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.
- 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.
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.
- Starting Elevation: 5960 feet
- Ending Elevation: 9405 feet
- Net Elevation: 3545 feet
- Distance: 13.2 miles round trip
- Maps: USGS Tijeras quadrangle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Done 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.