Archives for posts with tag: Sandia Crest Trail

Overview:

The Domingo Baca Canyon Trail, the La Luz Trail and the Crest Spur Trail form the uphill section of a loop that begins in Albuquerque and leaps to the highest point in the Sandia Mountains. The Crest Trail and the Pino Canyon Trail form the downhill portion of the loop from the summit back to Albuquerque. This is a seriously strenuous scramble. Readers who have just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will find it mildly diverting. Ordinary mortals, however, must use caution. The route up Domingo Baca is a steep and protracted scramble – retreat due to bad weather or under icy conditions is not desirable. The Crest Trail can be a mellow experience, but snow can stress your navigation skills and lightning can spoil your ridge ramble. The final descent through west-facing Pino Canyon will test your water logistics, particularly if it’s warm. The hike is time consuming and the road into the Elana Gallagos Open Space is gated shut (bang!) at 7:00 pm.

That said, this is a hike through the vertiginous dreams of a spaghetti-western director. Go on a day when you’re feeling strong, when the sky is blue, the temperatures are mild, the days have lengthened and the Crest Trail is free of snow.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 heading north in Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423). Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a secondary off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This puts you in 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 arrives at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423) where it forks around a traffic island. Stay to the right of the island and turn 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 Park Road 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. After paying, follow the road as it curves tightly behind the guard station and then starts back towards the west. Immediately on the right will be a road headed north. Currently the only road sign says “Kiwanas”. Go right (north) onto this road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at the Cottonwood trailhead and park.

Trailhead:

The entry fee is currently $2.00 on weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. Put the envelope stub close to the windshield. The park has covered picnic tables and there are vault toilets just before the trailhead (on the right, screened by junipers). I did not see any water. The park is popular and on weekends parking can be scarce. The park is gated after hours (currently it is open until 7:00, check with the park’s website). There are several online reports of car break-ins. It may be wise to keep your gear out of sight.

Data:

loop profile

  • Starting Elevation: 6400 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,670 feet
  • Net Gain: 4270 feet
  • Distance: 15.4 miles (round trip).
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle

Hike Description:

Proto-hoodoos above Domingo Baca Trail

From the trailhead follow trail 230A (signed) about 100 feet to where it merges with another trail going right (uphill). At 0.5 miles from the trailhead pass an intersection with Trail 342. At 0.7 miles pass a second intersection, this time with Trail 341. Both of the intersecting trails come in from the right, simply keep going straight ahead. At 0.8 miles the trail comes to a third intersection, also signed. Trail 230 goes straight ahead, but go right, past the “Domingo Baca Trail” sign, and onto USFS property. This tread takes aim at a large knoll of tough rock that is being weathered into hoodoos, contours around the base of the knoll, and then drops into the bed of Domingo Baca Canyon.

Stone shelter

Follow the path as it turns up-canyon and dives between canyon walls north and south. As you ascend the walls begin to pull together. Nearing the pinch point you will find the remains of a rough stone shelter, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Push through the narrows and into a bowl with good views of the high terrain that is your destination. Looking about you will see pinyon pines, an indication that you’re transitioning out of the Upper Sonoran life zone. On this date there was water to be found in the canyon bed.

Sandy tread and arrowhead boulder at junction where you leave the gully

The first navigation challenge comes at about 1.8 miles from the trailhead where you must leave the waterway. Watch for a section where you pull out from under dense canopy, passing a table-like rock about 10-foot long and 3-foot high on your right and then onto a 15-foot stretch of sandy tread. Here you might find that the path upstream is blocked with a pile of branches (although any floodwater is likely to make short work of that). A better indicator is a blocky, whitish boulder that presents an arrowhead silhouette to hikers coming up the trail. To your left there will be an obvious path up the north wall of the gully. Don’t take that! Instead, look to your right for an obscure, rough, rock-strewn tread up the south wall of the gully. Take that.

Stony path up and out of the gully

Above the gully the tread heads out on pleasant, nearly level terrain. The path goes almost due east until it begins to run up against the walls of the bowl, then swings a bit more northerly. Somehow, unnoticed, a rocky wall 20-feet high has crept up on your left side. A stream bed (with running water on this date) has formed beside the trail. Growth in this portion of the canyon is exuberant. Even the scrub oak and the juniper bushes have formed serious boles and are jostling for skyshare. The terrain begins to steepen. Waterfalls form in the stream bed.

