Walking the Sandias

Any good hiking guide must answer two questions: why go and and how to go. All the rest—maps, photos, trail descriptions, colorful anecdotes, historical background—are bells and whistles.

In his second edition of his hiking book (“Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide Revised and Expanded Edition,” 237 pages, UNM Press, spiral cover, $24.95) Mike Coltrin supplies lots of bells and whistles, including a color fold-out map, black-and-white topographical maps, color photos and background on geology, geography, history and climate. But more importantly, he supplies the essentials.

The second edition is much wordier, weightier and more attractive that the first relatively bare-bones edition 14 years ago. Sign of the times, alas: whereas the University of New Mexico Press printed the first edition in the United States, the second was produced in South Korea.

The trails vary from brief, casual family outings to daylong, strenuous hikes. What they all have in common is the joy of a 10,600-high mountain range with still lovely forests (despite waves of tree-killing infestations during recent years) and magnificent views over a vast chunk of territory that includes pretty much all of central New Mexico.

Coltrin has been hiking and writing about these mountains for several decades although he has had, until his recent retirement, a day job as a physical chemist on the technical staff of Sandia National Laboratories. For him, hiking clearly is as much avocation as vocation. When I caught up with him last week, he was hiking on the Havasupai Reservation, in a magnificent side canyon to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Havasupai, which I’ve hiked twice, is full of high waterfalls and small lakes with a lush, running (and all too often flooding) stream.

The Sandias are mountains with seasons—bursts of wildflowers in the spring, golden aspens in the fall and many feet of unblemished snow in the winter. That most folks only hike the mountains in the summer is a bit of a shame.

Coltrin’s second edition adds seven new trails, highlights a dozen easy trips for families or those not especially physically fit and includes a number of changes, for example where trailheads have been closed or trails rerouted.

So in most ways the second edition is an improvement, but not in all. I still like the first paragraph in the old preface:

“The Sandia Mountains furnish a wonderful natural resource at the edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Several times every day I try to flee the confines of my office job and take a quick escape to the mountains, looking at them rising to the east.”

This paragraph captures two things about the mountains that are often overlooked. The first is that even when you don’t got into them, they are always there, a constant feature of the city’s backdrop that sets its mood and atmosphere as strongly as do the Rio Grande and the line of volcanoes to the west, the other two natural distinctions of the otherwise sprawling and often characterless metropolis.

The second is that for almost everybody in central New Mexico, the Sandias, along with extensions to the south, are not just rocks and trees but a presence in our lives, a presence that affects us every day. We see their hulks and hills, we feel their winds and chills, we drink their water and luxuriate in their shade. We ski on their slopes, admire their wildflowers and follow their birds. Our lives, without them, are unimaginable.

It doesn’t much matter what you do in the mountains, or whether you do anything at all. Lots of people just eat a picnic or gape at the view from the crest.

Others walk the few hundred yards of the Balsam Glade Trail, while still others do the 12-mile round-trip hike to South Peak, where the colors of red gambel oaks and a small grove of golden quaking aspens cheer the hardy in October.

You can do the entire 19-mile-long Crest Trail or the nearly 9 miles of the Faulty Trail. But even the eight-tenths of a mile of the Sulphur Canyon Trail across a grassy clearing has its rewards.

One of the sometimes-overlooked features of a good hiking book is to tell you not just what to do but what not to do. Here is Coltrin’s description of the Chimney Canyon Route, one of the few in this book I’ve not attempted:

“Safety First: This is potentially one of the most dangerous hikes in the Sandia Mountains. The first hour goes almost straight down the mountain in a very remote area. The Chimney Canyon Route is not an officially maintained trail. Do not attempt this hike unless you are well prepared physically and able to take care of yourself in the event of a mishap in the wilderness. If you complete the hike as described, you will be challenged with four hours or more of very strenuous hiking.” Enough said.

Among the nicest things about the Sandias is that whichever route you choose, you are never far from home. You can ride from Albuquerque on the tram, clamber up the La Luz trail from the west, hike Three Gun Springs from the south, bounce on an unpaved road from Placitas in the northwest, or just lazily drive up the wide, well paved, gently curving mountain road from Cedar Crest.

But however you go, and whatever you do when you arrive, it’s all good fun.