain summit.

On the crest follow the trail north on gently rising terrain. On your left is a chaos of canyons and views to the Rio Grande valley and distant mesas. On your right is the crest (in most places blocking the views to the east). There will be side trails coming in from your right but keep going straight north as you pass a series of small false summits.  Finally, at 5.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail passes beneath a short, unremarkable cliff band and immediately forks. Take the uphill fork as it springs skyward. At 5.6 miles arrive at the summit of South Sandia Mountain.  The summit has a stand of scrub oak tall enough to block the views east. However the views to the southwest, west and north are charming. Grab a bite to eat, take some photos and return the way you came. Are the winds are howling out of the west? If so, you might want to take a short loop back to the upper bowl (as shown in the map). Depart the summit on a tread leading slightly east of south. Descend below the crest and into a fine stand of trees. This protected area retains snow so wintertime trail finding can be challenging.

Recommendations:

15 Author and Rio Grande Valley

Author on South Sandia Summit

The original introduction characterized this hike was as a “generally safe wintertime ascent”. The safe quality is partly hinged on having adequate gear. This certainly includes having good traction devices for your feet. One of the local hiking groups was recently scheduled to go up Embudito Trail and the leader posted that “no spikes = no hike”. I thought that was pretty strong when I read it, but having hiked this ice rink I totally agree. Bring traction!

Beyond slippery trail conditions, keep a careful eye on the snowpack and for windy/cold conditions. The Northern New Mexico Avalanche Exchange has a “forum” tab where individuals can file reports on on snow conditions in various ranges around the state. The “snow reports” tab (surprisingly) seems to be focused on avalanche education, but it is very good at that task. The Taos Avalanche Center has an “Advisory” link that uses a 5-step rating system (low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme). Their coverage map is fairly narrow (Columbine Hondo and Wheeler Peak Wilderness Areas), but even if you are elsewhere in the backcountry it can pay to stay on top of their reported trends.

A liter of water was enough for today’s hike, but that will change enormously as the sun saunters to summer solstice.

Although I saw no hunters on this trip, I’ve been seeing them in recent weeks. It may still be useful to bring along some orange attire if you’re heading into the woods.

On descent you might want to watch for two junctions. The first is the unsigned junction between the main Embudito Trail and the side-trail to the crest. If you turn the wrong way you will soon notice that you’re ascending, but the trail here is not very steep and it might not be obvious how or where you went wrong.  The second is the junction with the Three Guns Spring Trail at Oso Pass. This junction is signed, but a momentary period of trail-hypnosis could cause you to travel a lot further south than you intended.

Links:

There is a similarly named hike called the Embudo Trail (embudo is Spanish for “funnel”, embudito means “little funnel”). The Embudo Trail leaves Albuquerque from the end of Indian School Road and ascends Embudo Canyon until it meets up with Three Guns Spring Trail at Post Pass. The numerous similarities between the Embudito and Embudo trails can cause confusion when doing online searches.

Ondafringe has a post with GPS data (including altitude info) and numerous helpful photos for the trail as far as Oso Pass. Additionally, he describes an attractive shuttle hike that involves leaving one car at the Embudito trailhead and taking the second car to begin at the Embudo trailhead. It sounds great. Finally, there is a description of the unmaintained Whitewash Trail, which is of interest because it also goes to Oso Pass. That explains a mystery: Oso Pass has signs for Three Guns Spring trail coming in and Embudito trail both coming up onto the pass and then climbing out of the pass. That is, signs for three treads. But there are four very obvious treads!

As mentioned above, the PaintDigWriteHikeGaze site has a post that describes an ascent up a social trail in Bear Canyon to the crest, climbing to South Sandia Peak and then descending the Embudito trail. The trip sounds great and there are numerous photos. There are two photos that may deserve special attention. The first is the photo of the trail signs on Oso Pass. It will reinforce what to look for on decent. The second is a finely detailed image of the junction where the side trail leaves Embudito Trail for the Sandia crest (taken from above the junction). The cairn in the photo, above the junction and opposite the “Christmas tree”, is no longer in place.

16 view of Christmas Tree

View of the “Christmas Tree” in the upper bowl that marks the junction with the side trail to the crest.

The Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide has a short but extremely helpful description of the trail. It makes mention of the difficulty of finding the side trail that leads from Embudito Trail to the crest. It also mentions the off-and-on nature of the cairns that sometimes signal the junction.  The photo to the left shows what you’d see as you approach the junction from below in the winter. (It could be hard to find when the oak is green)!

**per Winston Churchill, somewhat out of context.

01-pino-canyon

View from lower Pino Canyon Trail into Pino Canyon

Overview:

The Pino Canyon trail ascends the west side of the Sandia Mountains, leaving from the borders of urban Albuquerque and rising to the wild ridge crest. You go from open cacti-and-juniper terrain into dense spruce, fir and Ponderosa Pine (“pino” is Spanish for “pine tree”).  The demands  on the hiker are much less than some of the other west-side hikes since the trail hits the ridge at only 9200 feet. Both the lower altitude and the clear tread make this a choice winter destination. It would be a great place for tuning up those hiking muscles as hiking season pulls into view.

Driving Directions:

 

02-frosted-stick-cholla

Stick cholla in a winter wonderland

  • From I-25 North, heading through Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423).  Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a second off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This ramp merges into the left-hand lane of a 3-lane frontage road. It will help if you can get into either of the right-hand lanes.
  • After another 0.4 miles the frontage road splits at a concrete traffic island. Stay on the right and immediately arrive at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423). Go right (east) onto NM 423.
  • After 4.8 more miles arrive at a T-intersection with Tramway Blvd (NM 556). Turn right (south) onto NM 556.
  • After 1.2 miles, after a very slight bend to the right, look for Sims Park on your left. Just before the intersection there is a roadside sign for Elena Gallegos Open Space on the right side of the road. The Sims Park intersection does not have a traffic light. Go left (east) onto Sims Park Road.
  • After 1.3 miles arrive at the guard station for the park. On the south side of the station is a self-service pay station.  There are signs at the pay-station directing you to go right for the Pino Canyon trailhead. Follow ’em.
  • After 0.4 miles you will come to the trailhead on your right. (This is the second trailhead on your right). Immediately past the trailhead turnout there are restrooms.

Trailhead:

03-camry-at-pino-canyon-trailhead1

The mighty Camry at the ice-slicked trailhead.

The trailhead is paved, has toilets (vault-style from their appearance) and trash recepticals. I did not see any water sources. This is a very popular place for mountain bikers, dog walkers, joggers, mountain runners and hikers. It may be hard to find a parking spot on weekends unless you get here early. The parking fee is currently $2.00 per car on the weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. You must display a tag from a payment envelope to in order to park.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6450 feet
  • ending elevation:9210 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2760
  • distance: 4.7 miles one way
  • maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle

Hike Description:

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

From the trailhead go directly east along Trail #140 as it gently rises on a tread that is almost entirely free of rocks, branches and other complications. Make certain to look back over your shoulder as you ascend. Distant views to the mountains in the southwest open up; the early morning sun set Ladron Peak ablaze whereas South Baldy in the Magdelana Mountains was a mere purple silhouette.  On this date small winter storms blocked the views directly west to Mount Taylor.  After about a quarter mile come to an intersection with a major trail. Cross it and continue ascending east towards the crest.

Trail sign and first "foothill" at the mouth of Pino Canyon

Trail sign and first “foothill” at the mouth of Pino Canyon

The canyon walls rise above you. The more distant northern wall offers considerable distractions in the way of sheer cliffs and imposing rock spires. (Its higher reaches were obscured by clouds on this date). The southern wall is closer and gentler. From the trailhead it looks like a series of rolling hills. As you pass by the first of these hills (which are actually knolls and knobs atop a rib descending from the crest) you will see a pile of geo-rubbish at its foot. The trail comes quite close to the this pile and as you go by you will notice that the trail is rising up the southern wall. It is good practice to keep trail treads well above stream beds.

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

The trees thicken as you enter the canyon proper. The junipers give way to fir and spruce. The linear quality of the lower trail becomes markedly sinuous as it copes with the small waterways etched into the south wall of the canyon.  Views to the canyon rim become somewhat scant. On this day the snow-covered trailbed presented a wide array of animal  and bird tracks.

Forest devastation in upper canyon

Forest devastation in upper canyon

At about 2.5 miles the terrain begins to steepen. The trail displays its first switchbacks. Surprisingly, the trees start to thin. As you rise to the 8000 foot level the forest, now including many Ponderosa pines, shows signs of dire ill-health. The canyon bottom is layered with stacked deadfall. There is little or no sign of fire (that I could see), but others have commented on the dire effect that drought and bark beetles have had on flora in the Sandias.  Be careful on windy days, some of the snags overhead have adopted a rather threatening list.

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

At about 2.9 miles from the trailhead look above you towards the Sandia Crest. A high rib displays three rock protrusions – like a giant’s molars (in terms of fanciful dentistry). The tread swings south into a side canyon, crosses the stream bed and then contours directly beneath the three rock protrusions. Just above this point the trees regain a more healthy appearance and you re-enter the realm of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine.

09-afternoon-view-of-north-wall

A sunnier view of the Pino Canyon north wall

Up here there is a confusion of canyon branches. The trail winds back and forth across one bed, tires of the locale and abruptly contours into a separate branch. Watch your footing. Even though temperatures were below freezing there were numerous small waterways that were flowing onto the trail. Inevitably, hidden below the fresh snow, there were places where the wet soil had frozen into hard and slick gray ice. Traction devices are extremely useful.

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

At 3.8 miles the tread takes a marked turn to the south and begins a long slog up the last major incline before the crest. This is really beautiful terrain, not quite open enough to be sub-alpine, but an enjoyable stroll through a robust forest with occasional views to the northern wall of the canyon. At 4.5 miles a wind-blasted knoll marks your arrival at the crest – the trees are stunted and many short snags attest to the difficulty of growing at 9200 feet. Here the Pino Canyon Trail intersects the Crest Trail. It is worth going a few feet south (to your right as you reach the junction) on the Crest Trail to get a better view east and south over the Ortega Mountains and into the Pecos Basin. It can be chilly when the wind pours through this col. I found it worth while to hike north on the Crest Trail for a quarter mile. There is a spot where thick evergreens bunch up at the foot of a rock wall – offering some (small) respite from the storm.  Grab some photos and a bite to eat. The breeze will be enough to encourage a hasty re-hoisting of your bags. Return by the same route.

Recommendations:

The author, providing proof that even a 10-second timer delay can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

Proof that a 10-second timer can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

This is neither the most-demanding nor the most-scenic  nor the most-lonely trail you can find in the Sandias. Most hikers aren’t going to travel very far just to explore the Pino Canyon Trail.  That admitted, this trail is a huge gift to anyone in Albuquerque feeling the midwinter blues. Is that you? If so then put together some warm winter gear, grab some friends and get yourself over to Pino Canyon trailhead.

A single liter of water was sufficient on a deep and dark December day. It was interesting to find that the hose from my water bag had frozen-up on ascent. I had to carry it inside my jacket for more than an hour before it thawed up enough for use. Come prepared. It can be cold in them thar hills.

As mentioned above, the winter tread through Pino Canyon has its icy spots. Even in the lower elevations (where the trail was rather crowded) the boot-stomped snow was slippery. Good traction devices are valuable.

Links:

The trail is briefly described in the Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide, GreatOutdoors.com and RootsRated.

The Pino Canyon page at AbundantAdventures.com has photos that capture the canyon in two very different moods.

Ondafringe has driving directions, trail description, photos, videos and gps data in this post and this post.

This is not the frozen arctic, as the Sunshine Nomads attest with some photos.

A Forest Service map (pdf) is interesting because it gives you quite a clear idea of how the trails are laid out in the Sandia Mountains. It could be handy if you are thinking about creating your own loop route.

During the warmer months this terrain can rattle, as documented here.

01 Cañon La Cueva upper wall in morning

Northern wall of Cañon La Cueva in its upper reaches. A narrow view of the limestone cliffbands just below the Sandia Crest can be seen at the extreme right.

Overview:

There are several trails that lead from the urban borders of Albuquerque all the way to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. Of these, the La Luz trail (“the light” in Spanish) appears to be the most popular. There is little wonder why. Unlike the other treads, such as the Domingo Baca trail, this trail enjoys several civilizing influences including switchbacks and an easy-to-follow trailbed. The trail can be hiked “one way” by substituting a tramway ride for either the descent or the ascent. The latter could be especially useful alternative for hikers who are not acclimatized to altitude (that route is slightly different from the route described here – see the “Links” section below). Despite its civilized nature, the hike is puts real demands on the hiker. This is not the place to introduce young hikers to the backcountry. The La Luz trail takes you into outstanding terrain and is strongly recommended.

Driving Directions:

02 La Luz Trailhead fee sign

  • Take Interstate-25 north through Albuquerque and take Exit 234 for NM 556/Tramway Road NE. The ramp is very short and merges almost immediately into the leftmost lane of the Pan American Frontage Road. Get over into the two rightmost lanes as quickly as safety permits.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of Pan American Frontage Road, come to an intersection with NM 556/Tramway Road NE. Turn right onto NM 556.
  • After 4.0 miles turn left onto Forest Service Road 333 (paved).
  • After 1.8 miles, turn right onto Pinon Place.
  • After 0.4 miles, at the end of Pinon Place, arrive at the trailhead

Trailhead:

03 Might Camry at La Luz trailhead

The mighty Camry at La Luz Trailhead

The trailhead is paved and has vault toilets and trash receptacles. There is no water. There is a $3.00 per day fee, but that is waived if you have one of the numerous passes available (a military pass or a national parks pass, for example). There isn’t a huge amount of parking here. I got onto the trail at 7 a.m. with only nine or ten open parking spots remaining and more cars arriving every few minutes.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7000 feet
  • ending elevation: 10,378 feet
  • elevation gain: 3,378 feet
  • distance: 7.6 miles
  • maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle (both the 1990 and the 2006 editions show La Luz trail, the 2013 edition does not show any trails).

Hike Description:

04 view into T'uf Shur Bien bowl

View north from La Luz trail into the bowl containing Juan Tabo Canyon

From the trailhead, take a short and steep set of stairs to pull you up and eastward towards the crest. This trail enjoys a relaxed attitude towards gaining elevation, so it almost immediately laterals south over a slight rib. (This rib will hide the trailhead from you on descent). Cross the unmarked border between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties and continue south on a gently rising traverse into a small basin at the foot of the Sandias. This is a classic Sonoran life zone with plenty of sage brush, cane cholla and prickly pear cacti, plus the occassional juniper.

04 lower La Luz trail with peek at The Thumb

Lower La Luz with initial view of The Thumb

You are heading towards a small stream that drains the basin. Just before your feet can get wet the trail makes a short series of switchbacks and, at 0.9 miles, hits an intersection with the Tramway Trail. (If you rode the Tramway up then you will want to take the Tramway Trail to get back to the Tramway parking lot). Continue upwards, lacing the switchbacks and marveling at the sweat and concrete that has been poured into this tread. At 2.2 miles, after making a long lunge to the south, the trail hits the markedly flat rib-top.  This feature separates the trailhead’s small basin from the deeply gouged hydraulic slash that is Cañon La Cueva.

06 Sun-touched south rim of Canon La Cueva, Mt Taylor on horizon

View west to Rio Grande valley and distant Mt Taylor

The upper reaches of this canyon are divided into a northern fork and a southern fork. The trail ascends easterly, swiftly crossing the northern fork, then switches west  and then east-again to contour around a massive knob of rock. At 2.8 miles and at about 8200 feet the trail hits a second markedly flat spot. Here, between the forks, the trail begins a series of long and lazy switchbacks almost innocent of altitude gain. Enjoy it!

07 Canyon La Cueva closeup from second flat rib

Lower Cañon La Cueva and Albuquerque

Enjoy the vistas as well. There are terrific views west over Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and the distant swell of the Mount Taylor volcanic field.  Above you, to the south, rises an enormous fin of rock called The Thumb. It looks like a climber’s dream, and the tread you are on will take you up past its base.