Enormous pines and soaring rocky spires

At 2.7 miles the trail takes a turn to the north, seeming to pull away from the main flow of the canyon. The path now takes dead aim at an immense pair of rocky spires that tower above your head. Strange sounds penetrate the forest that soon resolve as coming from the high wires of the Tramway. You may see the tram itself pause overhead and hear amplified guide-patter coming from above. Wild, yes. Untrammeled? Not so much. As you ascend higher into the canyon the trail goes directly below the Tramway then slowly pulls away.

Boulder scramble near the TWA site

At about 3.4 miles from the trailhead come to a boulder pile obstructing the canyon bed. Most people will find this an easy challenge, provided that your boots are dry and rock is free of ice or snow. A log braced against the lower rock gives you access to a shelf about half way up, then it is a matter of creeping carefully past the uppermost boulder to regain the trail. If you have party members who are not comfortable with this level of exposure there is an alternative route. You can find the junction just a short distance down-stream, adjacent to a thick, 20-foot tall snag in the middle of the trail. (A detailed discussion and a GPS track can be found in the Ondafringe link, below).

View down-canyon over the memorial site

A short distance above, at the foot of a cliff, come to the site where TWA flight 260 met its end. The trail jogs to your left and tracks a sobering story expressed in shredded aluminum and smashed engine blocks. In an otherwise spectacular canyon – soaring rock walls spaced only 20 or 30 feet apart – this sad tail of lost lives and concentrated wreckage seems to never end. Scramblers take heed, experts attribute this disaster to a failure of the aircraft’s compass. This is a memorial site, please leave the debris where it fell.

Cliff face above navigation problem – go to the right of the cliff

Few hikers climb above the crash site so it is not surprising that the tread becomes much fainter above the narrows. Keep to the canyon bottom which trends just a little east of north. At 3.8 miles, about 9000 feet of altitude, come to another potential navigation problem. A huge cliff face drops right to your boots. There is one opening to its left and one opening to its right. Which to choose? The map will show that I explored the left-hand option first (see the little stub going off to the northeast). Most navigators, however, will point to the obvious tread tucked up against the eastern wall of the “above-right” canyon and ascend in that direction.

Tunnel through the oak thickets

It now gets steep and you enter a scrub oak thicket. If it were completely untouched then passage would be impossible. Fortunately, kind and unbelievably strong volunteers have lugged saws and brush clippers into this high realm. Take advantage of their handiwork. This might be a good place to stop for a bite to eat and careful consideration of your next move. Is the weather still good? Is the party OK with the altitude? Great! If not, then a return from this point will be a great deal easier than retreat from the ever-steeper bowl above.

Down canyon view from grassy shelf

Clamber the slopes, side hilling where the soil shows signs of releasing from under your boots. The tread ascends straight up the hill without pause or apology. Practice you rest-step and remember to look over your shoulders for intense views through the narrow canyons and out onto the Albuquerque basin. At 4.4 miles come to a pleasant surprise. The thickets give way to a narrow grassy shelf and the terrain above, while still steep, is open. You may hear voices from hikers above you. There does not seem to be any obvious tread off of the shelf. For the sake of keeping the grasses (and soil) in place it is best to make your own careful zig-zags up the slope. At 4.5 miles make a glad entrance onto La Luz Trail.

Cliff bands above the La Luz Trail

Turn west (to your left, looking uphill) and follow the La Luz as it contours around a ships-bow buttress and heads north towards a small saddle. In the saddle find a signed junction with the Crest Spur Trail. That is your path to the Crest House on Sandia Summit.

Summit view of south Sandia Crest

Reach the summit having hiked 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There is a cafe in the Crest House and it is a rare luxury to sit atop a summit with hot coffee paired to your chips and salsa. There ought to be great views all around, although on this day the haze made it hard to pick out even Mt Taylor. Cast your eye over the parking lot and sympathize with those overheated engines.

Summit view down onto La Luz switchbacks

After refueling, find the Crest Trail going south from the Crest House and towards the tramway. This portion of the hike sees very heavy use and the tread is initially paved. The trail soon departs from the crest top and drops a short distance to the east. Numerous trailside signs identify Corkbark Fir and Englemann Spruce, conifers from high in the Canadian Zone. On this date there was as much as two feet of snow remaining on the ground. Put on your gaiters and don the microspikes. The trail is obvious and icy for long stretches. Then, for no clear reason, the beaten track will braid out into individual boot prints. Pick a line that parallels the crest and continue south. The tread skirts below a stone building called the Kiwanis Cabin, reaches an overlook and then descends westerly along a large field called Kiwanis meadow. At the low end of the meadow return to the Crest trail and continue south, reaching the Tramway at 7.1 miles from the trailhead.

View from tramway back towards the summit

Thread through the tramway/ski area complex (this involves staircases) and at the forest’s edge find a signed return to the Crest Trail. There is a marked reduction in trail usage here. Post-holing through deep and/or rotten snow can be tiring and slow. That 7:00 pm gate time can begin to seem worrisome. You can’t be certain of being on the trail when it is snow covered. When in doubt, return to the edge of the crest and push south. At 8.1 miles come to an overlook with great views of the crest to the south, marked as Point 9835 on the map. Looking ahead you will see, below you, a buttress on the crest bulging out to the west and, beyond the buttress, a higher stretch of ridgeline with a large bump on its southmost extremity. That bump is very close to the Pino Canyon Trail junction.

View across the saddle that contains the Pino Canyon Trail junction

The terrain forces you west from Point 9835. At about 9600 feet altitude you may find yourself returning to the tracks on the Crest Trail. On this date it was quite distinctive – leaves and needles seem to accumulate in the trough beaten into the snow. Follow it south as it contours around the east side of big bump to reach the signed intersection with the Tree Spring Trail and the 10K Trail (8.7 miles from the trailhead). Stay on the Crest trail as it gradually swings to due south. Here you depart from the comfort of hugging the crest and are tracking the ridge you saw from point 9835. This is easy hiking on a tread that rarely departs from the 9400 foot contour line. Eventually it swings a bit more westerly, descending to 9200 feet and at 10.5 miles reaches a saddle and the signed junction with the Pino Trail.

Icy tread on the upper reaches of Pino Canyon

This is a popular trail and just about all navigation issues end at the saddle. Gaiters may no longer be needed. The top of Pino Canyon Trail, however, descends a north-facing canyon wall on closely woven switchbacks. It can be extremely icy. Your weary legs will be happy that you kept those traction devices on! Down and down and down it goes until reaching 8600 feet. From there it takes dead aim at the setting sun and stretches out for Duke City. Pino Canyon has its own somber aspects. A once-magnificent forest occupied this canyon but drought and bark beetle have decimated the middle reaches. The standing deadwood is also something of a threat; be careful if the winds are strong. Look north for views into the spectacular terrain you’ve been traipsing through.

Pino Canyon: green above, dead below.

At 12.7 miles the trail significantly flattens and re-enters the domain of juniper trees and cacti. The tread becomes sandy. At 14.2 miles leave the Cibola National Forest through a gate and return to the foothill trails of the Elena Gallegos Open Space. Almost immediately you will want to go right, through a gate, to stay on the Pino Canyon Trail, #140. This is a long, level, nearly straight-line shot across the open space towards the Pino Canyon Trailhead. Unfortunately, this is not the same trailhead where you left your car. Turn right and continue slogging down the road (paved) to where it returns to the guard house. There, turn north (to your right) past the “Kiwanis” sign and return to your car having hiked 15.4 miles.

Recommendations:

21 Author, summit, Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia summit

If you’re a little worried about the shape you’re in, if you’re hiking with people fresh from sea-level, or if your navigation skills are a little rusty, then why not hike one of the lower legs of this loop? The tread up to the TWA site is challenging and solemn, but it is filled with running streams, attended by soaring canyon walls and populated with tall Ponderosa and thick Douglas fir. The Pino Canyon Trail can’t quite match that solemnity and grandeur, but it is a terrific hike through high terrain on a carefully tended tread.

On a cool, sunny March day I went through about 2.5 liters of water. I would have gone through a lot more but I was in such a hurry at the end that it never came out of my pack. It seems certain that this west-facing hike gets baked during the summer. In those conditions 5 liters might not be sufficient.

