Just east of Albuquerque are range of mountains approximately 26 miles long and roughly 10,600 feet at the highest point of their serrated spine. They are part of the Rio Grande Rift Valley and were formed tens of millions of years ago when the land literally began to split apart. When this happened as one can imagine there were great bursts of lava and a lot of chaos. As the land split and what would become Albuquerque began to sink, the hard granite that forms the base of the Sandias was thrust upward.
This process is still happening today. If you look west from Albuquerque you will see a series of brown peaks. These are old volcanoes. I read that they were last active anywhere from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago. Not too long geologically speaking, but not so recent that anyone remembers it. Farther south toward Lincoln County you can find newer lava flows that occurred within the last 5,000 years.
The Sandias are mostly granite that is somewhere between 1.5 billion to 1.7 billions years old in some places. The top of the crest has some newer stones, mostly limestone and sandstone that is only about 300 million years old. The presence of limestone is not altogether surprising because for much of its history New Mexico was buried beneath the ocean. Limestone by and large is the product of marine life dying and decomposing and then being compressed over much time into that lovely stone we use to decorate buildings.
Aside from being very old and subject to a violent, earth-shattering past, the Sandias are home to some excellent hiking trails. Two of the most famous are La Luz and El Pino trail. La Luz receives a bit more traffic though it shares the distinction with El Pino of winding all the way to the crest of the Sandias on the west side. There are a number of other trails such as the Domingo Baca trail. This trail is unique in that it follows a creek bed up the Sandias. The only creek that is always running with water on the western slope of the mountains. It is also unique in that it takes its travelers to the site of a TWA crash that occurred in 1955. It was this site that I went in search of approximately two weeks ago. I downloaded an app on my phone, did internet research, spoke to some Albuquerque natives at work, consulted with the park rangers before beginning on my hike and getting completely lost.
In my defense, the Sandia trails are really best not managed with a map or the trail markers but by experience. For example, one will be walking along one trail that is marked by a number and then the trail will fork and you will encounter a sign pointing in the direction that you want to take with a particular number such as 242. “Eureka!” you think, “I have found my trail!” However, upon closer inspection you will note that the sign pointing to 242 is right between the fork and points in the direction where there is no trail. Thus, if you are like me, you will encounter your Robert Frost moment of a trail diverging in the woods with both confusion and optimism. I thought to myself, Domingo Baca is north, I will head north.
However, about 2 hours into my hike I realized that I was very clearly on the wrong trail. Instead of asking another hiker or turning around, I decided to keep walking with the outside chance that I was on the right trail. Persisting in my belief despite all evidence to the contrary I continued hiking and only after about 2.5 hours of hiking did I ask another hiker who was on his way down.
“Am I close to the end?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “I was so happy! It’s only about 100 yards ahead.”
So I pushed on thinking in only a moment or two I would encounter the giant boulder that I had to climb before reaching the crash site. However, instead of a boulder I encountered a stunning panorama of East New Mexico. I had summited the mountain by mistake via El Pino. Regardless of whether I knew where I was going the hike is extraordinary, and like most of life what you seek is not always what you find.
El Pino like all the trails begins at the base of the foothills, which for all practical purposes is desert. You encounter cactuses and scruffy little trees and some sparse grass, but overall most of what you encounter is sand. There are flies, beetles, ants, ground nesting bees, and my personal favorite the tarantula hawk. This is not technically a hawk but a giant black wasp with translucent brown wings that is about two inches long. It is absolutely horrifying, and they say it possess a sting that is worse than the bullet ant. They are relatively docile and are a menace only to tarantulas on which they will lay their eggs. The larvae from the eggs burrow inside the tarantula and as they grow and develop into wasps, they devour the tarantula from the inside out. Quite naturally where you have a tarantula hawk you have tarantulas. I have not yet seen these little devils in the wild, but they are mostly nocturnal. The only insect that has ever given me trouble are the horseflies, and I have learned that if I do not use any beard oil or flowery shampoo prior to my hike they will mostly leave me alone.
After walking a half mile or so through the desert you encounter the foothills in earnest that are dotted with short little trees, but it is at this point that you more or less enter the shade. This is what makes El Pino different from La Luz. Both trails take you to the top, but El Pino does so with much more shade. About a half hour more of walking you will find yourself at a nice elevation and start to see pine trees. Those magnificent Ponderosa Pine trees for whom the trail is named. El Pino of course means pine.
I kept going at a pretty good clip thinking eventually that I would encounter the little creek that leads to the crash site, but all I found were more and more pine trees. Above me there was a species of insect that I failed to identify that continuously make clicking sounds as though the boughs of the trees were straining and the woods was cracking. Though, the higher I climbed the more lovely it became. The temperature dropped easily ten degrees and a nice little breeze whistled through the forest.
New Mexico is positively different at about 7,000 feet. An Italian friend of mine described it as “like being in the Alps” after he finally took the tram to the top of the Sandias and experienced the change in ecosystems. Yet walking up the Sandias is remarkable for a student of ecology because you pass through several ecosystems. Not only do you encounter more trees, but you encounter more massive trees. The pines at the foot of the trail though nice and providing ample shade are somewhat stunted in their growth. The higher you climb the more often you encounter the real monsters, over 200 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.
At this point I also encountered a grove of aspens whose trunks were covered in a thin white bark that was cool to the touch. Over the many valleys cutting across the mountain I saw peregrine falcons and various hawks silently searching the ground for their next meal. But for the most part I did not encounter any animals with the exception of a snake that I saw on the way down. However, my hike was most notable not the for animals that I saw but for the animal that I heard.
After I had been hiking a good 2 hours and was still about 30 minutes from the crest I entered a part of the trail that passed through a sun filled meadow. The vegetation was quite tall and rich. It was filled with flowers and little bees and an impossible thicket of tangled roots, sticks, bushes, and numerous plants. After a moment or two I had a very strange sensation, an unmistakable sensation that I was not alone. I felt something akin to fear or a great anxiety, and then I heard it. A very loud and very deep purr. The same type of purr the wild street cat we owned in Colombia used to make when I would pick him up. However, the purr my old cat Gabo made was nothing like this purr. It seemed as though a cat had been hooked up to a stereo surround sound system with a deep bass. And I knew that I was having my first encounter with a mountain lion. I stopped and looked all around me. Atop the trees and into the deep vegetation, and it was only when my eyes came to the densest part did my eyes meet his and the purring ceased. I turned and walked quickly away leaving the giant cat to finish his nap. The moment I left this clearing and climbed higher the feeling of anxiety that I had moments of before left me and was replaced with the cool serenity that can only be experienced while hiking through a forest 9,000 feet or higher.
Not long after this I reached the summit. Though I was a little disappointed that I did not find the crash site for which I had been looking, I felt a nice satisfaction at having scaled that giant rock face that dominates the Albuquerque skyline.
The hike down was uneventful with the exception of me learning a very valuable lesson. Cotton socks are not the best choice when hiking. Once they get a little wet they cling to your skin and begin to rub against it. This in turn creates blisters. And of course once your feet hurt you adjust your gait to compensate, and this makes your hips and knees hurt because you are walking funny. By the time I got to my car I was hobbling, out of water, and more grateful than I could ever imagine for air conditioning.