Piedra Lisa Canyon

The weather is finally warming up and it is time to begin this year’s hiking adventures.  There is still snow on Sandia Mountain, so the chosen adventure was located at Piedra Lisa Canyon in the foothills on the West side of the mountain.  Elevation was between 6000 and 7000 feet, low enough that the snow was long gone.  Besides, it is the East side of the mountain that gets more snow.

Fortunately no rattlesnakes were seen on this hike. We did see quite a few wooly caterpillars, though.

Piedra Lisa Canyon is an informal loop only 2.8 miles long.  This being my first mountain hike for the year, I wanted to keep it short while my body regains some of the conditioning it lost during the winter.  Richard, being 40 years younger, had no problem with the hike, but was a good enough sport to slow down and keep me in sight for most of the way.

Cholla cactus were in full bloom at the lower elevations.

This hike had an unexpected bonus – we did the first part again on Sunday.  Keep reading to find out why.

The Whitewash

Cholla were so prevalent at the foot of the mountain that it gave the impression of hiking through a cactus forest.

The big draw at Piedra Lisa Canyon is a sheer cliff of light-gray granite known as The Whitewash.  Most people head straight for the cliff, but we were following the instructions in 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles – Albuquerque, that had us approach The Whitewash from above.

Also known as a Desert Sparrow, this Black Throated Sparrow perched on a Cholla close enough for a recognizeable photo.

A pair of Curve-billed Thrashers were flitting about the boulders and brush, probably in the process of building a nest.

We started out on the Foothills Trail #365 going North.  The Foothills Trail is on the boundary between the city of Albuquerque and Sandia Mountain.  On the right, the mountain towered above us, while on the left we could see into people’s back yards.  Flowers were in bloom, but they were on Cholla Cactus, reminding one more of Christmas in the past than Spring in the future.

My thick Carhart dungarees protected my legs from cactus spines, and facilitated sliding down slippery granite.

This hike is rated as moderate to difficult, so I elected to leave my heavy long lens at home.  This was a good decision from the aspect of carrying gear up the mountain, but put a limitation on getting good wildlife pictures.  However, a Curve-billed Thrasher and Black-throated Sparrow did cooperate by perching close enough to allow a recognizable portrait to be taken.

The climb to the top was up an arroyo, and was a fairly steep 900 foot elevation gain.  It included several scrambles up steep slabs of granite.  This was a challenge for me because my hiking shoes tended to slip on the smooth rock surfaces.  While I don’t believe there was any real danger, a fall would have resulted in considerable bruising.  Richard loved it.  “This is the most fun hike we’ve been on!”, he enthused.

Here’s a series of photos of Richard scrambling up the boulders.  I followed him up the same path.  Click each photo to enlarge.


At the highest elevation of the hike, one has a wonderful overview of the Rio Grande valley.

At the top we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the city of Albuquerque.  Then the trail continued on toward another arroyo and the main attraction – The Whitewash.



The canyon above The Whitewash is full of boulders to be navigated.

The approach to The Whitewash from above is down the canyon.  There is not much of a trail as seasonal water washes away any trails that are made.  It would be an awesome sight right after a mountain thunderstorm, but I would want to be up on the mountain and not in the canyon as the flash flood roared by!



There are supposedly bolts set into the rock for rapelling down The Whitewash, but most people climb the canyon walls around it.

The descent is steep, but not especially difficult if one is careful, as I was.  My biggest worry was losing my footing on loose gravel or a slab of slippery granite.  “Piedra lisa” means “smooth stone” which becomes “slippery when wet”.  I walked through some water seeping into the sand then stepped onto a dry rock.  But the soles of my shoes were wet and “whump!” I was sitting down on the next step below!  Lesson learned — fortunately on an 18-inch drop and not 18 feet.



The Whitewash from below.

The Whitewash itself is impressive and looks impossible to climb up or down.  However, there are plenty of boulders to either side of the granite slab and the descent is not as impossible as it seems at first.  We met many people climbing up The Whitewash as it is a popular destination and not far from the parking lot.


The Battle of Piedra Lisa

A boulder left over from the battle.

Stacked boulders ready for hurling at the defenders.

It is a little-known fact that after the fall of Mordor, when the trolls were expelled from Middle Earth, the trolls made an attempt to take over the middle Rio Grande valley.  Just after sunset the rocky invaders boiled out of Piedra Lisa Canyon.  Having been warned by the Sandia Dwarfs, noble Anasazi warriors gathered from all over the Southwest, opposing the invading trolls at Piedra Lisa.  The Elves Different marched down from Santa Fe to aid the Anasazi, but the battle was a close-run thing.  The Anasazi, elves, and dwarfs held off the trolls all night, but were on the verge of being overrun just before sunrise.  Sensing victory, the trolls mounted a massive charge, rolling over and crushing many of the last brave defenders.  However the trolls, not being the brightest of creatures, were caught in the open as the sun rose over Sandia Mountain.  Their massive bodies were turned to stone by the sunlight and evil was once again defeated!

Petrified skull of a Troll.

Today you can still see the massive skulls of petrified trolls on the mountain, along with remnants of fortifications and boulders the trolls used as weapons in their final charge.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Ruins of a defensive rampart.

The Case of the Missing iPhone

While still on the approach to The Whitewash, I made a little jump and reflexively put my hand to my belt to check on the iPhone I carry in a belt holster.  I use an Otterbox case for my phone, which I admit is ugly and bulky, but provides a great deal of protection.  Neither the phone nor the belt clip were there!  What could have happened?  I backtracked to the last little hop I had made, but there was no iPhone in sight.

Retracing our steps up the mountain.

I almost always carry my phone with me on hikes.  Usually there will be cell service to call for help if needed.  It seemed unlikely the holster had fallen off during the hike; I have a hard time getting it off my belt on purpose!  I had not used the phone during this hike, and I reasoned I had had a Senior Moment and simply forgot to put it on my belt.  It was probably in the car.

The phone was not in the car.  Probably I had simply forgotten to take it and the phone was sitting on the kitchen table.  Besides it was 5:30 and too late to retrace our steps; we did not want to be on the mountain after dark.

"I've got to climb that again!"

The phone was not in the house.  I know because the house has been turned inside out several times, as has the car and the garage.  Phone calls kept going to voicemail.  I left a message offering a reward to whoever found the phone and returned it.  It seemed time to apply Sherlock Holmes’ principle: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  The phone must be on the trail somewhere.

Sunday morning Richard and I retraced our steps of the day before.  Amazingly the parking lot was nearly full even early in the morning.  We met several people and their dogs as we climbed back up the arroyo.  It seemed unlikely the phone would be recovered; someone had probably already picked it up, and even if not, would we be able to see it?

A miracle happened.  Just over half way up the slope Richard found the phone, in its holster, lying in a patch of sand.

The missing iPhone is found! This is just the case; I was using the phone to take the picture.

Adventure Maps

Click here to see more photos of Piedra Lisa Canyon at EveryTrail.
EveryTrail – Find the best Hiking near Albuquerque, New Mexico

Elevation profile for the Piedra Lisa Canyon hike. The second peak is when we returned the next day to search for the lost cell phone and found it half way up the mountain.

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