01 South Sandia Summit from north

South Sandia Peak seen from the north, along the Sandia Crest

Overview:

This is a fun and strenuous alternative to the much-traveled Embudito Trail. The Embudito Trail lies near the bottom of Embudito Canyon and its views are limited by canyon walls. The Oso Ridge Trail is placed high on the Canyon’s northern rim and has terrific views down to the Albuquerque Basin, west to Mount Taylor and north to the cliffs adorning the Northern Sandias. The Embudito Trail makes long switchbacks across the Sandia’s imposing high face, producing a relatively gentle ascent. The Oso Ridge Trail faces squarely into the fall line, producing a steep ascent. On either trail you will get to South Sandia summit. From the summit this route descends along the Embudito Trail to Oso Pass and then departs onto the Whitewash trail and finishes with a brief road walk back to the trailhead. It is a terrific workout.

Driving Directions:

  • 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 3.1 miles, at a light, go left onto Montgomery Blvd.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto Glenwood  Hills Drive NE.
  • After 0.5 miles turn right onto Trailhead Road NE
  • After 0.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of Trailhead Road NE.

(This route works for those who are coming into Albuquerque from the north – like me. For many people, particularly those coming into Albuquerque from the east, it will be much shorter to take the Tramway Blvd exit from I-40 and head north on Tramway Blvd to where it intersects Montgomery Blvd then continue as above).

Trailhead:

02 Mighty Camry at Embudito Trailhead

The mighty Camry in Embudito Canyon

The trailhead is a paved parking area. There are no fees. I did not see any trash cans, toilets or water. Entrance to the parking area is gated, but the gates were wide open at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I did not see any signs indicating that the gates are routinely closed. You can check the hours of operation on Albuquerque’s Open Space webpage. There are several homes adjacent to the parking area – early-arriving hikers should try to minimized noise.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6240 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9782 feet
  • Elevation Gained: 3542 feet
  • Miles: 10.0 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle (for trailhead) and Tijeras quadrangle (for summit)

Hike Description:

03 Embudito Trail #192

Sign for Embudito Trail #192

From the north edge of the parking lot (left side, as you drive in), walk up over a berm and drop down to its far side, then follow the trail as it heads alongside the berm into the canyon. The trail soon pulls out into the canyon bottom and in less than 100 yards goes through a fence opening, passing an iron sign for the Embudito Trail #192.

 

04 North Rim Embudito Canyon

Height of initial rise

The trail crosses the canyon outflow and continues along the south-facing side of a small rise – this is the north rim of Embudito Canyon where it descends to the canyon mouth. I did not notice a path going up onto the rise, but the terrain is completely open and it is no trouble scrambling up onto the height of the rise. On the height you will find a well defined climber’s tread. Turn your back to the Albuquerque basin and ascend. It is steep in places and foot placement becomes an important task. Don’t become too absorbed in that one aspect of the hike! Behind you are great views out to Mt Taylor (a little hazy on this date) and Cabezon, while to your left lie the huge cliff faces of the Sandia’s northern ridgeline.

 

05 Sandia Ridge from N Embudito Rim

View from rim: South Sandia Peak is the high-point on the right and your approach is between the two knolls immediately north (to the left) of the peak

After 1.4 miles you get a small reprieve, descending gently in terrain populated by numerous junipers and jumbles of strikingly rounded boulders (the weather can be hard on a young rock). There is a potential bailout point, marked with a cairn, that departs to the south (right on ascent), which may lead to the bottom of Embudito Canyon. Continue straight on Oso Trail and you’ll find that your reprieve is over – the rim invites you to engage your quads and make some altitudinal gains. The reward is a high point at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find a useful glimpse of your destination. South Sandia Peak is the local high-point on the Crest. You can see it on the right side of the picture above. North of the summit (to its left in the photo) lie a series of crest-top knolls. The first knoll north of South Sandia Peak has a cliff-like face. You will be ascending in the darkly forested region north (left) of that cliff face.

07 Battlement Cliff

Nearing Vertical Forest: battlement-topped cliff

You now get a great rim-top ramble. Views open to the bowl on your left (which contains the Pino Canyon trail) . Juniper fades to pinyon and pinyon to ponderosa. The tread climbs up each bump along the canyon rim, sometimes followed by a steep descent but always with greater gain than loss. Where the tread crosses glades you will see the battlement-like top of the first knoll north of South Sandia Peak. Sometimes the tread lunges south, appearing to aim directly at South Sandia, but have no fear.

7a first Crest views

First views from the Crest, looking north

The cliff face eventually pulls near (staying on your right) and the terrain begins to seriously steepen. The sandy tread segues to forest duff. Big Douglas Fir crowd the path as you enter the Vertical Forest. The tread makes a half-hearted switchback or two, but there is not enough room for such indulgences. Eventually the trail is forced to cut north across  the waterway. Slogging upward, you will find a incursion of scrub oak lunging down the hillside on your left. The tread flees back across the canyon bed and plunges into the Douglas fir. Slowly, there appears a hint of light coming from low between those big tree-trunks up above. Could that be the Crest? Or is this a deceitful and cruel transition into steep and impenetrable Gambel Oak? Pop out of the firs, pass a sharply leaning single-seed juniper surrounded by small aspen and then, boom!, you are on the Crest.

08 summit view

Summit view: northeast to Ortiz Range (middle ground) and faint Sangre de Cristo Range (left horizon)

Just past the aspen, 4.0 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a faint T-intersection with an informal trail that runs along the west side of the Crest. (We will call this tread the West-Crest Trail). Turn south (to your right on ascent) and follow the tread over that now-familiar “first knoll”, drop to a saddle and ascend through trees to reach a cliffy section below the summit. Find a path up the rocks and arrive at South Sandia Summit, 9782 feet above sea level. This summit is often exposed to chilly winds. Fortunately there is a well-protected notch on the summit’s east side. On a clear day you will have great views: southeast to Ladron Peak, west to Taylor, north to the highpoint of the Sandias, and northeast to the Ortiz Mountains (mid distance) and the Sangre de Cristo Range (horizon). Views south and southeast are blocked by trees.

