Archives for posts with tag: Southwest

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 Cabezon Peak

Basaltic columns on south face of Cabezon Peak

Overview:

The trail – the only trail – on Cabezon Peak is a scramble on a massive volcanic plug out in the desert. The plug is one of scores of volcano relics that dot the terrain in the vast Mt Taylor volcanic field, with vistas so broad and exotic that the notion of aliens feeling at home here seems almost reasonable.  Go when the weather is great, go when the day is cool, go when there is time to soak up the views.

This route is one of the most exposed scrambles that has so far appeared in this blog – in places a fall would be costly or fatal. On a per-mile basis it is certainly strenuous. It is usually evaluated as a class 3 route, meaning that most people will not feel the need to be roped in. Acrophobes will not be at all happy here. Very young hikers should not be brought here. On this date a boy scout troop was on the route with experienced leaders. The 11 and 12 year olds seemed to be doing fine.

Driving Directions:

  • Informational sign on BLM 1114 at turn for trailhead road

    Take exit 242 on Interstate-25 (just north of Albuquerque) and go west on US-550. Cabezon Peak comes into view from US-550 a few miles before you turn off for NM-279

  • After 41.6 miles, just past a sign for San Luis, Cabezon and Torreon, take a left onto NM-279 going west. There are a couple things to note about this road:
    • At 8.5 miles the paved road takes an abrupt turn right. Keep going straight ahead onto a gravel road. You’ll come across several signs warning that bad weather can render the dirt road impassable. Judging from the huge ruts in the road, this is entirely believable.
    • At 11.7 miles the road reaches a small rise and swings to your right. Make note as you go by since there is a fork here that is otherwise easy to miss. On return you do not want to go straight, but instead take the more prominent left-hand fork.
  • After 12.3 miles come to a fork and go left onto BLM 1114. I didn’t see a sign, but this will be obvious as the right-fork would take you away from the huge volcanic plug on your left.  Here are some landmarks for this road.
    • At about 0.9 miles past the fork the road pitches over an embankment and descends to the Rio Puerco bottom where it crosses on a bridge. It then winds along the bottom eventually coming out on a steep rise.
    • At 1.9 miles past the fork come to a second fork and, again, go left. As before, this will be obvious since this fork keeps you closest to the mountain.
  • After 2.9 miles, at a minor crest, turn left onto a dirt road. There is a park interpretive sign at the junction. The sign is in the shape of a trapezoid with its shorter base on the bottom. It is nearly illegible. Apparently it has been out in the desert sun for a long time.  You can still make out the words Cabezon Peak if you look closely. The road is not named, but let’s call it Cabezon Trailhead Road.
  • After 1.0 mile, at the end of Cabezon Trailhead Road, come to the trailhead. NOTE: This road is not maintained. If you have a high clearance vehicle you should have no problem here. A family sedan, however, is another matter entirely.  The Camry crawled the length of this road and, later, crawled back out. If the roadbed is even slightly muddy then consider walking the mile to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

There is a trailhead sign and a sturdy, raised, metal platform containing a sign-in sheet. Otherwise there are no trailside services. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6480 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7785 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1305 feet
  • Distance: 1.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cabezon Peak quadrangle

Description:

Trailhead sign and view to the peak

From the trailhead, look east at the soaring basaltic wall that is Cabezon Peak. At its base is a steep-sided debris field making a “skirt” around the plug. A little to the south you will see a small hillock that the debris field extends towards, but does not bury. Between the hillock and the peak is a small draw. As the trail leaves the trailhead it will be rising on the debris field skirt, ascending along the draw in the direction of the saddle between the peak and the hillock.

View of peak, southern hillock and the draw between them

The initial part of the trail is fairly mellow. The tread is strewn with rock, so it pays to watch your footing. You are, unquestionably, deep into desert terrain. Prickly pear lunges into into the tread at its lowest level and cane cholla does its best to occupy the upper reaches. Tough juniper trees do show up here and there, but there is no protection from the sun. This would be a very hot trek in mid-summer.

The top of a rock fin peeks out from behind the main volcanic plug

Instead of heading to the saddle the trail increases the angle of attack across the debris skirt. It rises much higher than the saddle until it reaches the rib that extends down to the saddle. Here it turns almost directly uphill. Gravel underfoot makes contact with the tread wonderfully uncertain until, at about 0.8 miles, the tread pulls onto a flat spot, drops into a broad declivity dense with junipers and then rises yet a few feet more. As you reach this area you will begin to see a tall fin of rock peeking out from behind the main plug. The gully between the main plug and that fin is your approach to the summit.

Rock arrow screened in the grasses below the talus trail

The trail contours just below the talus field at the foot of the plug. Dropping slightly, trail comes to broad shelf populated with cairns. On your right will be a large arrow constructed of rocks with the arrow pointing uphill. You may have to look closely as the grasses can obscure it. (Which is odd, since this arrow is visible in satellite photos). If you examine the talus uphill from the arrow you will see a faint, boot-beaten track ascending toward the fin. Following it is hard work as steeply piled talus tends to roll under your boot.

View of the crux move in the gully behind the rock fin

The tread soon pulls between two tall rocky knobs and hits a cul-de-sac. The upper end provides the first of your climbing exercises on solid, whitish rock. Flex your fingers and go to work. Above this first exercise is a stretch of steep boot-beaten path and then, voila!, you are in the gully between fin and plug. The problem immediately in front of you is the crux. This might be a good time to check your party and make certain that all are ready, willing and able to ascend and descend the next 10 or 12 vertical feet. All OK? Have fun.

The juniper snag (just jutting above the horizon) that appears above the gully

It isn’t exactly mellow above the crux, even though the angle eases. There is quite a bit of toe-and finger work to pull you up to a shelf high on the southeast side of the plug. From there look ahead for an old snag of a juniper, about 100 feet distant. Follow the tread towards this tree but you don’t want to go below it. About 20 feet before the snag look for an ascent on large, rounded lumps of pillow basalt. It is steep, but it will get you up to the level of the snag and the continuance of the trail.

Rounded boulders leading to the uppermost wall

Here the tread rises and falls less than 100 feet before turning uphill on rounded boulders for another pitch of finger and toe work. Cross beneath a thriving juniper and come to what appears to be a fork. Above you is a climbable route going up on an steep wall. To your right is an array of flattish rocks that might be more trail to the north. Alas, the latter is just feint. You will want to ascend the steep wall. The holds are a bit sparse on the lowest eight feet and, for some scramblers, may be just as challenging as the crux move below. Above, however the rock takes on a gnarled aspect with many welcome protrusions.

Windbreak on the summit of Cabezon

At the top of this pitch come to steep grass-and-cactus terrain. Follow it to the summit where you will find an elaborate windbreak. In the windbreak is a metal box containing the summit log. All about you, for many many miles, lies desert, the escarpments above the Rio Puerco, and innumerable smaller volcanic necks. To the north east lie the Naciamento Mountains (source the river), and the Jemez Mountains. To the southeast lies Mount Taylor. The high ridge to the distant west may be the Chuksa Mountains.

Recommendations:

Author at the foot of the talus tread leading to the fin

This is a cool-weather hike. It would be brutal in summer.

In cool weather this scramble can be very popular. In addition to the Boy Scouts I passed two other parties on the route and met another party on return to the trailhead. Bring a helmet because rockfall is a big concern. The shout of “Rock!” formed most of the conversation between people ascending the crack formed by the fin.

There isn’t much sense in picking Cabezon Peak if the weather is foul. Just traversing the roads could become a memorably demanding occupation. Pick your day and make your day!

I had a pretty heavy bag and that was a mistake. It was my usual bag for solo hiking and carried about four liters of water and full-on winter gear in case of a bivouac. It made for pretty sketchy scrambling. I poured out all but a half liter for the descent and put on much of the heavy fleece. That made things much easier to handle.

Bring friends. Today’s scramble was fun but it would have been great to pick out more distant peaks with folks who really know the area.

Links:

14 Cerro Cuarte from summit

Summit view west to (left to right): Cerro Santa Clara, Cerro Chafo, the trailhead road, Rio Puerco and Cerro Cuarte. Mesa Chivato forms the left horizon.

There are lots of good resources for Cabezon Peak. These are the ones I happened across when preparing for the hike:

There is terrific photography at Mary Caperton Morton’s site, Travels With The Blonde Coyote. She rates the last pitch as a class 4 and I’m inclined to agree.

SummitPost also has a very good route description, including a much better photo of the “the old snag” which is described by them as a “gnarled tree”. Additionally, there is a photo of the ascent up the talus slope with the route helpfully drawn in.

D’Ellis Photographic Art provides numerous great photos of the Peak and the surrounding terrain. The photo of the Cabezon interpretive sign, from a time at which the sign was still legible, may be of particular interest to your vehicle’s navigator.

A short description can be found at ClimbMountains.Com that is notable for offering difficulty ratings for individual phases of the climb. It also has a photo of a scrambler looking down the last pitch. The photo is a little grainy, but of all the pictures I’ve seen this is the best for giving a clear idea of what the pitch looks like.

Cabezon Peak is on BLM land. The BLM website (with driving directions) is found here.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has a terrific geology writeup and a useful map if you want to identify the other volcanic plugs nearby.

 

 

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.

01 South Sandia and Crest

South Sandia Peak from Whitewash Trail

Overview

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.

Driving Directions

02 View to Cabezon Peak

View to Cabezon from upper bowls

  • 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.

Trailhead

03 Camry at Embudo Trailhead

The mighty Camry, in front of the steep-sided foothill.

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.

Data

  • Starting Elevation: 5960 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  9405 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3545 feet
  • Distance: 13.2 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Tijeras quadrangle

Hike Description

04 view south towards Embudo Canyon

View south towards Embudo Canyon

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.

05 return path on the north canyon rim

North rim Embudo Canyon

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.

06-start-of-embudo-trail

Start of Embudo Trail at 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.

08 boulder-dodging trail

Trail amidst boulder jumbles

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.

08 Wide bowl above the narrows

Sandy wash in lower open bowl

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).

09 north to flat, west-trending ridge

View to flat topped rib that will be taking you home

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.

10 Sandia Crest from 3 Gun Springs junction

Crest viewed from ridge top on east side of bowl

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.

11 view to not-Oso peaklet

Peaklet (left) that does not form part of Oso Pass

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.

12a glimpses of South Sandia Peak

Glimpse of South Sandia from Embudo Trail near Oso Pass

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.

12 Xmas tree where boots go up to S Sandia

All other boots turned left at the small pinyon and headed north to South Sandia

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.

13 Pecos basin and (perhaps) El Cap Range

El Capitan Range (distant, on extreme left) and Pecos Basin

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.

14 junction on Oso passDone 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.

15 Taylor and Cabezon from first drop-off

Mt Taylor (left) and Cabezon Peak (blip at right) at first fall-off on Whitewash trail.

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.

16 on descent from Col to Embudo outwash

View into Embudo Canyon outwash and south to Mazanito Mountains

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.

Recommendations

17 Author blocking views to Manzanito Range

Author, blocking your view of the Manzanita Mountains.

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.

Links

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.

X marks the skyIf 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.

01 peek up Embodito to Summit

A peek at the Sandia Crest from the lower reaches of Embudito Canyon

Overview:

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.)

Driving Directions:

07 Pinon shells inside cone

Pinon Pine cone with seeds (which proved to be hollow shells)

  • 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.

Trailhead:

A shy, yet mighty Camry poised at the mouth of Embodito Canyon

A shy, yet mighty Camry poised at the mouth of Embodito Canyon

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.

Data:

  • 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)

Hike Description:

04 departure point from outwash to canyon wall

Point where the Embudito Trail leaves the sandy wash and begins a gentle ascent up the northern wall of the canyon.

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.

08 Ponderosa, first snow and sandy arroyo

Sandy wash, tall Ponderosa and first snow

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.

09 N wall from Mirkwood

Glimpse of opposing wall

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.

10 trail sign above Oso Pass

Sign for Trail 192 on the rib above Oso Pass

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.

11 Crest near departure from 192

Steep walled home to scrub oak

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.

14 Summit View to North Sandia Crest

Northern end of Sandia Mountains seen from South Sandia Mountain summit.

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.

Recommendations:

15 Author and Rio Grande Valley

Author on South Sandia Summit

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.

Links:

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.

16 view of Christmas Tree

View of the “Christmas Tree” in the upper bowl that marks the junction with the side trail to the crest.

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.

01-pino-canyon

View from lower Pino Canyon Trail into Pino Canyon

Overview:

The Pino Canyon trail ascends the west side of the Sandia Mountains, leaving from the borders of urban Albuquerque and rising to the wild ridge crest. You go from open cacti-and-juniper terrain into dense spruce, fir and Ponderosa Pine (“pino” is Spanish for “pine tree”).  The demands  on the hiker are much less than some of the other west-side hikes since the trail hits the ridge at only 9200 feet. Both the lower altitude and the clear tread make this a choice winter destination. It would be a great place for tuning up those hiking muscles as hiking season pulls into view.

