Glimpses From A Sky Island
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
A journey into one of New Mexico's most dramatic mountain ranges
The Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque isn't the highest mountain, nor the longest range, but it may be the most dramatic mountain range in New Mexico. The entire area is lined with ancient granite rising over 4,000ft from the desert floor creating a dynamic transition between the desert and the high mountain peaks. The entire west side is strewn with boulders the size of houses and cars. The trails go from very mellow at the foothills to impossibly steep near the crest all in the span of a handful of miles. The plants in the area range from spiked cacti and Yucca, Ponderosa Pines to Spruce and Fir, moss and wild flowers and everything in between. The crest can generally be around 20-30 degrees cooler than the arid base, making for completely different environments the entire way up. Venturing into the Sandias is a journey surrounded by living geology happening all around you, albeit at a slower pace. From a distance the Sandias appear to be a charming southwestern backdrop that lines the eastern side of the city and acts as a natural compass for the locals. It's only from up close does the terrain reveal it's true rugged personality.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I took it upon myself to venture into the Sandias once again and explore the old forest high above the desert. Spending time on the crest was the perfect way to get away from people while documenting the backcountry transition from winter into summer. This time of the year, 1-2 miles under the crest is still snow packed on north facing slopes and the entire eastern side of the range. This means that most people won't be up there in the first place! The only downside was the steady gusts of wind about 30mph strong. This made the nights deafening with the sound of wind rushing through the trees.
I ended up spending 2 nights on the crest and captured lots of great shots. I planned on staying up for several days longer and exploring the south peak, however I found out that my water filter didn't work after spending hours melting snow to get drinking water. This was a bummer but just means I have to get up there again and spend some more time in my favorite sky island.
The hike from the La Luz trail to the Sandia Peak is a very steep, rocky, icey, and rough walk that demands determination. The trail goes from steep to steeper with the last 2.5mi completely iced over and super slick. It ranges from arid high desert to thawing winter in around 4000ft. It's very slow moving but the views up top make it more than worthwhile. Just don't slide down the frozen rock field!
After a technical hike just south of the peak lies the Kiwanis Cabin. Built around 1930 this Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabin was erected as a testament to the tough spirit of New Mexicans from the Great Depression. Now this cabin has become one of the most photogenic places in NM that no one talks about! The way the stark white cabin interacts with the surrounding trees looks like a scene pulled from a Wes Anderson movie. Nearly every angle is as photogenic as the previous angle. Truly a photographers delight.
The trail from the Kiwanis Cabin to the Tramway is a 1.5mi trek on the backside of the mountain. In the winter and spring, this trail is completely iced over and requires lots of postholing if walking along the path. The views from the top of the Tramway make it more that worthwhile with stunning views of the south peak, Mt. Taylor to the west, and a birds eye view of Albuquerque. Around sunset this becomes a keen spot for dynamic photos.
Just 200ft south from the Tramway lies a hidden spot right on the edge of the cliff with amazing views of the city. This ledge offers a unique view of the Tramway cables over looking the town and also displays the dynamic of the city encroaching into this stunning wilderness. Certain angles look like the houses and juniper fighting to retain control of the mountains with both pushing in opposite directions. This is a fight that has been waged since the Spanish first arrived and settled the area. The juniper has lost a lot of footing over the past 300 years.
The lighting is also very unique because the intensity of the city lights can illuminate the surrounding nature with long exposure shots. The ambient lighting gives the rocks a pleasing yellow hue. Although the light pollution drowns out most stars in the sky, the night time photography of this ledge is still very much worthwhile.
The following day, I hiked the Crest Trail to the high point of the Pino Trail. This route was 95% iced over and I ended up postholing more times than I can count. The thawing landscape was fairly monotonous however it provided a glimpse of a grove filled with surreal dancing trees. Once at my camping spot on the Pino Trail, the clouds became dark and moody. This prompted me to take a solid nap. Upon waking up from my nap I was rewarded with the same moody clouds albeit with the sun in a position that illuminated certain areas of the landscape. The slowly setting sun lit up the trees to peak saturation. No matter what direction I was facing I was graced with unending pleasing shots.
Golden hour on the Pino Trail provided some of the best shots of the rugged granite and limestone chasms of the Sandias. The way that the shadows danced across the terrain illuminated the dynamics that makes the Sandias what they are. From up close, the hills and cliffs are teeming with life growing in the harsh environment shaped by wind. Not a single tree that grows on the crest hasn't been warped by the unending torrents that don't mellow out until summer. The imposing cliffs provide a stunning backdrop that highlights the rugged nature of this mountain range. From afar, the Sandias appear somewhat flat like any other mountain. It's only when you're in the middle of the range does it's true character present itself.
Golden hour on the crest reveals different textures and shapes that otherwise become hidden in the midday sun. A grove of dead tress mixed with thriving trees are suddenly exploding with a character that is overlooked in normal lighting conditions. A little bird is suddenly shown with perfect camouflage mixing the sky and the trees. Surrounding hills become a moody scene when bathed in the setting sun. These conditions only last a short time before the sun sets too low to mix with the nature. One must act fast to capitalize on these brief glimpses of changing light.
The final light of the day turned into a classic New Mexican sunset. The colors bathe the whole valley in a orange/pink glow as dynamic as our history. The flat mesas on the horizon provide a sharp contrast with the jagged slopes of the Sandias and the far off landmarks such as Cabezon Peak. These are views as rare as the petroglyphs that surround the area. They are elusive vistas that reward only those with patience and a keen eye. The traveler moving in haste will miss the subtleties that makes New Mexico truly enchanting. The Sandias are truly a locals paradise worthy of praise.