Sandia Peak is the high point of the massive, rugged mountain that borders Albuquerque, New Mexico on its east side. Boundless opportunities for hikers and rock climbers exist in these mountains.
The peak is actually a long mountain (approx. 17 miles) with two distinct high points--the higher "Crest" as it is referred to, and the lower South Peak--which are separated by a broad saddle. The Sandias were created by a massive uplift, which yielded a mountain with a rugged, steep face and towering granite crags on the west side, and a gentle, treed slope on the east side. With over 5,000' of vertical relief from the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, the Sandias tower above the high desert floor, offering incredible views for miles in each direction.
To reach the Crest, one need not expend much energy, as a paved road on the east side takes you a mere 20 or 30 feet below the top, where a visitor center and restaurant are found. In addition, an aerial tram on the west side takes visitors from Albuquerque up to the top of the Sandia Peak Ski Area , just south of the summit proper, where another restaurant is located.
Because of its proximity to Albuquerque, and because of the ease of access, the Sandias are heavily used. Hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, cross country skiers, downhill skiers, hunters, hanggliders, and rock climbers all frequent these mountains. Nevertheless, for those willing to venture off into the woods a bit, there is plenty of solitude and beauty to be found here.
For hikers, the most popular way to climb Sandia Peak is to follow the La Luz trail, a 7 mile trek up the west side of the mountain with about 3700' of elevation gain. The trail receives a great deal of traffic, particularly on weekends and holidays. One can also traverse the entire length of the Sandias from south to north, or vice versa, along the Crest Trail.
For climbers, the main attraction of the Sandias is not the trails to the crest, but the many granite crags found on the rugged west face. Here there are hundreds of established routes of between one and fifteen pitches in length, including big walls, spires, knife-edge ridges, and shorter routes.
The indispensable guide to hiking or climbing in these mountains is the appropriately named Hikers and Climbers Guide to the Sandias by Mike Hill. This is an very well written guidebook with a number of helpful topos although it is now out of print. It even comes with a handy map of the mountains.
Thanks to dsnell the original creator of this page.
Rock Climbing Overview
There are hundreds of established routes in the Sandias and many more awaiting development. If you plan to visit the Sandias for a climbing trip, make sure to pick up a copy of the Climbers and Hikers Guide to the Sandia Mountains.
All of the established trad routes are located on Sandia granite, which is not as solid as the granite found in places like Yosemite, but which yields many fine routes. You will undoubtedly encounter loose rocks in the Sandias, more so on some routes than others, so be careful. The vast majority of the routes in these mountains are traditional, multi-pitch routes. Many have bolted belays, and you will even encounter bolts on some of the faces. Most of the rock climbing is located at above 8,000', so be prepared for near Alpine conditions.
Here is a brief--and I stress "brief"--overview of some of the climbable formations in the Sandias. The formations are presented from North to South, or left to right as viewed from Albuquerque.
Appearing from Albuquerque to be a solid wall, much of the Shield is really a fairly thin buttress protruding out to the west of North Sandia Mountain. The south face of the Shield, which is the side visible from Albuquerque, is the immense wall that has a number of developed epic routes.
The knife edge of the Shield is a fun class 4 climb along the top of the formation. Much of the climb is class 2 or 3, but it steepens--and gets very exposed--near the top.
In addition, a number of routes, in the range of 6 to 13 pitches can be found here, ranging from 5.4 to 5.11 in difficulty, including some routes that require aid.
The Needle is the giant cone shaped formation to the south of the Shield. It, along with the Shield, are two of the most highly visible formations from Albuquerque. The easiest way to the summit of the Needle is via the East Saddle (4th class), which connects the Needle to Sandia Crest. There are also a number of long trad routes in the range of 5.4 to 5.8. The Southwest Ridge, which is rated at 5.8 and involves 15 pitches of roped climbing, is regarded as a classic.
Muralla Grande is a huge face located below the crest just to the North of the Radio Towers. This wall is fairly easily accessed from the crest, at least by Sandia standards. Here routes range between 5.5 and 5.10, with routes of up to eight pitches in length. My personal favorite is La Selva, a 6-pitch 5.7. The classic Warpy Moople (5.9, 9 Pitches) is located here.
Located in Chimney Canyon, below the radio towers. Not a particularly large formation, the Chimney has a few short routes that have an exhilerating ending at the top of this thin spire. All routes are 2 pitches are less and range between 5.4 and 5.9 in difficulty.
The Sentinel is also a fairly small formation, but it has some excellent routes. It is located near the Chimney and has a few very fun routes in the range of 5.5 to 5.7 in difficulty, with most being in the two-pitch range.
