For me, travel has always meant the opportunity to explore, even when outdoor adventure wasn’t the reason you hit the road or flew across the country in the first place. So yet again, my travels brought me to a new place, with new trails to try. This time it was in the Sandia Mountains just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico on sections 38 & 39 of The Grand Enchantment Trail.
The Grand Enchantment Trail was created in 2003, linking together existing trails, gravel roads, and paved stretches to create a 770 mile through-hike from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Sections 38 & 39 are the final two sections coming into the eastern terminus at Albuquerque. This section was about 24 miles in length, which we covered in 2 days — 14+ miles then 9+ miles, with an overnight atop Sandia Crest.
A wedding brought Eric and I back out west, and we were happy to schedule a few days in before the celebration to get some trail time. Thanks to Eric’s rewards from Enterprise and a rather splurgy weekend before (read: beer, nice hotel, live music) in Asheville, we decided to live out of a Suburban or on the trail for the entire 5 day trip.
Our evening east coast flight landed us in Albuquerque near midnight, so we drove straight to the Sandia Crest trailhead at Tierjas to park the Suburban and crash for the night. I’m always happy to be a dirtbag – home is where my sleeping pad is.
Admittedly, my expectations for the trail were low. I’ve hiked some incredible places in the Rockies and the Southwest, so I didn’t imagine things would be particularly amazing only 20 some miles from Albuquerque. I was pleasantly surprised, happy to be wrong.
The first 15 miles were steadily uphill, climbing from the Tijeras at 6700 feet and topping out at about 10,500 ft. My Garmin clocked the segment at about 4,800 feet of gain.
A look at day one on the Sandia Crest Trail from my Garmin.
Sun protection and exposure in the all the appropriate places.
After reaching about 9,000 feet, the climbing eased and we saw about 4 miles of rolling terrain. The views were mostly clear and expansive, switching from the east side of the crest to the west and back again.
After finishing with a grueling final climb in dense pines and over ice, we reached the Sandia Peak Tramway:
Here’s the deal with camping on Sandia Peak:
- According to a friendly and experienced local trail runner, the area is technically NOT closed to camping. It’s only closed to campfires (which is always a good rule in wilderness areas). Bring a stove and you’re set.
- There are not many actual camping spots near the top or on the slopes, so you have to manage finding a level section on your own. We found a flat patch between two ski-runs about 100 yards down a run called Prohibition. Also, don’t count on anything reasonable heading further down La Luz Trail. We may have only seen one possible 1-2 person spot on the way down the next morning and it was in a much more exposed location.
A short walk back up the slope at night takes you to unobstructed views of Albuquerque and the expansive night sky.
My absolute favorite portion of the trail was the long 9+ miles (nearly all downhill) on La Luz Trail the second day. It had everything from craggy scrambles and snow to towering pines and endless views. If you are considering a section hike, don’t stop at the Tram and hitch a ride down. Take the next day to enjoy this section – you won’t regret it.
The morning hike down La Luz was cool and windy. We encountered a decent amount of snow in late April, which was tricky and icy in the morning, but not impassible. Trekking poles or a stick will certainly help. Here’s Eric going for a snowy section in his Luna Sandals with some Injini socks, proving that anything is possible.
After long scrambling rock sections the trail eased into compacted dirt and light sand. We ended our hike at the La Luz trailhead, grabbed an Uber, and set out for Marble Brewery in Albuquerque for some well deserved food and bevs.
- If you go in spring, expect snow and bring trekking poles. Poles will make your descent much easier and far less sketchy. Also, because it gets below freezing at night and warmer in the day, these snowy sections are often icy in the early morning.
- Expect most water sources to be dry. There’s a great guide to water sources, but unless you’re there after a big rain or during major snow melt, most places will be dry. You can, however, count on water fountains (soda and snack machines too) to refill at the top of Sandia Tramway between 9am and 9pm. Basically, carry enough water to get you through the first 14 miles. (And cash for snacks!)
- Come after summer 2018 and make this a European style single overnight when the restaurant reopens at the top of Sandia Peak. We heard about High Finance, a restaurant at the top of Sandia Peak, but arrived to find it totally gutted. Turns out they are tearing it down and opening a new one. You could easily plan to backpack up there and grab dinner and beers at the top for the night in lieu of dehydrated food. But be sure to always bring food just in case the restaurant is closed for whatever reason.
- Wear long pants or high compression socks for Section 38. The trails are well established but were a bit overgrown and getting slapped and scratched on the legs gets old really fast. It’s the one thing that breaks me down on backpacking trips. Pants are a good idea.
- Don’t bother with two cars or worry about transport if you’re from out of town: leave your car at the trailhead in Tijeras and grab an Uber back. The signal is perfectly fine (on Verizon) at La Luz Trailhead to arrange a ride. I don’t Uber very often, but we had a great local driver who took us back and shared many Sandia climbing stories with us along the way.
Until next time, I’ll leave you with a little drama from the trail: