Hiking in the Sandia Foothills
January 7, 2019: Since arriving in Albuquerque at the beginning of December, we hadn’t been treated very well from Mother Nature. Her and her counterpart, Zeus, the Greek god of weather had really teamed up on us. They had been delivering day after day of bitter cold temperatures, sleet and snow and gusty winds. We kept seeing reports of “unseasonable cold” and hearing “it is never this cold here.” Sounds like we lucked out in the timing of our visit here. Not! For a city who boasts about their sunny weather, we had been less than impressed in that matter too. The Visit Albuquerque website states that the city “basks in 310 days of sunshine with a mild, dry climate.” Hmmm . . . so where is that sunshine and it doesn’t seem that snow equates to a dry climate. We were beginning to think that the 55 days of cloudy weather they experience annually were the months of December and January. So when the skies turned blue and the clouds parted, we headed right out the door toward some adventure!
We are lucky to have a view of the Sandia Mountains from the doors and windows of our fifth wheel “Charlie.” While we have taken advantage of enjoying the view everyday, we had not taken advantage of experiencing the Sandias. We were ready to change that and headed off to Elena Gallegos Open Space, just about 15 minutes from the campground, for some hiking. We were greeted by a cheerful park ranger who gave us a handy trail map and some good recommendations. As we got closer to the mountain, we got closer to the snow too, good thing we had our hiking shoes laced up. We found a parking space close to the trailhead, took a quick bathroom break (Big Thanks to the City of Albuquerque for providing clean bathrooms!) and then headed toward the Pino Trail.
The trail winds through three climate zones which were a little disguised by the snow pack. The lower part of the trail is consistent with the look of the high desert plain of Albuquerque with sparse desert scrub of cholla cactus and prickly pear mixed with juniper and piñon pines.
As we traveled up, some shade was provided by ponderosa pines and spruce. Not that we were looking for any shade, but I’m sure it would be highly sought after in the hot, summer months. As for the upper portion of the trail, we are just going to have to trust the written word as we didn't continue to the crest where a greater density of evergreens and aspen provide more shade to the trail. As barren as the mountains appear to be from a distance, up close were are surprised by the vegetation and vast and unique rock features.
We left the car at about 6,500 feet and after about a mile of hiking, we had reached 7,200 feet. While that wasn’t a huge elevation change, it does always surprise us how our lungs notice the change! But yes, don’t worry, we do know we are out of shape. It didn’t seem there was that much snow under our feet either, but we spotted tracks right off the path which would have left us in knee-to-waist deep snow. Thank you for all those who traversed the path before us, creating a solid snow-packed trail to enjoy. We reached a sign that welcomed us to the Cibola National Forest, which is over 1.6 million acres and ranges from northeastern New Mexico to western Oklahoma and northwestern Texas. Within the Cibola National Forest are nine mountain ranges - it’s BIG!
We explored a bit more once entering the forest before turning around and taking in the view. On the way up, we had been distracted by the beauty in front of us, stopping at many points along the way to photograph the beautifully snow-capped peaks. So we were pleasantly surprised by the scenic views which had been unnoticed behind us, while different, they were equally enjoyable. Views of the city of Albuquerque and beyond including the Jemez Mountains to the north and Mount Taylor to the west. We see Mount Taylor every day on our commute and it has been snow-capped since we arrived in New Mexico. It is the highest point of the Cibola National Forest, topping out at 11,305 feet, making it only 627 feet taller than the peak of Sandia Crest. It is located about 50 miles west of Albuquerque and it sure looks way bigger and certainly appears to have a lot more snow. Millions of years ago, it is thought to have been 25,000 feet before it blew its top. Don’t worry, it is an extinct volcano, so if you come visit, it should still be here! As we started our decscent, we couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful this hike would be at sunset.
While we didn’t spot any wildlife, pack rats, coyote, cougars and black bears call the Sandias home. Thankful we didn’t encounter some of these animals on the trail, but we do really enjoy watching wildlife from a distance and were hoping to spot at least something. I’m sure they were curled up in their dens with the fireplace going warming their paws and sipping hot cocoa. Maybe as the snow melts and the temperatures warm we will have the opportunity to see some of our furry neighbors. Something other than just squirrels and deer which can be spotted just about everywhere would be nice.
It is unique that a city the size of Albuquerque is backed up against the Sandia Mountains. We can almost picture the first settlers who made this area home. Did they traverse miles and decide we can’t make it over yet another mountain range or did they hike up and over the Sandias and decide that was enough or did they just desire a beautiful backdrop for their chosen encampment? That, we may never know. The word Sandia is Spanish for watermelon and the reason for the name is not 100% certain, but they most definitely live up to their name for the pinkish color the mountains take on during sunsets. Regardless of how Albuquerque ended up right beside the mountain range it provides such a quick and easy escape from city life.
We only hiked a few miles, but it was a stark change from the rest of our week which was spent sitting at a desk preparing taxes. The good thing is we enjoy both. I’m not sure we will ever get used to getting to collect such a wide variety of experiences living out our life as full-time RVers and for that we are incredibly thankful. While on the topic of gratitude, we are also so thankful you have chosen to follow us on this journey. Life is meant for good friends and great adventures so let’s keep adventuring together, friends