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Backpacker Magazine – September 2012

Mountain Map: New Mexico - Sandia Mountains

Explore Albuquerque's backyard mountain range.

by: Morgan Tilton

Sandia Mountains (Map by Andrew Matranga)
Sandia Mountains (Map by Andrew Matranga)
La Luz Trail (Bill Velasquez)
La Luz Trail (Bill Velasquez)

An immense block of granite and limestone tore through the earth's surface roughly 10 million years ago, forming this airy, high-desert playground of 9,000- to 10,000-foot peaks high above Albuquerque. Explore the range from top to bottom on these must-do routes that link piñon-dotted canyons and lofty summits.

Sandia Crest Trail (shown in red)
Want the ultimate challenge? Traverse the entire range in one marathon day on this 27.1-mile point-to-point that runs across the Sandia spine, racking up nearly 12,000 feet of elevation change. You’ll hike through all four of the range’s life zones, tag two prominent peaks, enjoy miles of ridgetop views—and notch a hiking rite of passage. Start at the Canyon Estates trailhead for a longer but less quad-killing, south-to-north climb past piñon, juniper, and trickling Travertine Falls. Gain the ridgeline at mile 4.1 after climbing 2,050 vertical feet; look for mariposa lilies in midsummer. At mile 5.8, take the one-mile detour to 9,782-foot South Sandia Peak for views above Albuquerque. Roughly 14 miles in, refuel at the High Finance Restaurant before topping out on the broad slopes of 10,678-foot Sandia Crest—the tallest point in the range—at mile 15.9. (Craving a slower pace? Camp in one of the clearings south of the Crest.) Less than 1.5 miles later, detour to North Sandia Peak, the Sandia’s northernmost 10,000-footer. The remaining 8.9 miles drop through aspens and horny toad habitat to the Tunnel Spring trailhead. Trip ID* 1718402

La Luz Trail (shown in blue)
The bad news: This tough-as-nails trail has been the official route of Albuquerque’s popular La Luz Trail Run since 1965, making it tops on hikers’ tick lists. The good news: In late September, trail traffic plummets right when temperatures cool and the aspen leaves turn gold. From the trailhead on the northeast edge of town, the steep, zigzagging 14.2-mile (round-trip) trail weaves around cactus and yucca as it scales the canyon walls and skirts toothy outcrops. At mile 7.1, catch your breath on top of 10,678-foot Sandia Crest before dropping 4,500 feet on the return descent. Trip ID 1719970

Faulty Trail (shown in green)
Most folks stick to the Sandia’s western slopes—closer to town—which means solitude is all yours on this 11.2-mile round-trip to an 8,685-foot peak on the range’s east side. Traverse north through shady, conifer-covered canyons (home to great horned owls), then drop 550 feet in .7 mile to Cañon Madera. Meander through Lagunita Seca, a golden meadow (mile 5.1), before the .5-mile climb to Palomas Peak, ringed by limestone cliffs. Trip ID 36415

Piedra Lisa South (shown in orange)
Legend has it that Spanish explorers named this range Sandia (meaning watermelon) for its rosy glow at sunset. You be the judge on this five-miler below North Sandia Peak. Less than a mile in, turn right for a .4-mile side trip to a pourover that transforms into a burbling waterfall after a rain. Next, ascend 1.4 miles (and nearly 1,200 feet of elevation) to a high point dubbed “The Knob.” From here, walk .4 mile northwest along the summit ridge for distant views north of the Sangre de Cristos. Linger here ‘til dusk (or camp below The Knob) to watch the sinking sun bathe North Sandia’s west-facing crags in pink and red hues. Trip ID 23146

*Get free GPS data and print custom maps by adding the Trip ID to

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Star Star Star Star Star
Plop plop
Aug 28, 2013

Hullo I hike a lot of mountains and I hav hip issues, u can do anything if u follow ur dreams

Jim Davis
Oct 11, 2012

I wrote about the La Luz trail in a previous blog--but I would like to thank Backpacker for the information I found on the web site about the La Luz the night before I went up the trail. I am scanning the latest issue to find a trail near me in Florida or maybe Georgia.

Jim Davis
Oct 11, 2012

I hiked the La Luz trail in mid September 2012. I hiked up to the Crest trail and ascended it to the crest. It was a week day and I saw maybe a dozen people on the trail. I was overwhelmed by the beauty. Four different growth zones offer great diversity in scenery. Plenty of scenic views. Must see cliffs. Steep and rugged the last two miles--but worth every step you take. Remember when you get tired; it is no sin to sit down and enjoy the view of which there is plenty. If you are ever in Albuquerque get an early start and you want regret it. I am really glad I took the La Luz it took me to the top and back in a day. You can ride the tram down--but you will miss the beauty of the cliffs as the evening sun sets and brings out their beautiful colors. I am glad I didn't ride the tram down. It will be one of my most memorable hikes. I am planning to visit Albuquerque again next year and hopefully I will have enough time to hike the crest trail.

Oct 11, 2012

How are you going to get 12,000 ft of elevation change from a peak that is 10,200 ft when you start at the lowest point of 6,000 ft???

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