Sandia Mountains: Hike from Crest House to Tram

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No matter where you are in Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains beckon. They define the city’s skyline, and are set afire by the setting sun in the evenings. But, the mountains aren’t just a pretty backdrop for the city. They also provide a high-altitude playground for New Mexicans who want to escape the heat of the desert, and surround themselves with trees and cool breezes (and for much of the year, snow).

My Visit

If you take the road up the backside (from ABQ, take I-40 to NM-14 to NM-536), you’ll end up at Sandia Crest, the highest point in the Sandia Range, at 10,678 feet.  At the Crest, there’s a gift shop/fast food restaurant (the building you see in the picture above), and fantastic views.  It’s also a starting point for a number of hiking options.  I chose to hike from Sandia Crest south to the tram station, via the Crest Trail and some other trails.

Remember, you should expect much cooler temperatures at the top of the Sandia Mountains, so bring extra clothing.  Also, do not underestimate the effects you may feel from the change in altitude.  After this visit to Sandia Crest, I experienced a severe headache that lasted for several hours, even after I returned to Albuquerque. If you experience altitude sickness, drink plenty of water, and return to a lower altitude as soon as possible.  And, if your home is at sea level, consider spending a day or two in Albuquerque before tackling a higher elevation — to give your body a chance to acclimate (ABQ is at 5,312 feet/1,619 meters).

Head south from the Crest House…

… and you’ll be treated to one great view after another, as you hike along the popular (but muddy in places) nature trail (that’s part of the longer Crest Trail).

On this day, clouds were quickly sweeping up the mountain from the city below.  At times, I was in a fog, then moments later, the entire view would open up.

You’ll reach these steps near the bottom of the nature trail loop.  At the top…

… there’s a good place to find a perch and enjoy the view for a while.  Beyond my feet, and somewhere through the clouds, is the city of Albuquerque, one vertical mile below.

If you’re in the mood for a longer hike (longer than just the 1/4 mile nature loop), keep heading south.  Two attractions await: the Kiwanis Cabin (2/3 of a mile from here) and the tram station (1.75 miles away, one way).  This part of the Crest Trail doesn’t provide as many views of the valley below, instead it spends more time in the forest.

The Kiwanis Cabin is on a spur trail, about 1/4 of a mile off the main trail to the tram terminal.  You can make it your ultimate destination, or just a side attraction.

Kiwanis Cabin

The Kiwanis Cabin is a stone structure, built on a slanted slab of nearly-bare rock.  Once you’ve seen this spot up-close, you’ll be able to spot it from anywhere in Albuquerque.

The Kiwanis Cabin was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936.  You’re allowed to walk inside the one-room building, and stare out its windows onto the cloud tops…

… and the city below.  If you look very closely in this picture, you can see a blue tower, on the ridge in the middle of the photo.  That’s the support tower for the tram’s cables.  We’ll see more of it in a moment.

Looking south from the cabin, you get some idea of why this spot is so prominent.  The mountain’s crest dips inward from here — which means the Kiwanis Cabin is sticking out, on a rocky outcropping, like a sore thumb.  That ridge is where we’re hiking next, once we meet back up with the Crest Trail.  The tram terminal is somewhere in that bank of fog, at the far end of the mountain.

Once you’ve backtracked to the Crest Trail, then headed a bit further, you’ll have several more chances to enjoy the landscape (much of the trail stays below the crest, in the woods, but there are several clearings).  At the first viewpoint, you can look back at Kiwanis Cabin…

… and to the west, towards the city.  Keep hiking, and before long…

Tram Terminal

… you’re at the tram terminal.  Two sets of cables carry the tram cars back and forth to the station on the outer edge of Albuquerque.  Those cables run 2.7 miles (one way), making the Sandia Peak Tramway the world’s longest passenger tram.

At the terminal, you can get a close look at the heavy-duty equipment that makes the tram work…

… then watch as one of the cars pulls into the station.

The Sandia Crest Tramway starts its journey at 6,559 feet above sea level, and ends at 10,378 feet — for a gain of 3,819 feet (or 1,164 meters). The tram makes the 2.7 mile trip in 15 minutes. It was completed in 1966, at a cost of $2 million dollars. Don’t worry, the cables aren’t that old — they were changed in 1997.

There’s a large observation deck at the tram station, where you can take a break from hiking and enjoy the view…

… and if you can’t figure out what you’re looking at, these viewing tubes will help.  Looking east, on a perfect day, you should be able to see Taos, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and Wheeler Peak (New Mexico’s highest point).

Another way to take a break, is by eating lunch at the High Finance Restaurant, where most tables have a nice view.  I, of course, recommend green chile at any New Mexico restaurant — and I discovered that the High Finance’s chile stew was quite good.  Their green chile burger, though, didn’t have much flavor.

On the eastern side of the Sandia Mountain Range, you can go skiing in winter, at the Sandia Peak Ski Area.  Take the tram up the mountain from Albuquerque, then ski down the opposite side, using the ski lifts to get back to the top.  In the summer months, the ski slopes provide terrain for mountain biking.

You can buy tickets for the tram, check ski conditions, or find out if the mountain biking area is open, by visiting the tram’s website. There’s also a live webcam that shows weather conditions on the mountain.

By the time I left the tram area, I was increasingly suffering from altitude sickness.  I didn’t do much sightseeing on the way back, instead I trudged along with only one stop…

… to take a picture of the thick moss that covered the trees along the Kiwanis Trail (an alternative to the Crest Trail, it’s an old dirt road that ends at the parking lot, instead of at the Crest House, which made the return trip a little shorter).

Before leaving, I stopped in at the Crest House gift shop for some headache medicine.  They sell Tylenol here, but be warned, it’s pricey.  Clearly, they know that people will be suffering from altitude sickness, and they’ll pay anything for a little relief.

Location

There are two ways to reach the top of the Sandia Mountains. You can drive up the backside to Sandia Crest, or you can take the world’s longest tramway from the city-side of the mountains. If you choose to drive, take I-40 east from Albuquerque. Exit onto New Mexico 14 north through Cedar Crest. Turn onto New Mexico 536 for the drive to the top. The tram can be accessed by driving to the northeast corner of Albuquerque — just find Tramway Boulevard or Tramway Road.

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