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.)
- 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.
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.
- 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.