Watch the weather. You don’t want to be on the crest when a line of thunderstorms strike. Pick a different hike if it is monsoon season. Similarly, in winter and early spring you can be confident of encountering long icy stretches on the trail. Traction devices are essential. I had a single hiking pole but it would have been helpful to have had a second, especially while punching through snow-crust along the Crest.

It is important to have confidence in your navigation skills. It is even more important to have reason to be confident in your navigation skills. If you are not practiced at working your way through the mountains with a map and compass then this is probably not the place to begin learning. In the same light, pay attention to the members of your party and their experience with off-route situations. If it makes them uncomfortable then you can do everyone a huge favor by picking a different hike.

In a pinch you might have the option of descending either on the Tramway or on La Luz Trail. Just remember that those options terminate quite a long ways north of the trailhead. Alternatively, you might be able to beg a ride from folks who have driven to the summit. It won’t do much for your pride but it might be preferable to an unscheduled “bivy” on the Crest.

On this hike I parked at the trailhead nearest Domingo Baca Canyon. That was a poor choice. It would have been better psychology to park at the Pino Canyon trailhead and get the trudge down the paved roads over with first thing. This map suggests that you could connect to trail 230A from the Pino Canyon trailhead using the “nature trail”, thereby saving some milage and skipping the road trudge entirely!

In good weather the Crest Trail is open for horse riders. If you meet horses on the trail then please step off the trail to the downhill side.

Links:

The TrimbleOutdoors site names this loop the “TWA Canyon Challenge” and provides a brief description and a GPS track. Note that the GPS track doubles-back on itself in several places. This is typical of GPS tracks in narrow canyons. The canyon walls reflect the satellite signals, which renders the tracks (including those shown here) approximate at best. The site describes the tread above the TWA site as “faint”, “little used” and “steep”. All true.

An excellent description of the hike up Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA crash site, which includes some history, numerous photos and instructions for going around the boulder problem, can be found at the ondafringe website. That same site has separate pages here and here describing the Pino Canyon trail along with maps and video.

A short but very detailed description of the Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA site can be found at Cibola Search and Rescue. It’s an older report, from 1997, and some of the details may no longer hold. Neverless, it does emphasize the importance of getting out of the gully in the early part of the trip. It describes the stony exit as a waterfall, which may be the case in wetter years. Better, it tells you what to expect if you happened to stay in the gully and ascend past the exit.

At least one report mentions poison ivy on the trail up to the TWA site. Watch for it as the weather grows warmer. Not certain about ivy spotting? Here is a helpful guide.

A useful description of the lower Domingo Baca trail, along with a table of waypoints, can be found here in the Sandia Mountains Hiking Guide. That same site also has a useful description and maps for a crest-top loop. This loop overlaps with the sections of the La Luz, Crest Spur, and Crest Trail to the Tramway that are described here. (The chief difference is that the crest-top loop goes north from the Tramway to return to the summit, whereas the route described here goes south from the Tramway to descend to Pino Canyon).

The Albuquerque Journal makes mention of the Pino Trail. They rate an up-and-back hike on this trail as difficult. On this loop you would only be doing the “back” portion, but it is worth noting that your one-way leg involves 4.5 miles of hiking and 2800 feet of altitude loss. That could be significant if the exit road is about to be gated.

The Forest Service has a simplified map (not topological) showing most of the route described here. It only shows trails, however, so the off-trail scramble at the top of Domingo Baca Canyon is not depicted.

The Forest service also has a simplified map of the many trails surrounding the Crest House. Give it a glance so you’ll know what kind of snarl you’re going to navigate through.

22 boot trail through woods near summit

Boot trail through the woods near the summit

Weather conditions in the Albuquerque basin can be very different from weather conditions on the Sandia summit, even though they seem adjacent on Google maps. There is, after all, a mile’s difference in altitude between them. The Crest Trail, #130, is within the Cibola National Forest. The Forest Service describes this trail here, and provides contact data. The best way that I know to get information on the state of the Crest Trail is to call the contact number. Currently the phone number for the Sandia Ranger Station is listed as: 505-281-3304.

