From sharks to orchards to wildfires, the Manzano Mountains have quite a history

Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names. 

Gazing east, one might be tempted to call the mountains silhouetted against the vast New Mexico sky the Sandias.

A road winds up the Manzano Mountains. Pueblo Indians once called the east side of the mountains home. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

They would be partly right.

There are actually two major mountain areas east of the city.

It’s hard to distinguish where one starts and the other begins when looking from afar, but one would be remiss to call them all the same thing. The Sandia (watermelon) Mountains feature the popular tram ride and La Luz hiking trail, but south of Interstate 40 are what have been referred to as the Manzano Mountains for at least two centuries. Both are part of the Cibola National Forest. (The Manzanita Mountains form a low ridge between the Manzano and Sandia mountains, but those are lesser known and used.)

The Spanish word for apples is manzana. The name manzano was often given to places near apple trees or apple orchards, and even came to be a surname for people who lived near those places. It was the apple tree that inspired the name of the mountains.

Legend says the Franciscan friars planted apple trees in the 1600s in the foothills on the east side of the Manzano Mountains. There may have been apple trees there back then, but science says the area’s current apple trees existed no earlier than the 1800s. Either way, the apple trees’ influence spread throughout the region. A land grant in 1820s bore the name Manzano Land Grant and a now-abandoned small Hispanic village named Manzano was established near the orchards around that time.

Scorched remains of the 2008 Trigo Fire in the Manzano Mountains. Crews battled the blaze for weeks. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The federal government designated nearly 37,000 acres in the 30-mile long Manzano Mountains a wilderness area in 1978, but people came to play, work, worship and live in the Manzano Mountains long before that.

After 600 A.D., pueblo Native Americans established several communities in the foothills on the east side of the mountains. They traded salt, piñon nuts and the hides of animals to get what they needed.

Don Juan de Oñate arrived to the area in 1598 and was followed not long after by Franciscan friars who set out to forcefully save the souls of the native people they found living there. The Franciscans established three mission churches at the three Salinas pueblos of Abó, Quarai and Gran Quivira. Those churches are now the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

This is a rendering of the fossil shark researchers found in the Manzano Mountains in 2013. (Courtesy of The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

Like all wilderness areas in New Mexico,one of the area’s biggest threats is wildfire. The Trigo Fire in 2008 scorched almost 14,000 acres and burned for nearly a month, destroying ponderosa pines, piñon trees, junipers and oaks. It’s believed human negligence was the cause.

Meadows have replaced areas once lush with trees, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in the Manzano Mountains, including camping and hiking trails. Fourth of July Canyon is a popular spot during the fall because it showcases the changing colors of the season. Manzano Peak at 10,098 feet is the mountains’ highest elevation point.

An abundance of wildlife roam the Manzano Mountains. Most are of the four-legged type, but the area was once inhabited by animals with no legs. Sharks apparently once swam around the Manzano Mountains.

Yes. Sharks.

No, this is not a New Mexican version of a campy sci-fi movie. (“Sharknado,” I see you.)

Millions of years ago, New Mexico was not a desert. It was under water. An area in the Manzano Mountains was a shallow, warm lagoon and researchers have discovered fossils there for decades.

In 2013, shark paleontologist John-Paul Hodnett was visiting New Mexico for a conference and took a day trip to the Manzano Mountains with his fellow conference attendees. He stumbled across the fossil remains of a shark nose.

Researches went on to uncover the skeleton of a nearly seven-foot-long, ctenacanth shark and nicknamed it the Godzilla Shark of New Mexico. The shark had 12 rows of teeth and two large fin spines on its back, which resembled the fictitious monster Godzilla. Scientists have been carefully researching and preserving the reamains and formally named them the Manzano Ctenacanth in April of this year. It’s said to be the most complete fossil of a ctenacanth shark discovered in North America.

Imagine if we had known about the existence of these sharks before the apple orchard came to life. We might be staring at the Shark Mountains right now.

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”

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