Driving Directions:

 

02-frosted-stick-cholla

Stick cholla in a winter wonderland

  • From I-25 North, heading through Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423).  Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a second off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This ramp merges into 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 splits at a concrete traffic island. Stay on the right and immediately arrive at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423). Go 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 Open Space 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.  There are signs at the pay-station directing you to go right for the Pino Canyon trailhead. Follow ’em.
  • After 0.4 miles you will come to the trailhead on your right. (This is the second trailhead on your right). Immediately past the trailhead turnout there are restrooms.

Trailhead:

03-camry-at-pino-canyon-trailhead1

The mighty Camry at the ice-slicked trailhead.

The trailhead is paved, has toilets (vault-style from their appearance) and trash recepticals. I did not see any water sources. This is a very popular place for mountain bikers, dog walkers, joggers, mountain runners and hikers. It may be hard to find a parking spot on weekends unless you get here early. The parking fee is currently $2.00 per car on the weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. You must display a tag from a payment envelope to in order to park.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6450 feet
  • ending elevation:9210 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2760
  • distance: 4.7 miles one way
  • maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle

Hike Description:

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

From the trailhead go directly east along Trail #140 as it gently rises on a tread that is almost entirely free of rocks, branches and other complications. Make certain to look back over your shoulder as you ascend. Distant views to the mountains in the southwest open up; the early morning sun set Ladron Peak ablaze whereas South Baldy in the Magdelana Mountains was a mere purple silhouette.  On this date small winter storms blocked the views directly west to Mount Taylor.  After about a quarter mile come to an intersection with a major trail. Cross it and continue ascending east towards the crest.

Trail sign and first "foothill" at the mouth of Pino Canyon

Trail sign and first “foothill” at the mouth of Pino Canyon

The canyon walls rise above you. The more distant northern wall offers considerable distractions in the way of sheer cliffs and imposing rock spires. (Its higher reaches were obscured by clouds on this date). The southern wall is closer and gentler. From the trailhead it looks like a series of rolling hills. As you pass by the first of these hills (which are actually knolls and knobs atop a rib descending from the crest) you will see a pile of geo-rubbish at its foot. The trail comes quite close to the this pile and as you go by you will notice that the trail is rising up the southern wall. It is good practice to keep trail treads well above stream beds.

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

The trees thicken as you enter the canyon proper. The junipers give way to fir and spruce. The linear quality of the lower trail becomes markedly sinuous as it copes with the small waterways etched into the south wall of the canyon.  Views to the canyon rim become somewhat scant. On this day the snow-covered trailbed presented a wide array of animal  and bird tracks.

Forest devastation in upper canyon

Forest devastation in upper canyon

At about 2.5 miles the terrain begins to steepen. The trail displays its first switchbacks. Surprisingly, the trees start to thin. As you rise to the 8000 foot level the forest, now including many Ponderosa pines, shows signs of dire ill-health. The canyon bottom is layered with stacked deadfall. There is little or no sign of fire (that I could see), but others have commented on the dire effect that drought and bark beetles have had on flora in the Sandias.  Be careful on windy days, some of the snags overhead have adopted a rather threatening list.

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

At about 2.9 miles from the trailhead look above you towards the Sandia Crest. A high rib displays three rock protrusions – like a giant’s molars (in terms of fanciful dentistry). The tread swings south into a side canyon, crosses the stream bed and then contours directly beneath the three rock protrusions. Just above this point the trees regain a more healthy appearance and you re-enter the realm of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine.

09-afternoon-view-of-north-wall

A sunnier view of the Pino Canyon north wall

Up here there is a confusion of canyon branches. The trail winds back and forth across one bed, tires of the locale and abruptly contours into a separate branch. Watch your footing. Even though temperatures were below freezing there were numerous small waterways that were flowing onto the trail. Inevitably, hidden below the fresh snow, there were places where the wet soil had frozen into hard and slick gray ice. Traction devices are extremely useful.