08 taking off into upper Canyon La Cueva

Taking off into the upper canyon

At 4.3 miles and about 9100 feet elevation come to a third flat patch, a place to study the the startling gash below you that is Cañon La Cueva and above you where the southern fork of that self-same canyon will be your route. Is there snow in those heights? (There was on this date). If so, did you bring a hiking pole and microspikes?  You might need ’em.  Those dark conifers in the canyon bottom indicates that you’ve gotten into the transition zone where the prickly pear and juniper are tapering off and the Ponderosa Pine makes an appearance.

09 Descent to Upper Canyon and Thumb

South Fork of Upper Cañon La Cueva

From the level spot the trail descends gently towards the canyon bottom, losing about 300 feet. After crossing the waterway it begins to pull above the bed. Broad canyon walls tower above you to the north, the immense Thumb screams skyward to the south, and straight ahead is bedlam of cliff bands, spires, rockfall and hoodoos. A pair of fang-like spires seems to be directly in your path. However, just before you get to these fangs the trail runs into a vertical wall. You might catch a glimpse of a cave opening about 50 to 75 feet above your head. You have arrived back at 9100 feet and the start of innumerable short switchbacks that ascend up the buttress between The Thumb and the Crest. A sign warns that winter conditions can render the trail impassable. People descending from the Tramway rapidly pack down the snow, making it slippery. Moreover, much of remaining ascent is over boulder fields, which can be tricky when covered with snow. Good to go?  One-two-three, switchback!

10 packed and sometimes icy switchbacks

Packed snow on trail heading towards fang-like spires

You will gain 1000 more feet to find the last switchback, but it goes pretty quickly. Do not wait for a sun break – on a December day it stays dark in this canyon until the sun is straight overhead. Instead, marvel again at the labor that went into building this passage to the Crest and keep ploddin’ along. Eventually the trail moves hard against the Crest side of the canyon, makes about a half-dozen small switchbacks in an aspen grove (a signature species of the Canadian life zone) and arrives at a small col at 6.3 miles and 10,150 feet. Here the trail branches. To your left is a trail that will take you to the Crest House (a restaurant/gift shop concession). On this date, however, I wanted to check out the conditions at the Sandia Ski Area, so I went straight ahead.

11 sign at fork of La Luz and Crest House

Sign at trail fork

For the remainder of the trip the trail skirts below the Sandia’s uppermost cliff bands. As soon as you leave the intersection you depart Cañon La Cueva and arrive at the headwaters of  Cañon Domingo Baca. On your left is solid rock. On your right is the promise of good hang-gliding. Be careful on any icy spots. Portions of the southern Sandias pull into view, along with views along the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzanos (home to Manzano Mountain).

12 Domingo Baca Spires and view south

Upper Domingo Baca Cañon, Manzanita and distant Manzano Mountains

The top of Cañon Domingo Baca is enormously scalloped. The trail whips back and forth along  convoluted horizontal path even as it strives mightily to minimize the vertical change. The cables of the Tramway come into sight, but you still will have a mile or more to go. Finally, having arrived at 10,378 feet and traveled 7.6 miles, top out at the Tramway station on the Crest of the Sandias. Trees block the hard-earned views to the east, so follow a path down to the Sandia Ski Area (just a hundred feet) for views north to Santa Fe Baldy and southeast to the Pecos Basin. Return the way you came.

Recommendations

13 Author on Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia Crest

Winter conditions and summer conditions are going to be very different. So when I say that three liters of water was more than plenty, make a note that it is plenty for chilly December day. In summer this trail is going to be hot and, as the sun swings westerly, possibly unbearable.  An REI rep told me that it is a good idea to climb the west-facing Sandia slopes in the winter and then swing over to the east-facing slopes in the summer. That seems sound to me.

If you are hiking here in the winter then it would be an excellent idea to bring along some sort of traction device (such as Yaktraks or Microspikes). In many places the snowmelt puddles up during the afternoon and freezes during the night. Creeping over long stretches of gray ice can get sketchy.

This trail is high and sometimes cold. I doubt that it is ever lonesome. Three trail runners blasted by me first thing in the morning and two separate pulses of tramway riders went by in the other direction. At the Crest House fork there is a sign dispensing advice to horsemen! This is an excellent place to exercise your trail courtesies. Safety is the first concern, but otherwise please give the runners some room, step off the trail on the downhill side for the horses (if you can) and offer right-of-way to hikers on ascent. For a popular trail the La Lux was blissfully trash-free, let’s keep it that way and pack out everything.

Conditions at the Sandia Ski Area (for those who are curious) were poor. The ski trails leading to the top chairlift were largely bare of snow.

My GPS unit went a little crazy in the deeper sections of canyon. Presumably the satellite signals were convoluted by reflections off of the canyon walls.  When mapped the uphill and downhill tracks crisscrossed each other so badly that in places it became hard to interpret. (For this blog I removed the up-hill track, which had the most obvious departures from the trail).  The downhill track does, at least, stay in its proper canyons. Still, this presentation does not have the expected degree of accuracy.

The La Luz Trail is shown and labeled on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the trail from the La Luz trailhead to the intersection with the Tramway Trail is labeled “Tramway Trail” rather than “La Luz”. Don’t worry, as the paths themselves are properly signed as you hike along the trails.

Links:

Unlike any other trail I’ve encountered in New Mexico, the La Luz seems to have it’s own website. It’s mostly pretty pictures, a few links and some static trail data. At the bottom is a sobering reminder that three hikers lost their lives on the mountain in 2015. (Side note, apparently the website is not completely up-to-date, as the Albuquerque Journal recounts the passing of a fourth hiker in 2015).

Additionally, there is a detailed description of La Luz in Wikipedia. If only more New Mexico trails had such acclaim!

There is an excellent description of this hike at CloudHiking. It is very detailed and offers numerous photos. There are links for GPS data and for a map. Additionally, instead of going to the tramway top (as described here), the CloudHiking guide chooses to go left at the top fork to ascend to the Crest House. That’s an attractive option as it leads to the highest point on the Sandia Crest.

There is an annual run up this trail, which appears to be run on the first Sunday in August (although I’m not completely certain of that). The run is organized by the Albuquerque Road Runners Club, which has a website describing the run here. Most hikers will want to choose another date for using this trail.

For a description of the Tramway-up, Boots-Down approach you can find an excellent writeup here.

Good directions for navigating the trail all the way from the Tramway parking lot can be found at SummitPost.

A post describing La Luz in considerable detail can be found at Around 505. It includes some input from a Forest Service Volunteer, David Hammack, who has been using this trail (and putting up other routes) since 1959. Good authority!

01 Deception (right) and ridge leading to Lake Peak (left)

Deception Peak (right) and narrow ridge to Lake Peak (left)

Overview:

This is a beautiful, lasso-style loop into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is more lonely than the tread to Santa Fe Baldy, although the trail gains almost the same altitude and offers a chance to explore three named peaks. It is not recommended if your party has  just flown in from Boston or San Diego, but for those who’ve acclimated this is a fantastic entrance to the Pecos WildernessPecos WildernessPecos Wilderness.

Driving Directions:

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead has vault toilets and is paved. There is a piece of equipment that looks like a water outlet, but it was not working. The Rio Medio runs past the parking lot, but it is strongly advised that you treat that water before using. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and can get crowded. On this weekend REI was in the ski area parking lot offering Clif bars and introductory classes on map-and-compass work.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,409 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,160 feet
  • Distance: 10.8 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe). The portion of the hike from Raven’s Ridge to Lake Peak is not shown as a trail on the USGS map.

Hike Description:

03a fence at National Forest border

Fence at National Forest border, go right (along the fence)

From the trailhead, cross the Rio Medio (here, a small stream) on a plank bridge and intersect Trail 254, the Winsor Trail. Turn right and follow the Winsor Trail along the stream for about 100 yards where it  switchbacks and pulls away from the river. The trail is very popular and beautifully maintained. It gains about 600 feet in the first 0.8 miles, where it comes to an attractive wooden fence atop Raven Ridge.  Trail 254 worms through a needles eye in the fence and drops the Rio Nambe basin. Instead, turn right and begin following trail 251, the Raven’s Ridge Route, eastward as the tread surges into the sky.

04 view into Nambe Canyon

First View of Upper Reaches of Nambe Canyon

Enter a fir, spruce and aspen wood where the fence becomes a very business-like barbed wire assembly. it can’t be easy to haul fencing material up this way, yet the fence is being carefully maintained. Hikers should maintain awareness of the barbs, since the trail can brush quite close to the wires. The tread rises pretty steadily, with agreeable terrain benches occasionally breaking the monotony. Patches of aspen alternate with patches of spruce and fir, although by the time you arrive at 11,000 feet the aspens have almost completely disappeared. At just over 11,300 feet (about 1.5 miles from the trailhead) the trail hits a canyon rim above Nambe Lake, the headwaters of the Rio Nambe. Stroll a bit off-trail, to the rim, and look up to your right for initial views to the toothy precipice that is Lake Peak.

Deception and Lake Peaks

Santa Fe Baldy on left, Deception summit in foreground, Truchas Peak in background and Lake Peak on right.

Turn left and follow the trail as it ascends, just a little west of south and braids out in open conifer forest. Stick close to the rib that overlooks Nambe Lake. On this date the reason for that carefully maintained fenced became evident, as it was necessary to pick a path between somewhat skittish cattle (at 11,500 feet, by far that highest herd I’ve ever encountered). Cattletude! The trail bumps along here, sometimes losing but more often gaining against the pull of gravity. At about 2.1 miles the trail hits a major bump and views begin to open to the grassy summit block of Deception Peak. The trail drops a surprising way to a saddle, then pushes boldly into the open terrain and on to gain the summit at 12,240 feet and 2.8 miles from the trailhead. Even in late July the winds can be very chilly! The views are great, but there is this deceptive, just-barely-higher, chunk-o-granite that blocks the full 360-degree panorama. So, grab a bite to eat, take a swig of water, and drop down a little as you head southeast towards Lake Peak.

Notch below Deception Peak

View to notch (upper left) and lower trail (lower right). Double-click to enlarge.

The drop into the first notch is quick and neither exposed nor challenging. However, at this first notch you must make a decision. You can take a high route that involves scrambling up from the notch and over boulders on a narrow ridge. This route is reported to involve exposed, class 3 climbing moves. Alternatively,  you can descend to the south on open, steep and crumbly terrain to gain a foot trail that is visible about 15 feet below the notch. The guys in front of me seemed to be unaware of the difficulty of the upper passage and had to turn around. I took the lower route on this day and enjoyed the mildly exposed and steep terrain in sub-alpine woodlands very much.

