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Try These Great Hikes in the Sandia Mountains

By William C. Reichard. Updated by Great Outdoors Staff - March 2nd, 2016

The Sandia Mountains tower 5,000 feet over the flood plains of the Rio Grande, their 20-odd miles of west-facing granite cliffs glowing pink in New Mexico's dusty sunsets.

They hem Albuquerque's eastern edge, putting a 37,000-acre wilderness within minutes' drive of New Mexico's largest city.

Though from a distance they may appear stubby and barren, up close they are a marvel of subtlety. Their sculpted rock faces span four life zones. Hikes begin among prickly pears and pinyon and end in cool meadows of mountain wildflowers.

The Sandias were formed several hundred million years ago and were once much higher than their current 10,678 feet.

Almost since humans arrived in North America, they have prowled the area. Remains discovered in a cave near the north end of the mountains show that Folsom man lived in the area at least 10,000 years ago.

More recently, Pueblo Indians who live nearby noted that the ridge of the mountain looks like the shell of a turtle; they called it Oku Pin, or "Turtle Mountain." Oku Pin; was a holy place where spirits and deities were born. Today's Sandia Pueblo still owns a part of the mountain.

How the Spanish word sandia, which means "watermelon," came to be applied to the mountains is the subject of much debate. One theory holds that when Coronado conquered the area in the 1540s, he found watermelons growing in the nearby pueblos. Another suggests that the Spanish, upon seeing the rosy, wedge-shaped range in the sunset, were reminded of a slice of watermelon.

History has flowed through the Sandias. They have been a hideout for Apaches, a place of terror for Confederate soldiers set upon by hungry bandits and deserters, and a place of crazy dreams for gold and mineral hunters, who left behind scores of tiny mines.

Today, the Sandias are a district in the Cibola National Forest, and most of them fall within a wilderness area. Albuquerqueans use the mountains as an escape from city life, though the area has much to offer any hiker.

These are my 10 favorite dayhikes after years of playing in the Sandias. I've tried to pick a representative range of terrains and difficulties, but of course, the best way to find what you like is to explore. Distances and hiking times below are round-trip. For more information, contact the Cibola National Forest at 505-356-3900.

Tree Spring
What makes it special: It begins at about 8,500 feet, so it's quite cool. It's not very hard and offers an excellent view of Pino and Bear canyons at the top. Shady for most of its length, this is a relaxing introduction to the pine forests on the east side of the Sandias.
Length: 4 miles
Hiking time: 1.3 to 3 hours
Elevation gain: 8,480 to 9,400 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Season: Late spring through early fall
Directions: Take Interstate 40 to the Cedar Crest exit about 6 miles east of Albuquerque. Go north on N.M. 14 about 6 miles and turn left on N.M. 536, the road to the crest. The road passes several picnic areas before coming to the Tree Spring trail head on the left. Signs mark the parking area.

Agua Sarca Canyon
What makes it special: Few people know about this pretty trail, which climbs through a rugged canyon at the north end of the mountains. Aspen and gambel oak line the trail and several pools of spring water in the canyon bottom are deep enough to splash in. It also has unusual views of the cliffs at the mountains' northern edge and a sweeping panorama of the flats and the Sangre de Cristo range to the north.
Length: About 4 miles
Note: A number of faint trails at the beginning can make finding the one you want a little tough. The correct one immediately veers southwest from the road and climbs up a little before dropping down into the canyon, following an old jeep road. When it reaches a streambed, it turns right and the canyon narrows.
Hiking time: 2 to 4.5 hours
The elevation and distance are approximate because the trail has no definite end. It's fairly clear for most of its distance. The trail forks at least once along the way; the correct branch is the left.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation gain: 6,400 to about 7,600 feet
Season: Spring through fall
Directions: Take Interstate 25 to the Placitas exit, about 12 miles north of Albuquerque. Go east about 5 miles, then turn south on Forest Road 231. This is a residential dirt road that should always be passable. About 2 miles south, just before the road turns sharply east to Tunnel Spring, is a parking area on the left for Agua Sarca Canyon. The trail begins across the road.

El Rincon via the Piedra Lisa Trail
What makes it special: Piedra Lisa (Spanish for "smooth rock") offers views of some of the Sandias' most spectacular granite formations, including the massive wall known as the Shield. It's not difficult, and can usually be hiked in the winter.
Length: 4 miles
Hiking time: 2 to 4.5 hours
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation gain: 6,920 to 8,200 feet
Season: Spring through fall
Directions: From Tramway Boulevard (an exit on both I-40 and I-25), head east on the Juan Tabo road near the north end of the range. The paved road ends at a dirt road. Take the dirt road to a parking lot, then walk past the gate a short distance to the trail head on the right.
Notes: Rincon is Spanish for "corner," and this trail leads to the point at which a small front ridge connects to the main bulk of the mountains. The trail continues after cresting the obvious ridge at the 2-mile mark, but the owner of a plot that straddles the trail a little farther ahead has prohibited travel through the area. During certain times of the year, a faint spur trail is open that leads east along the ridge of the Rincon for about half a mile.

La Luz
What makes it special: La Luz is almost everything the Sandias have to offer wrapped up in a single trail. It traverses all four of the Sandias' life zones, winding through craggy rock formations and over a long talus slope.
Length: 16 miles
Hiking time: 5 to 11.5 hours
Elevation gain: 7,080 to 10,280 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Season: Fall or late spring
Directions: Take Tramway to the Juan Tabo road. Just before the paved road ends, turn right through the stone gates. There's a paved parking lot at the end of the road and the trail head is clearly marked.
Notes: This is the most popular trail in the Sandias. Joggers, hikers and dogs stream steadily up and down -- the trail's heavy levels of use are its only serious drawback. Start very early -- preferably at daybreak -- to get past the first few miles of treeless hiking before it gets really hot. Even then, there's no way to beat the heat on the way back. The return trip requires lots of water.
The best time of year for this trail is fall. In spring there's still snow up high. Summer can be unpleasantly hot. The trail is impassable in the winter.
Near the top, the trail branches to the left toward Sandia Crest, which at 10,678 feet is the highest point in the mountains. A small concession waits at the top, which is also the end of crest road 536. It's a steep mile of hiking and the crest is always crowded with visitors.
Try the branch to the right instead. Two miles of fairly level walking along limestone cliffs lead to the top of the Sandia Tram, where you can sit in the shade on the wooden patio with spectacular views of the city and seemingly limitless desert. It is slightly less crowded than the crest and there's no parking lot.
Either way it's a little anticlimactic, though the water fountains at the tram are a blessing, especially for those who underestimated how much water they would need. The full-service restaurant run by the tram serves food on the deck for those who don't feel strange hiking 8 miles to eat overpriced sandwiches.
If you're really dying, a tram trip down costs about $8. Then it's a 2-mile walk along the flat Tramway Trail to get back to the La Luz trail head.

Pino Canyon
What makes it special: This peaceful hike isn't as crowded or as hard as the La Luz. It isn't as spectacular either, but it's very nice in its own right. It begins in the desert and ends in a pleasant saddle with commanding views of the rest of the Sandias and the plains to the east. Shade from big ponderosas and a small spring provide cool spots to rest along the way.
Length: 9 miles
Hiking time: 3 to 7 hours
Elevation gain: 6,440 to 9,230 feet
Difficult: Moderate to hard
Season: Late spring through fall
Directions: Take Tramway Boulevard to the Elena Gallegos recreation area (about 2 miles north of Montgomery Boulevard on the east side of the street). Pass through a toll gate. The trail begins at the eastern edge of the parking lot.
Note: There is a $2 daily fee per car on the weekends, and $1 on weekdays.