La Cueva Domes/Gemstone Slabs
Near the base of the peak, in La Cueva canyon are a number of fun slab climbs on the granite slabs on the side of the canyon. If the higher climbs are snowed in, La Cueva is a fun diversion. Route range between 5.6 and 5.11 with between two and four pitches. Summer can get quite hot in this area.
The Pulpit is a fairly large formation located near the entrance to upper La Cueva Canyon, near the La Luz trail. All of the climbs are within easy view of the busy La Luz, so be prepared for gawkers on this formation. This is one of my favorite formations in the Sandias, because it has pretty solid rock and fun routes. In addition, the descent involves a full rope length free-hanging rappel, which adds to the excitement.
There is an easy 5.2 route leading to the summit, but most of the routes fall in the range of 5.7 to 5.10.
Across and up LaCueva canyon from the Pulpit is the formation known as "the Thumb," which is a massive, elongated fin running northwest to southeast. The thumb has a number of excellent routes in the range of 5.6 to 5.10. One of my favorite trad routes in the world is the Northwest Ridge of the Thumb, which is a six-pitch 5.6 route with good rock and excellent exposure. The route finishes with several hundred feet of third to fourth class climbing.
Most of the technical climbing is accessed from either the Crest or by hiking up the La Luz trail.
To access the Crest, head East on I-40 from Albuquerque. A few miles outside of Albuquerque is the town of Tijeras, where NM 14 intersects I-40. Exit from I-40 and head North (left) on NM 14 for about 10 miles until 14 intersects with NM 536, the road to the Sandia Crest. Turn left on NM 536. This intersection is hard to miss, as there is a large sign pointing to Sandia Crest. Follow NM 536 for about 15 miles as it winds its way up the East side of the Sandias. You will pass the base for Sandia Peak Ski Area and eventually reach the end of the road, where the parking lot for the crest visitor center is located. To access climbing areas in La Cueva Canyon from the crest, hike down the the La Luz trail, which begins south of the Crest monument. Other formations, such as Muralla Grande, the Chimney, and the Sentinel, are reached by hiking North on the crest toward the radio towers and then dropping down into the appropriate canyon.
To access the bottom trail head for the La Luz trail, , head Take I-25 North. Near the outskirts of town, Tramway Boulevard intersects I-25. Turn right on Tramway and follow it as it heads toward the Sandias. As the road nears the mountain, it begins to veer right (South). Before the road actually turns south, look for the Juan Tabo cut off on your left. Turn left on this road and proceed north for a mile or two until you see a road to your right leading to the Juan Tabo Picnic Area, which is marked by a sign. Follow this road to your right for several hundred yards to reach the parking lot for the Picnic Area. Here you will have to pay $3 per vehicle to park. The trail head for the La Luz is located on the edge of the parking lot and is quite easy to find.
For those interested in climbing the Shield or the Needle, do not turn off on the road leading to the Juan Tabo picnic area, but continue heading north on the road you came in on, which quickly turns to dirt. After a half mile or so, the road ends at a locked gate, and there is a National Forest parking lot to your left. The trail for the Piedra Lisa trail is located here, which leads you to the base of climbs located in the Needle and Shield areas.
Much of the Sandia Mountains are located within the Sandia Mountains Wilderness Area, so certain restrictions apply (no bicycles or motorized vehicles). A fee of $3 is required to park at any of the trailheads in the Sandia Wilderness. The Shield and Needle areas are closed to climbing during summer months due to Peregrine Falcons nesting in these areas. Check with the Forest Service to determine the exact dates for these restrictions. As a result of these closures, the Shield and Needle can usually only be climbed in the fall, before the snow sets in and makes these routes unclimable.
When To Climb
Most of the big routes are located between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. At this elevation, the Sandias receive significant snowfall, so the best time to climb is between early May and October. Depending on the weather, many routes can be climbed much earlier or later, but expect harsh conditions.
Summer temperatures are quite nice at this elevation, even when Albuquerque is sweltering in summer heat. Watch the weather in summer, because the Sandias are often hit my massive thunderstorms that come in from the east, out of view if you are climbing on the West side. Many times I have been high on a route enjoying beautiful blue skies when I heard menacing thunderclaps coming from the east, and then saw thunderheads moving in over the Crest.
All of the climbing and most of the hiking in the Sandias is done in a single day, so most parties return to town at the end of the day. In fact there are no designated campsites in the Sandias--only picnic grounds. For those interested in camping, however, you are allowed to backpack into the mountains and pitch a camp.
During ski season, you can check the current conditions and forecast by clicking here.