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

At 3.8 miles the tread takes a marked turn to the south and begins a long slog up the last major incline before the crest. This is really beautiful terrain, not quite open enough to be sub-alpine, but an enjoyable stroll through a robust forest with occasional views to the northern wall of the canyon. At 4.5 miles a wind-blasted knoll marks your arrival at the crest – the trees are stunted and many short snags attest to the difficulty of growing at 9200 feet. Here the Pino Canyon Trail intersects the Crest Trail. It is worth going a few feet south (to your right as you reach the junction) on the Crest Trail to get a better view east and south over the Ortega Mountains and into the Pecos Basin. It can be chilly when the wind pours through this col. I found it worth while to hike north on the Crest Trail for a quarter mile. There is a spot where thick evergreens bunch up at the foot of a rock wall – offering some (small) respite from the storm.  Grab some photos and a bite to eat. The breeze will be enough to encourage a hasty re-hoisting of your bags. Return by the same route.

Recommendations:

The author, providing proof that even a 10-second timer delay can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

Proof that a 10-second timer can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

This is neither the most-demanding nor the most-scenic  nor the most-lonely trail you can find in the Sandias. Most hikers aren’t going to travel very far just to explore the Pino Canyon Trail.  That admitted, this trail is a huge gift to anyone in Albuquerque feeling the midwinter blues. Is that you? If so then put together some warm winter gear, grab some friends and get yourself over to Pino Canyon trailhead.

A single liter of water was sufficient on a deep and dark December day. It was interesting to find that the hose from my water bag had frozen-up on ascent. I had to carry it inside my jacket for more than an hour before it thawed up enough for use. Come prepared. It can be cold in them thar hills.

As mentioned above, the winter tread through Pino Canyon has its icy spots. Even in the lower elevations (where the trail was rather crowded) the boot-stomped snow was slippery. Good traction devices are valuable.

Links:

The trail is briefly described in the Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide, GreatOutdoors.com and RootsRated.

The Pino Canyon page at AbundantAdventures.com has photos that capture the canyon in two very different moods.

Ondafringe has driving directions, trail description, photos, videos and gps data in this post and this post.

This is not the frozen arctic, as the Sunshine Nomads attest with some photos.

A Forest Service map (pdf) is interesting because it gives you quite a clear idea of how the trails are laid out in the Sandia Mountains. It could be handy if you are thinking about creating your own loop route.

During the warmer months this terrain can rattle, as documented here.

01 Cañon La Cueva upper wall in morning

Northern wall of Cañon La Cueva in its upper reaches. A narrow view of the limestone cliffbands just below the Sandia Crest can be seen at the extreme right.

Overview:

There are several trails that lead from the urban borders of Albuquerque all the way to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. Of these, the La Luz trail (“the light” in Spanish) appears to be the most popular. There is little wonder why. Unlike the other treads, such as the Domingo Baca trail, this trail enjoys several civilizing influences including switchbacks and an easy-to-follow trailbed. The trail can be hiked “one way” by substituting a tramway ride for either the descent or the ascent. The latter could be especially useful alternative for hikers who are not acclimatized to altitude (that route is slightly different from the route described here – see the “Links” section below). Despite its civilized nature, the hike is puts real demands on the hiker. This is not the place to introduce young hikers to the backcountry. The La Luz trail takes you into outstanding terrain and is strongly recommended.

Driving Directions:

02 La Luz Trailhead fee sign

  • Take Interstate-25 north through Albuquerque and take Exit 234 for NM 556/Tramway Road NE. The ramp is very short and merges almost immediately into the leftmost lane of the Pan American Frontage Road. Get over into the two rightmost lanes as quickly as safety permits.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of Pan American Frontage Road, come to an intersection with NM 556/Tramway Road NE. Turn right onto NM 556.
  • After 4.0 miles turn left onto Forest Service Road 333 (paved).
  • After 1.8 miles, turn right onto Pinon Place.
  • After 0.4 miles, at the end of Pinon Place, arrive at the trailhead

Trailhead:

03 Might Camry at La Luz trailhead

The mighty Camry at La Luz Trailhead

The trailhead is paved and has vault toilets and trash receptacles. There is no water. There is a $3.00 per day fee, but that is waived if you have one of the numerous passes available (a military pass or a national parks pass, for example). There isn’t a huge amount of parking here. I got onto the trail at 7 a.m. with only nine or ten open parking spots remaining and more cars arriving every few minutes.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7000 feet
  • ending elevation: 10,378 feet
  • elevation gain: 3,378 feet
  • distance: 7.6 miles
  • maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle (both the 1990 and the 2006 editions show La Luz trail, the 2013 edition does not show any trails).

