The Sandia Mountains are glorious in early fall. Sun-filled mornings are crisp and cool while afternoons are comfortably warm.
Hiking in the Sandias means walking through stands of ponderosa pine and spruce trees inhabited by many species of birds, including Steller jays and birds of prey.
“The Sandias are a tremendous and unique resource,” says Mike Coltrin, an Albuquerque resident and author of “Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide” (UNM Press, 2005). “One of the best times of the year to enjoy them is October.”
Once the balloons have taken to the sky, many Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta visitors explore the 37,877-acre Sandia Mountain Wilderness east of the city. Because there are hiking trails for beginning to advanced hikers, everyone can enjoy spending time in the Sandias.
Coltrin’s book covers 57 trails with a total distance of 175 miles. Additional information about the trails is found at his website sandiahiking.com. Parking at trailheads costs $3 per vehicle. Here are some of Coltrin’s recommendations for October hikes.
West slope of the Sandias
Take Tramway Boulevard to access the west trails in the Sandias. The Piedra Lisa Trail is a lower elevation hike off Forest Road 333 that starts at 6,000 feet and climbs to 7,800 feet. Passing through pines, hikers walk two miles up the trail to a ridge with nice views and spots for a picnic lunch.
Although Coltrin calls the Pino Trail “a significant hike that’s hard in both distance and elevation,” he highly recommends this west slope trail. To find the trail, take Tramway Boulevard to the Elena Gallegos Open Space picnic area.
“This is the second or third most traveled trail in the Sandias,” says Coltrin. “It has an elevation gain of 2,800 feet. You feel like you’ve had a workout when you complete this trail.”
Pino Trail goes up the southern side of Pino Canyon. The lower portion of the trail is dry and rocky. After a couple of miles, the trail offers tree-covered scenery. There are beautiful views of the western face of the Sandias before the trail joins the Sandia Crest Trail, which traverses the entire range of the Sandia Mountains and can be hiked in either direction. The round-trip distance of the Pino Trail is approximately 9 miles.
East side of the Sandias
There are two short nature trails at the top of the mountain that pass through forested areas and lead to overlooks with great views. The first is the Peak Nature Trail. The best way to access it is by taking the Tram to the top of the mountain. The second trail is the Crest Nature Trail. It starts at the parking lot at the end of the Sandia Crest Highway (NM 536), which is the main road vehicles take to get to the mountain top. Both trails are fairly level and involve a 10- to 15-minute round-trip walk.
Coltrin also considers the Tecolote Trail to be an easy trail. It begins close to the 6-mile marker on the Sandia Crest Highway at the Dry Camp Picnic Area. Although the trail is 2.5 miles round trip, it only has an elevation gain of 200 feet. The trail leads to a ridge with 360-degree views of the area.
The leaves on the aspen trees along the 10K North Trail should be a golden color in October. It’s a 5-mile round-trip hike to complete the 10K North Trail, which is marked by a sign approximately 11 miles from the beginning of the Sandia Crest Highway. While parking is allowed on both sides of the road, Coltrin recommends parking at the north lot.
“The walk is forested on the way to the Del Agua Overlook, which is at the juncture of the 10K and Sandia Crest trails,” he adds. “The view at the overlook is beautiful and well worth the walk.”
The Tree Spring Trail is very popular with locals and visitors. Although hikers gain 900 feet in elevation before reaching the end of the trail and views of Pino and Bear canyons, this 4-mile round-trip trail through a pine forest isn’t difficult to walk. The Tree Spring Trail is marked by a sign that’s located approximately 5.6 miles up the Sandia Crest Highway.
“Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide,” which describes these trails and dozens more, is available at many stores throughout Albuquerque including REI ($24.95). Bob Mosher, REI’s outdoor programs and outreach coordinator for New Mexico, suggests that hikers make certain preparations before hiking in the Sandias.
“Keep in mind that temperatures in October can be significantly different at 9 a.m. versus 2 p.m.,” he says. “There could be as much as a 20-degree change in temperature depending on when and where you are hiking. With that in mind, have layers of clothing with you.”
Mosher also recommends taking a map, compass or GPS on the hike as well as a flashlight and first aid supplies. Wearing sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are advisable because most hikes are at a high altitude.
“It’s always a good idea to have extra food and water with you,” he adds. “Generally speaking, think about each person drinking one liter of water for every active hour.”
Hikers who are not used to high altitudes need to pay attention to how they feel during the hike. “If you get unusually thirsty, lethargic or develop a headache, think about turning back,” Mosher says.