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.
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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.

Sulphur Spring – Bill Spring

Richard and I went to the east side of Sandia Mountain for a short Saturday afternoon hike. Our destination this time was a loop consisting of the Sulphur Spring Trail, connecting to the Faulty Trail, and returning by way of Bill Spring Trail.

Sulphur Canyon trailhead

From the parking area, Sulphur Canyon Trail begins a steady ascent to its terminus at the junction with Faulty Trail. Restrooms are located here at the trailhead.

Grassy Trail

Sulphur Canyon Trail begins with a pleasant walk through a grassy area.

Rose Hips

A summer thunderstorm had just passed through the area, leaving moisture on the foliage.

It was a rainy day. However, Weather Bug was reporting no precipitation on Sandia Crest, so we decided to take a chance. Despite some rain showers during the drive to the east side, it was not raining when we arrived at the Sulphur Canyon trailhead. the rain had obviously just stopped, as the foliage was still wet.

Wooded Trail

The trail soon changed from a grassy meadow to woodlands, as the elevation increased.

Faulty Trail Intersection

The Sulphur Spring Trail ends at the intersection with Faulty Trail. What appeared to be the obvious path was blocked by a pile of brush. A little bit of scouting around was necessary to find this trail marker around a corner, hidden by bushes.

View from Faulty Trail looking South

Faulty Trail follows a ridge, with comparatively little elevation change along its whole length. Through breaks in the trees, one can see the high plains.

After our encounters the week before with bears and rattlesnakes on the Armijo Trail, Richard was concerned about meeting up with more bears.  The warning sign at the trailhead didn’t help, and I’m afraid I added to the anxiety level by pointing out that our trail would intersect the Oso Corredor Trail for a short distance.  Oso Corredor is Spanish for Bear Corridor.

Unlike the previous week, we saw almost no wildlife.  An Abert’s Squirrel was peeking at us from up a Ponderosa Pine as we started the hike, but that was the extent of wildlife.

Juniper berries

I find that I am very allergic to Juniper pollen. Junipers pollinate on the wind (no bees required), and for me it's a good idea to stay off the mountain while they are pollinating. The resulting berries look pretty, though.

Checking GPS

Faulty Trail winds its way along a ridge through Ponderosa forest. I had loaded the route into our GPS units before the hike. Here Richard is checking his coordinates.

Uplifted rock layers near Bill Spring

Sandia Mountain experienced some serious gelogical uplift. Here is an example of some uplifted rock layers next to the Bill Spring Trail.

Sulphur Spring is located near the trailhead.  From there the trail begins a steady climb of about 300 feet to the intersection with Faulty Trail.  Faulty Trail is an interior trail — it does not directly connect to trailheads and is used a lot for connecting between other trails.  We used it to connect to Bill Spring Trail.

Near the connection to Bill Spring Trail was a connection to Oso Corredor Trail. This was the highest point on the trail, at about 7800 feet, about 600 feet above the trailhead. At the Bill Spring Trail intersection, the trail takes a switchback and begins a descent, parallel to the Faulty trail we had just traversed.

Small spring along Bill Spring Trail

A small stream tumbles along beside Bill Spring Trail. Bill Spring itself is not signed, so I'm not certain this is Bill Spring, but it is at least close to this location.

Wolf Spring Trail sign

It's possible to take a shortcut along the Wolf Spring trail from the Doc Long picnic area to the Sulphur Spring parking area. We just followed the paved trail to the Crest highway and turned the corner to get to our car. Note the bear warning posted on the trail sign.

Bill Spring Trail took us to the Doc Long picnic area.  Probably due to the wet weather, we saw no picnickers.  We walked all the way through the picnic area to the Crest Highway, then walked around the corner to the Sulphur Canyon trailhead.

Sulphur Spring - Bill Spring Elevation Profile

Here's the elevation profile for this hike. After returning to the car, I walked up to the restrooms located at the Sulphur Spring trailhead. This accounts for the elevation difference between the beginning and ending of the hike.

More pictures of this hike, with photos geolocated to where they were taken, are available at Sulphur Spring – Bill Spring Loop at EveryTrail. Roll your mouse over the pins on the map below to get a thumbnail of the photos.

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Armijo Trail

There was a profusion of wildflowers along the Armijo Trail.

Armijo Trail is a little over two miles long, located on the eastern slope of the Sandias.  Richard and I made the hike on a warm Saturday afternoon.  We turned it into a loop by taking the Faulty Trail north to the Cienega Trail and returning to the parking lot on Cienega and the access road.  This trail was about the same length as the Cienega Trail we had hiked the week before, but the elevation change was much less.

Armijo Trail begins on an old paved road.