Hike Description:

04 view into T'uf Shur Bien bowl

View north from La Luz trail into the bowl containing Juan Tabo Canyon

From the trailhead, take a short and steep set of stairs to pull you up and eastward towards the crest. This trail enjoys a relaxed attitude towards gaining elevation, so it almost immediately laterals south over a slight rib. (This rib will hide the trailhead from you on descent). Cross the unmarked border between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties and continue south on a gently rising traverse into a small basin at the foot of the Sandias. This is a classic Sonoran life zone with plenty of sage brush, cane cholla and prickly pear cacti, plus the occassional juniper.

04 lower La Luz trail with peek at The Thumb

Lower La Luz with initial view of The Thumb

You are heading towards a small stream that drains the basin. Just before your feet can get wet the trail makes a short series of switchbacks and, at 0.9 miles, hits an intersection with the Tramway Trail. (If you rode the Tramway up then you will want to take the Tramway Trail to get back to the Tramway parking lot). Continue upwards, lacing the switchbacks and marveling at the sweat and concrete that has been poured into this tread. At 2.2 miles, after making a long lunge to the south, the trail hits the markedly flat rib-top.  This feature separates the trailhead’s small basin from the deeply gouged hydraulic slash that is Cañon La Cueva.

06 Sun-touched south rim of Canon La Cueva, Mt Taylor on horizon

View west to Rio Grande valley and distant Mt Taylor

The upper reaches of this canyon are divided into a northern fork and a southern fork. The trail ascends easterly, swiftly crossing the northern fork, then switches west  and then east-again to contour around a massive knob of rock. At 2.8 miles and at about 8200 feet the trail hits a second markedly flat spot. Here, between the forks, the trail begins a series of long and lazy switchbacks almost innocent of altitude gain. Enjoy it!

07 Canyon La Cueva closeup from second flat rib

Lower Cañon La Cueva and Albuquerque

Enjoy the vistas as well. There are terrific views west over Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and the distant swell of the Mount Taylor volcanic field.  Above you, to the south, rises an enormous fin of rock called The Thumb. It looks like a climber’s dream, and the tread you are on will take you up past its base.

08 taking off into upper Canyon La Cueva

Taking off into the upper canyon

At 4.3 miles and about 9100 feet elevation come to a third flat patch, a place to study the the startling gash below you that is Cañon La Cueva and above you where the southern fork of that self-same canyon will be your route. Is there snow in those heights? (There was on this date). If so, did you bring a hiking pole and microspikes?  You might need ’em.  Those dark conifers in the canyon bottom indicates that you’ve gotten into the transition zone where the prickly pear and juniper are tapering off and the Ponderosa Pine makes an appearance.

09 Descent to Upper Canyon and Thumb

South Fork of Upper Cañon La Cueva

From the level spot the trail descends gently towards the canyon bottom, losing about 300 feet. After crossing the waterway it begins to pull above the bed. Broad canyon walls tower above you to the north, the immense Thumb screams skyward to the south, and straight ahead is bedlam of cliff bands, spires, rockfall and hoodoos. A pair of fang-like spires seems to be directly in your path. However, just before you get to these fangs the trail runs into a vertical wall. You might catch a glimpse of a cave opening about 50 to 75 feet above your head. You have arrived back at 9100 feet and the start of innumerable short switchbacks that ascend up the buttress between The Thumb and the Crest. A sign warns that winter conditions can render the trail impassable. People descending from the Tramway rapidly pack down the snow, making it slippery. Moreover, much of remaining ascent is over boulder fields, which can be tricky when covered with snow. Good to go?  One-two-three, switchback!

10 packed and sometimes icy switchbacks

Packed snow on trail heading towards fang-like spires

You will gain 1000 more feet to find the last switchback, but it goes pretty quickly. Do not wait for a sun break – on a December day it stays dark in this canyon until the sun is straight overhead. Instead, marvel again at the labor that went into building this passage to the Crest and keep ploddin’ along. Eventually the trail moves hard against the Crest side of the canyon, makes about a half-dozen small switchbacks in an aspen grove (a signature species of the Canadian life zone) and arrives at a small col at 6.3 miles and 10,150 feet. Here the trail branches. To your left is a trail that will take you to the Crest House (a restaurant/gift shop concession). On this date, however, I wanted to check out the conditions at the Sandia Ski Area, so I went straight ahead.

11 sign at fork of La Luz and Crest House

Sign at trail fork

For the remainder of the trip the trail skirts below the Sandia’s uppermost cliff bands. As soon as you leave the intersection you depart Cañon La Cueva and arrive at the headwaters of  Cañon Domingo Baca. On your left is solid rock. On your right is the promise of good hang-gliding. Be careful on any icy spots. Portions of the southern Sandias pull into view, along with views along the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzanos (home to Manzano Mountain).

12 Domingo Baca Spires and view south

Upper Domingo Baca Cañon, Manzanita and distant Manzano Mountains

The top of Cañon Domingo Baca is enormously scalloped. The trail whips back and forth along  convoluted horizontal path even as it strives mightily to minimize the vertical change. The cables of the Tramway come into sight, but you still will have a mile or more to go. Finally, having arrived at 10,378 feet and traveled 7.6 miles, top out at the Tramway station on the Crest of the Sandias. Trees block the hard-earned views to the east, so follow a path down to the Sandia Ski Area (just a hundred feet) for views north to Santa Fe Baldy and southeast to the Pecos Basin. Return the way you came.

Recommendations

13 Author on Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia Crest

Winter conditions and summer conditions are going to be very different. So when I say that three liters of water was more than plenty, make a note that it is plenty for chilly December day. In summer this trail is going to be hot and, as the sun swings westerly, possibly unbearable.  An REI rep told me that it is a good idea to climb the west-facing Sandia slopes in the winter and then swing over to the east-facing slopes in the summer. That seems sound to me.

If you are hiking here in the winter then it would be an excellent idea to bring along some sort of traction device (such as Yaktraks or Microspikes). In many places the snowmelt puddles up during the afternoon and freezes during the night. Creeping over long stretches of gray ice can get sketchy.

This trail is high and sometimes cold. I doubt that it is ever lonesome. Three trail runners blasted by me first thing in the morning and two separate pulses of tramway riders went by in the other direction. At the Crest House fork there is a sign dispensing advice to horsemen! This is an excellent place to exercise your trail courtesies. Safety is the first concern, but otherwise please give the runners some room, step off the trail on the downhill side for the horses (if you can) and offer right-of-way to hikers on ascent. For a popular trail the La Lux was blissfully trash-free, let’s keep it that way and pack out everything.

Conditions at the Sandia Ski Area (for those who are curious) were poor. The ski trails leading to the top chairlift were largely bare of snow.

My GPS unit went a little crazy in the deeper sections of canyon. Presumably the satellite signals were convoluted by reflections off of the canyon walls.  When mapped the uphill and downhill tracks crisscrossed each other so badly that in places it became hard to interpret. (For this blog I removed the up-hill track, which had the most obvious departures from the trail).  The downhill track does, at least, stay in its proper canyons. Still, this presentation does not have the expected degree of accuracy.

The La Luz Trail is shown and labeled on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the trail from the La Luz trailhead to the intersection with the Tramway Trail is labeled “Tramway Trail” rather than “La Luz”. Don’t worry, as the paths themselves are properly signed as you hike along the trails.

Links:

Unlike any other trail I’ve encountered in New Mexico, the La Luz seems to have it’s own website. It’s mostly pretty pictures, a few links and some static trail data. At the bottom is a sobering reminder that three hikers lost their lives on the mountain in 2015. (Side note, apparently the website is not completely up-to-date, as the Albuquerque Journal recounts the passing of a fourth hiker in 2015).

Additionally, there is a detailed description of La Luz in Wikipedia. If only more New Mexico trails had such acclaim!

There is an excellent description of this hike at CloudHiking. It is very detailed and offers numerous photos. There are links for GPS data and for a map. Additionally, instead of going to the tramway top (as described here), the CloudHiking guide chooses to go left at the top fork to ascend to the Crest House. That’s an attractive option as it leads to the highest point on the Sandia Crest.

There is an annual run up this trail, which appears to be run on the first Sunday in August (although I’m not completely certain of that). The run is organized by the Albuquerque Road Runners Club, which has a website describing the run here. Most hikers will want to choose another date for using this trail.

For a description of the Tramway-up, Boots-Down approach you can find an excellent writeup here.

Good directions for navigating the trail all the way from the Tramway parking lot can be found at SummitPost.

A post describing La Luz in considerable detail can be found at Around 505. It includes some input from a Forest Service Volunteer, David Hammack, who has been using this trail (and putting up other routes) since 1959. Good authority!