IMAG0132

Narrow ridge looking back to Deception

Keep an eye on that ridge above you, it doesn’t take long to traverse below the worst of it. At about 3.1 miles from the trailhead (or about a quarter mile from the summit of Deception) scramble up a set of rocky gullies to regain the ridge and an easy amble to the top of Lake Peak. To the south is the broad canyon that forms the headwaters of the Santa Fe River. To the west (if you backtrack a few yards) are views to the rocky ridge that leads back to Deception. To the north is Santa Fe Baldy. Just a little east of Santa Fe Baldy are views to East Pecos Baldy, West Pecos Baldy, Chimayosos Peak and Truchas (“trout”) Peak. Immediately to the west is the grassy table-top of Penitente Peak. Beyond Penitente lies the heart of the Pecos Wilderness.

..

09 Penitente Peak from point near col

Penitente Peak from col

Is the sky threatening? Then hurry back the way you came. If the skies are clear then plot a course east, following a steep path in the direction of Penitente Peak. This part of the tread descends briskly in subalpine forest to a col immediately below the summit block of Penitente and 3.6 miles from the trailhead. Strangely, the trail does not go to the summit, but rather contours around to the south. (This may be welcome if the weather is degrading). Leave the trail at the col and strike out directly for the summit on open and grassy terrain. You will gain 200 feet and arrive at 12,249 feet where there is a well-constructed  summit wind-break (but no summit register that I could find). Celebrate the last summit of the day! Then note that there are no obvious trails on the summit, despite all the work that went into that wind break. Strike off north east, descending the long axis of this near-plateau. Where the table-top begins to fall off steeply you will regain Trail 251, the SkyLine trail.

10 view down the tabletop on Penitente

View northeast (towards distant Truchas) from Penitente summit.

This trail takes you into the hanging valley between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. The descent is on switchbacks so broad that sometimes they seem to be taking you away from the valley. Don’t panic. It is all part of the game plan. At 6 miles from the trailhead reach a saddle where terrain descending from Penitente Peak collides with terrain descending from Santa Fe Baldy. This gap, called Puerto Nambe, separates the Rio Nambe drainage flowing west into the Rio Grande and the Windsor Creek/Holy Ghost Creek drainages that flow east into the Pecos River. At Puerto Nambe the Sky Line Trail intersects with Trail 254, the Winsor Trail.

12 Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Turn west (left) onto the Winsor Trail and follow it into the open terrain of Nambe Meadows at 6.4 miles. The trail is broad, sometimes stony, but carefully engineered and signed. In the meadows the Sky Line Trail will depart to the northeast (for Lake Katherine), but stay on the Winsor Trail if you wish to return to the trailhead. The trail descends a few hundred feet from Nambe Meadows, crosses several small drainages that feed into Rio Nambe, and then begins a miles-long ramble below the faces of Penitente, Lake and Deception peaks. At 10 miles from the trailhead return to the fence atop Raven’s Ridge. You’ve completed the loop portion of this hike. Go through the fence opening and take off downhill. Return to the trailhead having hiked about 10.8 miles.

Recommendations:

14 Author on flank of Lake Peak, Santa Fe baldy in background

Author on flanks of Lake Peak

I had four liters of water and still had a liter left at the end of the hike. Unless you’re hiking on a very hot day that should be enough.

During monsoon season get an early start. That way you going in the cool of the morning and it will help get you off very exposed ridge lines before the afternoon storms appear. I haven’t done much hiking in this area myself, but all the guidance I’ve seen suggests that it’s best to be below treeline before 1:oo p.m., although that is just the most general kind of guidance.

Due to the presence of cattle and the sketchy nature of the trail in some places you may want to leave your pets at home. If you do take Rover along, then I’d strongly recommend against trying the upper route from the notch below Deception Peak.

This is a route that begs for zoom lenses. (Which I did not have, alas). If you’ve got an old point-and-shoot at home you should dig it out rather than rely on cellphone cameras.

Like all loops you can hike it either counterclockwise (as described here) or clockwise. The counterclockwise route gets the heavy climbing in early, when hikers are still fresh. This is going to be the more enjoyable direction for most parties.

Links:

The OutBound blog has some nice photos, check out the images of the narrow ridge between Deception and Lake Peak.

This post on the Hiking Project has a description of this hike, a map, and evidently managed to get a dog across the narrow ridge!

Summit Post has detailed trailhead directions and some spectacular images of Lake and Deception in winter time.

There is a cool discussion of the area’s geology at Geological Joy New Mexico. It uses Google Earth to position a view into the cirque that holds Nambe Lake, giving you a fine chance to pick out the arrangement of Deception, Lake and Penitente peaks.

The Santa Fe New Mexican (local newspaper) has an article on hiking in the area. It is notable for covering nearly all the basic concerns about hiking around Santa Fe.

Bringing unacclimated guests? Altitude sickness symptoms are succinctly described here for people and here for dogs.

 

 

 

 

01 Summit view into Pecos

View from Wheeler Summit

Overview:

At 13,161 feet Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in New Mexico. The trail gains almost 3000 feet in four miles, provides views to forever, offers considerable wildlife and has options to link up with other hikes. This all makes for a terrific day in the high country. Make it happen!

02 Hiker Parking

Sign at trailhead

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for NM Route 599 North.
  • After 13.2 miles take the left fork for a ramp to US Rt 84/US Rt 285 North
  • After 0.7 miles merge onto Rt 84/Rt 285 North.
  • After 21.9 miles, at a light in Espanola New Mexico, continue straight (where US 84/285 turns left) onto NM Rt 68 North.
  • After 49.9 miles, at a light about two miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (Note that this is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed and it is probably easier just to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road. Note, too, that there is an ambiguous fork in the road just as you leave the downtown region of Taos, stay to the left at the fork).
  • After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Resort. Turn left onto a long and wide parking area and ascend.
  • At the top of the parking area (about a half mile), just as you near the resort buildings, find a gravel road signed Twinning Road on your left. Ascend on Twinning road.
  • After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an intersection with Deer Lane, signed for “Hiker Parking”. Park your car here. Twinning’s gravel roadbed is quite steep in places. If there is any ice then you will need a four wheeler and perhaps chains.
O3 Mighty Camry in "Hiker Parking"

The mighty Camry

Trailhead:

The parking area is large  and provides port-a-potties. I did not see any signs of drinkable water, although the Lake Fork of the Rio Hondo runs along the roadbed that serves as the start of the trail. Filter that water before drinking.