10 Summit Block from south across meadow

View back, across the broad meadow to the summit block

You could return to the West-Crest Trail and continue south, but on a windy day it is worth departing the summit east on a trail that quickly crosses the above-mentioned notch, descends to an escarpment-like rock wall, follows the wall south (to where the wall sinks into the soil) and then descends very steeply off of the summit block. This will deposit you in a large meadow. Here the trail pretty much disappears. Cross the meadow angling to the west (to your right). This will return you to the west side of the crest and back to the West-Crest Trail. Turn left (south) and follow the tread as it enters an enormous open bowl, home to innumerable scrub oak.

10 descent into Oso Pass

Oso Pass: trail to left is Three Guns Spring, trail to right is Embudito. Go straight up the leaf-lined gully for the Whitewash trail

The trail angles down into the bowl and at 4.9 miles ends at an intersection with the Embudito Trail (currently signed!).  Turn downhill (to the right) on the Embudito trail and follow it as it gently traverses two or three open bowls. Reaching a large rib the trail turns downhill and descends swiftly to Oso Pass. At the Pass you could turn right to stay on the Embudito Trail or turn left to head north along the Three Guns Trail. Both trails are signed. Instead, go across the pass to what looks like a small gully and ascend from the pass on the (unsigned) Whitewash Trail.

11 boulders, ponderosa and cliff faces

Ponderosa, bolders and views

The upper Whitewash is one of the prettiest places on the west face of the Sandias. It is the domain of widely spaced Ponderosa and Douglas fir, sunny glades, enormous egg-shaped boulders and occasional views to the Sandias and the Albuquerque basin. It seems unnaturally flat, its long shelves of erosion resistant rock joined by short, sharp descents. At 7.2 miles from the trailhead, come to a small meadow where the trail forks. The more deeply worn tread falls off to the left, while a much less worn tread veers off to the right.

12 junction at head of Sunset Canyon

Well-used left fork and less-used right fork, which might return to Embudito

Here you are at the head of Sunset Canyon. The map suggests that if you take the less-traveled trail to the right you would be returned directly into Embudito Canyon. On this date, however, I took the more-traveled fork left (this fork is shadowed in the photo, but you can get a larger and clearer image on a computer screen if you click the image). This tread goes onto the rim separating Sunset Canyon in the north from Embudo Canyon in the South. Most people descending this path are interested in getting to the Embudo trailhead. Follow this tread and you soon find that it departs the top of the rim and clings to the north-facing wall of Sunset Canyon (contouring around a large bump on the rim). At 7.7 miles the trail regains the top of the rim. A cairn marks an intersection where a trail goes left to descend into Embudo Canyon. Keep going straight, staying up on the rim of Sunset Canyon.

13 view across Sunset and Embudito Canyons

View to north rim of Sunset Canyon and beyond to Sandia Peak

The rim begins making a series of steps, dropping rapidly through pinyon pine and down into the realm of juniper. The trail bed on these drops is covered with pea-sized gravel. Take your time. The tread amounts to a steep pile of ball bearings. At 8.9 miles the trail reaches a saddle and an intersection, go right and descend the few remaining feet to the bottom of Sunset Canyon. Here the trail braids out immensely. Cross the canyon and pick up a good tread near the wall on the north side. Turn downhill towards the houses at the mouth of the canyon. Pass through a gate in a wire fence (unsigned) and onto Cedarbrook Avenue (paved). Descend Cedarbrook and turn right onto Glenwood Hills Drive, follow that to Trailhead Road, and ascend Trailhead Road to return to your vehicle (about 0.8 miles on road).

Recommendations:

14 summit pose

December: goose down and fleece!

This route is one of the steeper trails leading up to the Sandia Crest. If you have a party that is not well adapted for altitude then you might want to find a less challenging tread. On the other hand, if this proves to your liking then you might want to consider scrambling to the high-point of the Sandia Mountains via TWA canyon.

If there is snow or ice on the ground then you’ll need traction devices. This is especially true if you are going to descend along the Vertical Forest portion of the trail. Poles and microspikes would be required. If it is truly icy then you might want full-on crampons.

I went through a liter of water on a cold December day. On a warmer day you’d want a multiple of that.

The new sign at the junction of the Embudito Trail and the informal tread I’ve called “West-Crest Trail” is loosely attached to its post. On this date the wind was banging it around. Eventually that sign will split off unless someone helps. If you’re going up in the near future please consider bringing along a crescent wrench and tightening the hex-head screws. (Leave a comment so others will know, thanks)!

In the future I would try the right fork at the head of Sunset Canyon. If it “goes” then the road-walk can be avoided.

Links:

My interest in this hike was initially spurred by an exceptional trail report on the Paint, Dig, Write, Hike, Gaze site. That author descended along the full length of the Embudito Trail rather than switching to the Whitewash – it is a good option to consider.

The ASCHG has a brief write-up of this trail. It includes a very useful map. As with the report mentioned above, this route also descends entirely on the Embudito Trail. (Note: there is another Oso Ridge Trail in California, don’t get confused!)

The Strava site has an interesting variation in which you follow the north rim of Embudito Canyon up through the Vertical Forest to the Crest. Then turn back and descend the forest. At the point where you return to the rim they depict a trail descending into Embudito Canyon and then down the canyon and back to the car.

 

 

 

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