01-sandia-crest-e1488760050365.jpg

Sandia Crest From Three Guns Spring Trail

Overview:

This is a “lasso-style” loop hike in the Sandias. The stem portion is a half-mile trek amidst the cacti and juniper of Three Guns Spring Canyon. The loop portion begins with a sharp ascent along the Hawk Watch Trail, followed by a mellow sojourn on the Crest Trail to the summit block of South Sandia Peak. Return by descending the Embudito trail until, at Oso Pass where you rejoin the ever-popular Three Guns Spring Trail. Are you bringing a novice scrambler into the mountains? Be certain to put them out in front and have them pick their way across a short, untracked segment on the crest. It’s beautiful.

Driving Directions:

  • In Albuquerque, at the junction with Interstate-25 (I-25), go east onto I-40.
  • After approximately 9.5 miles, take exit 170 for Carnuel.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left (east) on old Route 66.
  • After 1.7 miles, turn left to cross the meridian of 66 on a paved pad and then onto Monticello Dr.
  • Immediately turn right on Montecello  (it closely parallels old Route 66 for a short distance before swinging north into the canyon).
  • After 0.5 miles turn left onto Alegre Dr. NE. Opposite the turn there is one sign saying “Trail” (with a left pointing arrow) and a second sign saying just “522”.
  • After 0.1 miles turn right onto Siempre Verde Dr. NE (there are similar signs), which turns into a well-maintained gravel road
  • After 0.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of the road.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the  Trailhead

The trailhead is just a wide graveled pad at the end of the road. I didn’t notice any trash, water or toilet services. There were no fees for parking in this area.

This is a very popular spot with dog walkers, trail runners, mountain bikers and other outdoor folk. I was the first one there at about 7:00 am on a very nice Saturday, but it was getting jammed by the time I returned that afternoon. You will probably want to arrive early.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6320 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9563 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3243 feet
  • Distance: 10.6 miles (round trip)

Hike Description:

Broad tread on lower Three Guns Spring Trail

There seem to be several trails departing from the trailhead. I took the large track (an old road) heading straight north out of the northwest corner of the trailhead. This is the Three Guns Spring Trail. It is a pure pleasure to walk as it crosses the flattish terrain of the lower canyon. The sun takes its time rising over the crest, so it can be brisk on a late-January morning. I had on a heavy fleece coat with a light fleece vest and was very glad that the winds weren’t blowing.

Fence and signs at junction with Hawk Watch Trail

After 0.5 miles come to a fence and, immediately past it, a signed junction. The Three Guns Trail continues north, while the Hawk Watch trail departs towards the east. Follow the Hawk Watch (which, despite the magic of this environment, is not “the Hogwarts”). Initially this tread, too, bounces along the canyon bottom and begins a gentle rise until, at 0.9 miles from the trailhead, it reaches the top of a rib. At this point the tread turns north and follows the rib-top while the grade steepens markedly. This is clearly a much-loved trail and navigation is not a problem.

Trail post and saddle where engineering of the Hawk Watch Trail begins to degrade

At 1.7 miles the rib sags to form a minor saddle. Here a trail post marks the end of the official Hawk Watch trail. The trail becomes less formal but is easily traced. It has a tendency to head straight uphill, which puts your quadriceps on notice. Gullies form on trails like this, leaving walls to the left of you and walls to the right of you. Beneath your boots are pea-sized pebbles that have, inexplicably, resisted the forces of gravity. Now they serve to make your contact with the bedrock frictionless. Slipping is not that much of a problem, although it may rehearse earlier lessons regarding the use of cacti as belay points.

View from the crest to Three Guns Canyon outwash and Ladron Peak

At 2.1 miles the tread pulls over the crest, makes a tentative turn or two and disappears. (There was some snow at this level, but not enough to bury all signs of a trail). Hmmph. Pull up just a bit further to cliffside and look out to the Manzanitos and Manzanos to the South, the Ladron Mountains south and west, and the distant spire of South Baldy (currently snow capped) in the Magdelanas Mountains. Far below your toes lies Three Spring Canyon and its intersection with Canon De Carnue (containing the broad white slash of I-40). Mt Taylor dominates the views west and the broad, broad shoulder of the Sandias lie north.  Majestic. Now, what to do about that lack of trail?