 

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,200
  • Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2960 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak” (available in Santa Fe at the BLM office 301 Dinosaur Trail, just off of Cerrillos Road near I-25). The trail described here was put in by the National Forest Service in 2011, so it is missing from the usual  7.5 minute maps. The 1995 map does show the older Bull of the Woods trail, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any  trails at all.

Hike Description:

04 Deer Lane

Start down Deer Lane

From the parking area, head along the gravel bed of Deer Lane as it winds its way among the facilities of Taos Ski Valley. It can be confusing, but watch for signs directing you along the Williams Lake Trail and follow these.  In about half a mile you will pass the last of the buildings and continue ascending on a wide, rubble-strewn bed (the Bluejay Ridge ski trail) as it ascends along Lake Fork stream. The ridge formed by Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, Walker Mountain and Wheeler Peak is to your left.

05 view west over boulder field

View across boulder field to western ridge

As you pass a sign for the National Forest the forest closes in and the tread immediately improves. There is considerable sign of stress in these trees, presumably the effects of prolonged drought and perhaps bark beetles. All those dying firs must make the Taos Ski Valley operators a bit nervous. The trail trends a bit east of south as it rises along the valley bottom, winding through forest stands that seem to get healthier with altitude. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead the tread takes dead aim at an enormous pile of boulders, falters and then ducks to the right to go around. The boulders may have been deposited by a huge landslide, or perhaps are the slow-eroding remains of some tough intrusion into the country rock. A second prominent pile of rock arises at about 1.7 miles from the trailhead, this time the trail bends to the left. A third pile appears a few hundred yards later. Above the third pile the forest to the right of the trail pulls away leaving an exposed field of scattered boulders. Excellent views open up to the western ridgeline, the highest point being Lake Fork Peak.

06 Wheeler signThe forest closes back in at a small height of land, marking the end of the open boulder field. On this knob, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, find a sign for Wheeler Peak. This is your cue to turn left and lateral out of the valley bottom. Rising gently at first, the trail encounters a steeper segment of the ridge wall and begins a long, long, long series of switchbacks. In the low, forested segment this is a pleasantly shaded challenge.

07 Big Horn terrain

Switchback in bighorn terrain

Soon, however, wide spaces grow between the trees and subalpine meadows appear. Avalanche chutes open views towards the summit. Try and tear your eyes away from the trail as this is the domain of bighorn sheep. They seem to like the bottom of the wide swales that hollow the ridge side. Presumably, this is where the grasses are at their densest.  If you haven’t yet put on sunscreen then this would be a good time to slather some on. You are about to hit the timber line, after which shade becomes a rare commodity.

08 Cairn marking ridgeline departure

Cairn where trail strikes ridge

Popping above the tree line, begin an enormously long, beautifully engineered switchback takes you up and up and up to the north east. At its end arrive at small flat 3.2 miles from the trailhead. Raise you eyes higher and higher to contemplate the massive wall of grass covered rock and boulder that lies between you and Wheeler summit. Take note, too, that there will be a complete absence of any privacy from here on.

09 Summiteers

Summiteers on Wheeler

Time then, to lower you eyes to the trail and begin the long talus-tango that takes you to the top. It is well worth your while to stop every now and then to look out on the confines of valley hanging below you, to check out the crowds at Williams Lake in the cirque at the end of the valley, and to study the fall lines at the ski area. The switchbacks come quickly as the trail strives for a purchase on the slope. Breath deeply because that air is not getting any denser. Finally, at four miles from the trailhead, reach the ridgeline and an intersection with the Bull of the Woods trail. Note the cairn so you’ll know where to turn off on descent, then turn south (to your right). The trail bumps along the ridge to Wheeler summit, 4.2 miles from the trailhead and 13,161 feet above sea level. There are lakes, ridges, canyons, mountains and views to the Rio Grande Valley. Keep an eye out for storms, snap some photos and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

10 Author

Author on Wheeler Peak

This is a great hike. Check with your hiking companions to see if a midweek ascent to Wheeler is possible. The weekend summit gets crowded.

I spoke to several return summiteers who mentioned that, once the snow is well consolidated, a springtime glissade down the grassy slopes can be unbelievable. I believe.

This hike is high enough and long enough that its not a good candidate for bringing new hikers into the mountains. At least, I doubt that they’d have a very good time on it. A better option would be to bring youngsters to Williams Lake, a far easier and very attractive destination.

During the monsoon season, pick a day with a good forecast, start your hike at 7:00 am and get off the ridgeline early. Looking back from NM Rt 68, at around 2:00 pm, it sure looked like these mountains were wrapped in storm.

People have enormously variable responses to altitude. For a brief review of acute mountain sickness symptoms check out this link. There’s no need to put up with nausea or headache on a mere day hike. Turn your party around if someone becomes sick.

Links:

On Walkabout has an intriguing description of a loop trip up Wheeler. For a party in good shape this seems like a fantastic idea.