Hawk Watch Trail
What makes it special: In the spring, thousands of birds of prey migrate through the Sandias. Hawk Watch, a non-profit conservation group, built this trail at the southern end of the Sandias as a lookout from which to observe and record the birds' passage. But even at other times of the year, this is a great trail. Jays squawk in the trees, swallows dart overhead, and vultures and straggling or native hawks soar high above them. Mule deer can often be seen grazing at dawn among the granite boulders that litter the area. And the views from the sentry hill are excellent, showing the expanse of the desert basin and the Manzano Mountains to the south.
Length: Just over 2.5 miles
Hiking time: 1 to 2.3 hours
Elevation gain: 6,560 to 7,500 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: Spring through fall (accessible on most winter days)
Directions: Go east on Interstate 40 to the Carnuel exit. Go east 1.5 miles to the Monticello development. Work your way north and west by taking Monticello to Alegre to Siempre Verde to Forest Road 522. The trail follows the sandy arroyo north, then branches west just after passing through the Forest Service gate.
Note: The parking lot is frequently filled with hikers taking the other trail it services, the Three Gun Spring. The Hawk Watch Trail is lightly used except during the raptor migration.
The short distance is deceptive. The trail climbs fast enough to be quite strenuous while it lasts.
The path is easy to follow to the sentry hill, which is marked by a small wood sign. During the raptor migration, Hawk Watch catches and bands birds for study. Volunteers put on small shows at the hill, allowing visitors to see the hawks up close. When this is going on, usually at the end of April and the beginning of May, the trail is closed beyond the sign.
Beyond the sign, the trail becomes very steep, slippery and faint before ending on a slope where the group catches the birds. The main reason to continue is for a slightly better view, including a peek at the city over the top of the foothills.

The South Peak area by way of Bart's Trail
What makes it special: In contrast to the northern half of the Sandias, the gentler southern half gets little use, mainly because it's harder to get to. It's a beautiful stretch of high mountain meadows with stands of aspen and patches of wildflowers. This is the fastest way to the South Peak area, which offers solitude and incredible views.
Length: About 9 miles
Hiking time: 3.5 to 7 hours
Elevation gain: 7,300 to 9,605 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Season: Late spring through fall
Directions: Take Interstate 40 to N.M. 14 and go north 3.5 miles. Turn left on Cole Springs Road. A sign marks the spot. Follow the road to a fork; take the intimidating dirt road to the left marked with a sign warning passenger cars. The first part of this unmaintained road is the worst. Most cars should handle it without trouble. The word is that the Forest Service discourages use of the area because it can't afford to maintain the road and residents who live along the road aren't fond of hikers. As usual, be respectful, tread lightly and obey posted trespassing signs.  
A few miles up, park outside the gate for the Cole Springs Picnic Area, which has been closed. Bart's Trail climbs steeply, gaining 2,000 feet in just under 2 miles. Before heading left (south) on the Crest Trail, be sure to hike to the cliff's edge for an unmatched view of the north crest complex. After 2 miles of easy hiking, veer right (east) on the Embudito Trail for a few hundred yards. A faint trail branching to the north heads up a small hill a few hundred feet to a 9,605-foot U.S. Geological Survey marker. The 9,782-foot South Sandia Peak is just one ridge over, though the trail ends here. It should be a relatively simple bushwhack for the adventurous. But the views from the smaller, unnamed peak are plenty satisfying.
Note: My favorite hike in the Sandias. 

What makes it special: This trail has become popular with families because it's easy enough for almost everyone. It loops around a mesa covered with gambel oak and dotted with wildflower-strewn meadows, giving excellent views both of the green eastern slopes of the Sandias and the vast plains that stretch east. An informal trail which has only lately been maintained, the Tecolote Trail does not appear on Forest Service maps.
Length: 2.7 miles
Hiking time: 1 hour to 2.5 hours
Elevation gain: 8,200 to 8,800 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Season: Late spring through fall
Directions: Take crest road 536 about 6 miles to the Dry Camp Picnic Area. The trail starts behind the bathrooms.

What makes it special: This tough trail is notable for the steep-walled canyon that it winds through early on. But the Embudito Trail continues up into the relatively lush meadows of the southern Sandias and offers access to the South Peak area (see Bart's Trail).
Length: About 11 miles
Hiking time: 3.7 to 8 hours
Elevation gain: 6,240 to 9,300 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Season: Late spring through early fall
Directions: From Tramway, go east on Montgomery Boulevard. Just before it ends, turn north on Glenwood Hills and follow to a parking area.
This trail is frequently used for access to the South Crest Trail, at which it ends, and is clear for its entire distance.

South Foothills Trail
What makes it special: This trail can hiked almost any day of the year. Early mornings are a great time to see deer and all kinds of birds. Going at dusk is a great way to see the Sandias at their best.
Length: 4 miles
Hiking time: 1.3 to 2.5 hours
Elevation gain: 6,440 to 6,240 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Season: All
Directions: Follow directions for Pino Canyon Trail. The Foothills Trail heads south from the parking area and is well worn.
Notes: Mountain bikers flock to this trail because it's relatively flat and not in the wilderness.

Tips for Hikers
Summers are very hot. Temperatures frequently get over 100 in the foothills. Many trails on the east side of the mountains pass through long treeless stretches, so a wide-brimmed hat and good sunscreen are necessities. Humidity is often very low.

Hikers need to carry lots of water. No spring in the Sandias is dependable enough not to. The mountains get such heavy use -- including by dogs -- that all water should be treated before drinking.

Many trails, especially the La Luz and the Tree Spring, are very busy in the summer. Early mornings and weekdays are the best times to hike.

The Sandias are subject to sudden violent thunderstorms, especially in afternoons from June to August, New Mexico's rainy season. The state leads the union in lightning deaths per capita. The mountains' many exposed ridges are especially dangerous. Arroyos -- the dirt channels cut by periodic flash floods -- are also a threat. Care must be taken in crossing arroyos when it is raining anywhere nearby.

It can be 20 or 30 degrees cooler and much windier at the top of the mountains than at their base.

Winters are heavier than one might think. Snow starts falling in November in the higher elevations and may fall anywhere in January through early March, though snowfall at lower elevations is usually light.

Trip Planner

Resources: The classic reference for the Sandias is Mike Hill's "Hikers and Climber's Guide to the Sandias" (1993, University of New Mexico Press). No other book comes close for comprehensiveness. The guide is now in its third edition and includes a topo map that's great for finding trail heads and offers reasonably good detail. Some history for this article came from "Albuquerque: A Narrative History" by Marc Simmons (1982, University of New Mexico Press).

Maps: You can find maps to Sandia Mountain on the Cibola National Forest site. You might also like a vinylized wilderness map offered by the Forest Service. It shows the mountains in excellent detail and is fairly current on trails. To order, write to: USDA Forest Service, Public Affairs Office, 517 Gold Ave. S.W., Albuquerque, NM 87102. Or call (505) 842-3292. 

For additional questions, contact: Cibola National Forest, Sandia Ranger District, 11776 Hwy. 337, Tijeras, NM 87059. Or call (505) 281-3304 


Hiking...what else?

I see this is 12 years old. Any updates? I make it up from Hawk's Watch last week to the top. Found the Crest Trail but decided to save it for another day. Will try Bart's Trail next, likely tomorrow. Thanks for all the simple & concise info.

Posted on August 20, 2012 - 8:29am
by Visitor

Agua Sarca

Went up the Agua Sarca trail today. Very impressive views from a few thousand feet up! Thank you.
There is a 'cave' that can be seen from the trail, any idea if it's for real?
Thanks again,
Erik H

Posted on March 25, 2012 - 6:32pm
by Visitor


Great article! I love having the Sandia's in our backyard!

Posted on September 23, 2010 - 11:28am
by Visitor

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