View from point 8620 to the broad Sandia shoulders

From your airy perch overlooking Three Guns Spring Canyon turn uphill and follow the crest itself. You will encounter some thickets but do not hesitate to probe downhill to the east to find easier going. It is always possible to climb back to the crest once the vegetation thins. In just a few hundred yards come to a minor summit (about 8620 feet) and look north. From here the crest drops slightly to a saddle and then begins climbing on a narrow ridge. Descend to the saddle and discover the broad Sandia Crest Trail there.

Signed junction where the Embudito Trail terminates at the Crest Trail

Abandoning the arduous task of sticking with the crest, the trail now opts for a leisurely ascending roll across the gently sloping east Sandias. This is forested terrain, but views do open from time to time. Peek to the southeast across the immense Pecos basin, due east across the Ortega Range, and northeast to the snow-capped splendor of Santa Fe Baldy in the Pecos Mountains. The trail eventually passes South Sandia Spring (currently frozen hard), hits a short bit of steeper tread and then levels into a broad swale choked with Gambel Oak. At the swale’s upper end, four miles from the trailhead, you will find a signed intersection with the Embudito Trail. Is the weather beginning to thicken? Is the deepening snow threatening to obscure the trail? If so then you could either go back the way you came (down those steep gullys!) or you could descend the Embudito, a much better trail. Are you enjoying New Mexico’s famous sunshine? Push north to go a little past the South Sandia summit.

White snow and blue sky at the crest, visible through an aspen curtain

Continue on the Crest Trail, monitoring the height of land to your left. That is the summit block. I did not find a formal path that would take you to the summit (there may have one been buried under snow), but the Crest Trail enters into a series of broad meadows, curtained by aspen and Ponderosa growing along the crest. The curtain is not so very dense that you can’t see where the terrain is starting to descend from the summit. Pick a spot, turn left (west) to get to the crest, then turn left to follow the crest to the summit.

Albuquerque, Taylor and Cabezon from South Sandia

The snow got noticeably deeper on the summit block. Gaiters were very useful pieces of attire, although I might have made better use of snake-proof gaiters since the woods were full of small, yet doughty, thorn bushes.  Eventually the bigger trees give way to Gambel oaks and, after a little exploring, the rocky summit of South Sandia. You’ve come five miles from the trailhead. Westerly views  open, encompassing the Ladron Mountains, Mt Taylor, Cabezon Peak and much of the northern Sandias. To the northeast find the nearby Ortega Range and the distant Pecos Range.

Junction where the meadow-crossing trail meets cliffside trail

If the winds are behaving themselves then you can drop from the summit on a steep west-side tread, pick up a boot-beaten cliff-side path and begin working your way south towards Embudito. On this day, at noon, the westerly winds were brisk. Under those conditions, leave the summit to the east, crossing a small declivity, and follow another boot beaten path into an aspen woods protected from those westerlies. The trail runs straight at a high wall of rock, turns south (to your right) and follows the wall to where it peters out in about 100 yards. The trail can be a little hard to follow, especially if the snow is deep. Be prepared to return to the summit and face those chilly breezes if you have to.

Unsigned junction where the cliffside trail terminates at the Embudito Trail

The trail hops over the end of the wall and then descends steeply, furrowing through Gambel oak thickets. These thickets end where the terrain levels out and the trail deposits you on a broad meadow. Keeping the crest on your right, cross the meadow and pick up a side trail at the meadow’s south side. Turn west (right) and follow the trail to an unsigned intersection with the cliff-side path. Turn south (left) and take in the vistas from the crest.  The trail will bring you into a large, open and steep-sided bowl. The tread drops into this bowl and terminates  at an unsigned junction with the Embudito Trail at 5.5 miles from the trailhead. Turn right onto the Embudito, going downhill, and follow it to a broad wooded rib that marks the northern extremity of this bowl.

View from the second forested rib back into the lower bowl.

The Embudito is a popular track and, in winter time, the snow gets packed down hard. On this date all the southwest faces were clear of snow and even muddy in spots. However, each small runnel and larger ravine will have it’s northerly faces and those can be icy. Wend your way over the first forested rib and creep carefully past such obstacles into a second bowl. Keep your eyes raised, however, for nice views of distant Cabezon. At the far end of this bowl the trail reaches a thickly forested rib and descends it to the west. There are plenty of switchbacks. If you are hiking during the warmer months you will be grateful for the dense array of ponderosa pine and fir.