An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, from April of 2015, suggests that the trail up to Bull of the Woods may be under repairs. You might want to check the trail’s status before trying the above loop.

You can get an idea of the current conditions by looking at the Taos Ski Valley’s High Line Ridge webcam or the Kachina Peak webcam.

The Forest Service description, along with current fire conditions, is available.

 

 

01 Santa Fe Baldy from Winsor Trail

Santa Fe Baldy summit from Winsor Trail

Overview:

This is a much-loved hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just outside the city of Santa Fe. The trail is obvious and very well maintained. At 14-miles (round trip) it is a workout, especially since it starts off at 10,250 feet and winds its way up over 12,640 ft. This is a wonderful training hike, but crowded. Both thunderstorms and altitude sickness can set in quickly, be watchful.

Driving Directions:

07 High altitude flower show

High Altitude Flower Show

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry, with friendsThe trailhead has vault toilets, appeared to have a water faucet (I did not test it) and is paved. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and the parking lot can be packed on nice weekends.

 

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,640 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,390 feet
  • Distance: 6.7 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe).

Hike Description:

03 Plank Bridge over Rio Medio

The stream that runs along the edge of the parking lot is the Rio Medio. Cross it on a plank bridge and turn right to ascend on the broad and remarkably smooth Winsor Trail, trail #254. In about 100 yards it will pull away from the waterway and begin switchbacking its way up to Ravens Ridge and the start of the National Forest. At the ridge, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead, you will have gained about 600 feet. There is a “needles eye” opening in the fence that marks the edge of the national forest. Push through it and begin to lose some of the altitude you just acquired.

 

04 Well signed trail junctinos

Signage on trail

There are four side trails. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead you will pass trail #403, the Lower Rio Nambe Trail, departing on your left.  (Nambé is said to be a Spanish rendition of a Tewa word meaning ’rounded earth’, evidently a reference to pueblo architecture). According to the Sierra Club’s Day Hikes In The Santa Fe Area this trail is known informally as “the elevator shaft”.  Trail #400, signed for Nambe Lake, departs to your right at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead. The Upper Nambe Trail, #101, departs to your left at 2.5 miles.  The Rio Nambe Trail (which descends along side the Rio Nambe) departs to your left at 3.3 miles. Soon thereafter the trails crosses the upper reaches of Rio Nambe (which had running water on this date) and begins to switchback, arriving at Nambe Meadows having gone 4.1 miles from the trailhead. All intersections are well signed.

05 Entry to Nambe Meadows

Nambe Meadows

The three-plus miles of trail between Raven Ridge and Nambe Meadows mostly follows the 10,400 foot contour and winds through patches of fir (possibly alpine fir) and strikingly homogenous aspen groves. As mentioned in the introduction, this is a much-visited trail and you will likely find trail runners, horse folk, backpackers and fishermen sharing the trail with you.  This part of the trail has more roots and rocks than the first mile, but it is still very well maintained.

06 View from col, Pecos Baldies to distant left

Saddle on Sky Line Trail

In Nambe Meadows, depart trail 254 to your left on the Sky Line Trail, #251 (signed). This is another broad and well maintained tread that takes you through spacious subalpine terrain towards Lake Katherine. After several long switchbacks arrive at a saddle at 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There are terrific views into the Pecos Wilderness from here. To the north (left as you arrive at the saddle) there are distant views of Pecos Baldy East and Pecos Baldy West. From this point the Sky Line Trail drops down to Lake Katherine.

08 Ridge at top of Santa Fe Baldy

Nearing the top ridge with view to Santa Fe Baldy summit

Don’t go to Lake Katherine. Instead, at the top of the saddle depart trail #251 to the left at an unsigned intersection on a much rougher trail that heads directly towards the open summit. This trail is a bit more apt to disappear into the trees or become braided out in the open terrain, but there is really no navigation problem. It simply follows a ridge from the saddle to the summit. The air begins to get a little thin – light-headedness was a common complaint as you get to the shoulder of the broad summit. Spectacular views open up to the tall Truchas Mountains (Spanish for “trout”).

09 Santa Fe Baldy Summit

Summit from ridge traverse

Reach the shoulder, panting, and follow a much gentler tread as it traverses the broad ridge to the summit of Santa Fe Baldy 6.8 miles from the trailhead and 12,640 feet above sea level. On this date there were small remnants of snow banks still clinging to protected areas below the summit. There are views south to nearby Lake and Penitente Peaks, east into the Pecos, southwest to the Sandias and northwest to the Jemez Mountains; they are spectacular. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

12 Rain threat, about 2:00 pm

Storm threat on descent

This is a wonderful training hike and a great place to introduce strong new hikers to the high terrain in northern New Mexico.

Almost every discussion of this hike makes mention of lightning strikes on the summit ridge. This was certainly borne out on this day – the entire ridge was shrouded with cumulus by the time I got back to Santa Fe in late afternoon. Turn around if the weather gets iffy. It pays to start the hike early and to depart from the summit early.

I had three liters of water and it was not enough. I would have been much happier with four.

Links:

10 Lake Katherine from Summit

View to Lake Katherine from Santa Fe Baldy

There is an excellent overview of this trail on SummitPost, including mention of the desirability of getting off the ridge lines by early afternoon during thunder season.

A brief account of a wintertime hike, with some terrific photos, can be found at The Blonde Coyote.

Many people include Lake Katherine in their Santa Fe Baldy excursion. For an account of a warm-weather camping trip (including a scramble up the north ridge of Baldy) and some more great photos, click through to My Life Outdoors.