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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.