Date Hiked: 10-07-16
Mileage: 16.4 miles
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): A handful of groups leading up to the tramway, too many to count between the tramway and the Crest House
It’s not often that I hike with other people, but visiting family in New Mexico, my cousin invited me to hike the Sandia Crest trail with he and his friends. Of course I wasn’t going to turn that opportunity down.
The Sandia Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to the town of Albuquerque. And across the entire length of those mountains sits the Sandia Crest trail. With a total elevation gain of almost 5,000 feet, from the trailhead at roughly 6,500 feet to its high point of 10,678 feet at Sandia Crest, the trail offers a tour of each of the four climatic zones of the Sandia Mountains.
The trail starts out in the desert grasslands and savanna more common to New Mexico’s dryer climate. But hiking west, the route switchbacks up the eastern side of Sandia Mountain to an enveloping cover of pinon-juniper forests.
While we started out early, the summer and fall can bring sweltering temperatures this low in the trail, so dress accordingly, still bringing enough layers to stay warm up top.
The route funnels through a natural ravine in the mountain before climbing towards the wider slopes to gain impressive panoramic views towards the Manzano Mountains and the twin pyramids of Mosca and Guadalupe peaks. Approaching the southernmost extreme of the trail’s journey along the crest, the vegetation slowly evolves into the more woody Transition Zone, bringing with it ponderosas and evergreen oaks.
At 4.6 miles, the trail hits the crest, swings north, then briefly follows the spine before pulling back towards a wide meadow ringed by aspen. The next 2 miles until South Sandia Peak stay below the crest in a wide swath of low bushes. Rewarding views off to the east encompass the sculpted mounds of the San Pedro, Nacimiento and Ortiz Mountains.
From South Peak, the route strays from the crest once again, finding stands of pine, and blazing an erratic route between the spine and the easier grades just below it. Along this portion, the route eases up, though never truly flattens until the Crest House. The highest altitudes pass through the coniferous Canadian Zone and the Hudsonian Zone dominated by the thick spans of spruce and fir that made me feel right at home.
The first signs of civilization come with naked swaths of grass cut across the hillside, and stationary ski lifts dragging shadows across them.
The Sandia Peak ski area is New Mexico’s oldest resort, nestled on the shadier east side of the Sandia Mountains and open for a mere three months out of the year. It boasts five lifts and 39 trails, but only the tramway at 10,378 feet shows from Albuquerque’s side of the mountain.
From here, you can either take the tram back to town, or hike the last 1.7 mile portion between the tram and the Crest House if you have a second vehicle ready to pick you up. This portion is by far the busiest, but the views to both sides of the crest are breathtaking.
If you’re looking to complete the entire 26-mile trek along the north crest trail, find a spot up here to camp. While my aunt, Nancy, drove me back down from the Crest House, my cousin and his friends all stayed the night up here to backpack the length in its entirety.
(From I-25 and I-40): Head east on I-40 for 17.3 miles. Take exit 175 towards Tijeras. Take the first left onto NM-337, pass under the highway, then turn right onto Arrowhead Trail. The trailhead is at the end of the road.
15.3 mi; 17 min
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, also fell on this weekend. Here’s a couple shots from the Special Shapes Glowdeo, where the tethered balloons are lit up at night by their propane burners: