On Walkabout On: The Sandia Crest Byway, New Mexico

Basic Information

  • Name: Sandia Crest Byway
  • Distance: 13.6 miles (21.9 km)
  • More Information: Byways.org

Narrative

In my last posting I described what a great time my wife and I had taking the Sandia Peak Tramway up to the 10,378 foot summit of Sandia Peak outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  However, for those that are looking for less expensive option to visit the summit of the mountain, there is a road that accesses the top of Sandia Peak as well.  This road NM 536 is known as the Sandia Crest Byway and is 13.6 miles long and takes about an hour to reach the summit when driving from Albuquerque:


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This byway also has the distinction of being the highest such scenic byway in the entire American Southwest:

The eastern side of the Sandia Mountains is no where near as rugged as its western face which allows the byway to gently snake its way high up into the thickly forested slopes of these beautiful mountains:

The drive up the byway ends at this visitor center that has a gift shop, food, and information for visitors to the mountain:

The visitor center however is not the most noticeable man made structure on the mountain; that honor goes to the “Steel Forest” of radio and TV antennas located adjacent to the parking lot that can be seen from just about anywhere in Albuquerque:

The “Steel Forest” began in 1945 when a New Mexico police transmitter was installed on the summit.  Since then additional radio and television antennas have been installed.  Since this is National Forest land the owners of each antenna has a lease with the US Forest Service for the antenna.  This is one of the challenges of the US Forest Service which is to balance the needs of people in the region with protecting the natural ecosystem of the forest.  The Sandias are still beautiful even with the “Steel Forest” and people in the region are able to watch TV and listen to radio so it all works out.

I originally drove up to the summit to do some hiking along the crest of the Sandias but when I arrived at the parking lot I could see a big storm brewing and heading my way:

The wind was also ripping pretty badly so that ended any plans I had to go on the long walk I had planned.  So I just took a short walk along the crest before even worse weather came in.  Here is a view from the crest of Albuquerque:

Here is a closer look at downtown Albuquerque:

Here is the view looking to the south of Albuquerque where the green strip is the Rio Grande River:

Here is a closer look at the Rio Grande River as well as the nearby Sandia Resort and Casino that is located on Native-American land:

There are a number of casinos around Albuquerque that are located on tribal lands with the Sandia Resort being one of the larger one.  People have varying opinions about casinos but one thing I noticed from the peak is how much land has been saved from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque because of the casino.

Anyway I walked a short ways down the Grand Enchantment Trail that runs along the length of the Sandia Mountains and takes visitors to the Sandia Peak Tramway Station where it is possible to take the tram back down the mountain.  Here is a view from the trail looking towards the southern portion of the Sandia Mountains:

Something interesting about the Sandia Crest is that it is an ancient seafloor.  300 million years ago a shallow sea covered most of New Mexico.  What is now the Sandia Mountains was then a seafloor.  Chemicals dissolved in the seawater and the shells of marine organisms accumulated to form the layers of limestone that now cap the mountain range.  Fossils of sea creatures can still be found in the rock today:

This limestone phenomenon is not isolated to just the Sandias and can be found in other areas across the Southwest. During the past 25 million years great fractures in the Earth’s crust developed along what is now the Rio Grande Valley.  Between the fractures the crust dropped and outside of them the crust was pushed up.  One of the the pushed up pieces is the giant block of crust tipped up sideways that is now called the Sandia Mountains.

Here is a view of the Sandia Crest looking back towards the visitor center:

Looking down from the Sandia Crest the drop in elevation is really quite stunning:

Besides the views from my short walk on the trail I was also able to see some wildflowers:

There was also a few aspen trees that could be seen among the forest of tall pine trees:

Along the Sandia Crest there is also a few of these hearty junipers that could be seen somehow hanging on for dear life off the side of the mountain:

Conclusion

That concluded my walk and I headed back to the visitor center due to the increasing wind and oncoming clouds.  Once I got back to my truck and began to drive down the by way it started to rain pretty heavily.  Once I got off the mountain and back in the high desert area of Albuquerque there was no longer any rain and plenty of sunshine though the Sandias were engulfed in clouds.

Even though I wasn’t able to go on a longer hike like I would have liked to, I still enjoyed myself and had a nice visit once again to the top of the Sandia Mountains. The drive up the Sandia Crest Byway was a nice drive as well with the abundant green trees being such a stark contrast to the brown desert that Albuquerque is located in.  The local citizens of Albuquerque are really lucky to have such a beautiful mountain with lush forests literally right in their backyards.  So for anyone visiting Albuquerque I highly recommend either taking the tram or driving up to the summit of the Sandias to see just how beautiful this part of the Albuquerque region is.

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