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.
- 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.
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.
- starting elevation: 6450 feet
- ending elevation:9210 feet
- net elevation gain: 2760
- distance: 4.7 miles one way
- maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Pino Canyon page at AbundantAdventures.com has photos that capture the canyon in two very different moods.
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.