Descending to Oso Pass from Embudito Trail, the trail sign is on the extreme right.

At the end of the rib, 6.7 miles from the trailhead, you come to a flat spot that is Oso Pass. There are three descent options. Embudito Trail makes a hard right-turn next to a trail sign and descends into Embudito Canyon. The informal Whitewash trail goes straight ahead, initially rising, to attain the top of the rib between Embudito and Embudo canyons. You, however, will want to turn left onto the Three Guns Spring Trail, #194.

Three Guns Spring Trail below, Crest cliffs above

The high end of the Three Guns Spring Trail is a long lateral across the west face of the Sandia. The trail yaws into and rolls out of minor canyons but descends very gently. On Oso Pass it is thickly populated with Ponderosa pines, but these start to thin as the trail drops to a junction (signed) with Embudo Trail. There are occasional glimpses of the Sandia Crest and, on those darker north-facing slopes, winter can deposit patches of firm ice. It was also the most populated portion of this loop. On this date I saw no-one on the way up to the summit, but passed about a half-dozen parties on the Three Guns.

View to lower Three Guns Spring Canyon

The Embudo tail departs the junction atop the ridge separating Embudo Canyon and Three Guns Spring Canyon. You will want to stay on the Three Guns Spring trail as it drops due south into an upper-Sonoran life zone, with  junipers steadily displacing the pinyon pine and with prickly pear replacing thorn bush. Below the junction the trail offers a short side trip to an outlook that you should take. Look east over the rise that took you Crest-ward only a few hours ago, west over Post Pass and into Embudo Canyon, and straight south over the enormous bowl that is the lower canyon. Return to the trail as it steepens and then dives (on numerous switchbacks) into the lower bowl. Having hiked 9.0 miles from the start the last switchback ends and a side-trail will take you back up canyon. I think that the sidetrail goes the the well armed spring that gives the canyon its name. From here it is an easy 1.6 miles down the canyon and back to the car.

Recommendations:

This was a terrific hike on a mild January day. The turn-back options are slightly sketchy once you’re atop the crest because the steep, pebble-filled gullies offer uncertain footing. If weather threatens then it might be better to find a hike with better options. Similarly, on hot summer days much of the mid-hike is shaded. Still, be aware that the last two miles is not protected from the sun.

As always, if you hike the Crest in wintertime bring winter clothing, real fire making gear and have extra food and extra clothing. Any protracted waiting would make you cold and then much colder.

Traction devices like microspikes are strongly recommended for wintertime hikes. I was very glad to have them through the upper bowls and descending Embudito to Oso Pass. In fact, it was a mistake to take them off just below the pass because of the numerous small icy patches in the ravines.

I went through two liters of water and had another liter and a half reserve. That is plenty.  The morning was cold enough to cause ice to start forming in the tube leading from the water bag. I was over-consuming just to prevent it from  freezing solid.

I mentioned this above, but if you have a young navigator-in-training then the untracked section at the top of Hawk Watch would make for a nice challenge. Looking back, it was a little funny how few under-20 folks were out on the trail. You could not possibly ask for more scenic terrain or better training.

If you have a visitor with hiking experience, but not very much time, then this is probably the Sandia trail I’d recommend. It has a lot in common with the Pino Trail, but this hike gains a summit and offers grand views.  The Pino lacks that glamour.

Links:

I first heard about the Hawk Watch trail from the Albuquerque Hiking and Outdoor Meetup group. They plotted out a strenuous figure-8 pattern back and forth across the southern end of the Sandia Mountains. Clearly I’ve opted for a more mellow trek.

Hawk Watch International used to do raptor banding along the Hawk Watch Trail in the springtime. You may find some sites advising hikers to stay away during that time of year. I asked, however, and was told that they no longer working there. Feel free to make that fine April sojourn.

The Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide offers separate descriptions for the Hawk Watch, Three Guns Spring, and Embudito trails. You have to do your own mix-and-match to come up with this hike, but there are excellent trail descriptions and links to printable maps.

This hike links up several different trails and can be a little confusing. A clear map that simply lays out the location of most of these trails can be found here.  The only thing missing is the connection between the end of the Hawk Watch and the summit of South Sandia Peak.

Much of this route lies within the Cibola National Forest. If you have questions about the trail status there is some data available from the Forest Service here.