Armijo Trail starts with a walk down an old paved road.  It’s amazing how narrow roads used to be.  We are used to wide expanses of concrete and asphalt, but this was just a narrow ribbon of tar-and-gravel.  Two lanes, if one can judge by the double yellow stripe down the middle.  I’ve been on old stretches of US 66 in Oklahoma, with the same narrow feel, especially compared to the Interstate that is sometimes only feet away.

Note the stonework on this path to an old abandoned picnic area.

This particular road led to a loop around a picnic area.  Back then they used natural materials in the area for building.  The stone wall looks good even after the area has not been used for years.  Today I’m sure the retaining wall would have been built of concrete.  Much faster, perhaps stronger, but not nearly as aesthetic.

Wildflowers along the Armijo Trail.

One highlight of this hike was the profusion of wildflowers.  We found flowers blooming all along the trail, in sunny meadows, in shady areas, in the woods.  I may come back and edit this post and label the wildflower pictures, once I figure out what they are.

The greatest highlight of this hike was the wildlife.  It started slowly, but built to a climax, as any good adventure should. (Click the thumbnails to see a larger photo.)

A beautiful butterfly was fluttering around.  He was obliging enough to stay still for a second – long enough for me to snap his picture.

Later in the hike Richard saw a suspiciously fluttering dry leaf.  It turned out to be a cleverly camouflaged moth.

Just minutes after this picture was taken, we met horseback riders coming up this hill.

While not exactly wildlife, we met a couple horses (with riders) coming up a hill we were descending.  In the woods, the smaller life forms scurry out of the way of the larger ones.  We scurried!

Coming down a Ponderosa Pine right in front of our eyes was a gorgeous Abert’s Squirrel! these are large squirrels, with a huge fluffy tail. The body is dark gray, and the tail has two stripes that are light gray, almost white. The Abert’s is about the size of a skunk, and with the striped tail, I initially thought that’s what it was. We saw several of these in the trees and running along the ground. Beautiful!

The bear was scrambling up the slope when one of his paws slipped, creating these gouges from the claws.

“Dad, there!” … “Where?” … “No, BEAR!”.  Richard got a good look, but I was further back on the trail and only saw a bear-shaped shadow moving away through the woods.  I was all for trying to get closer for a picture, but Richard convinced me of the folly of that idea.  Later, I saw what I am sure were bear tracks beside a spring, and sign that a bear had been digging for grubs.

He was leisurely crossing the trail until he got upset that I was taking his picture.

Rattler became camera shy!

“Dad, come here.  There’s a snake crossing the trail!”  Sure enough, a large Hopi rattlesnake was slowly making his way across the trail and under a couple logs.  I was snapping away when suddenly he got camera-shy and JUMPED!  He is coiled up, hissing, rattle blazing away, head in a strike posture!  We jumped, too, almost as fast as the snake!  I got a couple photos (using the zoom, of course), before we left, not wanting him to get more upset. :)

These neotropical bird monitoring stations were all along the Armijo Trail.

I’m pretty sure I saw a Townsend’s Solitaire up over my head.  He was sitting on a branch.  No photo as I don’t have a telephoto lens suitable for taking bird pictures.

Note the travertine limestone deposits around this pool. At first I thought this was Torro Spring, but Torro Spring is actually further up the mountain.

Close to the junction of Armijo and Faulty trails we found a pool with lots of travertine deposits.  We were actually looking for Torro Spring.  This looked like it might be it, but according to the trail map Torro Spring was about a quarter mile further on.  Sure enough, more exploration showed water uphill, so the spring itself could not be in the pool.

Torro Spring pool, seen from uphill.

Torro Spring, up on Sandia Mountain, feeds this pool.

The stream feeding the pool disappeared, but I continued to follow the GPS to the coordinates of Torro Spring.  The extra trek paid off, as we found a beautiful forest pool.  Torro Spring was a little was uphill, as evidenced by the stream feeding the pool.  As I was following the stream to its source, I saw the bear tracks.  Leaving off playing Dr. Livingstone, we returned to the trail for the trip back.

At lower elevations the Armijo Trail passed through meadows, but at the figher elevations the trail was mostly wooded.

We followed the Faulty Trail to the north.  There were no encounters with bears, snakes, or mountain lions.  At the junction with the Cienega Trail, we made the descent down to the Cienega picnic area and followed the road back to the car.  Along the way I took a detour along the Cienega Nature Trail.  This is a short paved trail beside the Cienega Meadow.  It is designed for blind people to be able to appreciate.  The signs are in Braille, and most describe aspects of the stop that can be sensed with sound and touch.

More pictures, geotagged with the location they were taken, can be seen at Armijo Trail Loop at EveryTrail

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Elevation Plot for Armijo Trail Loop

Cienega Trail

Cienega means "wet meadow" in Spanish. This one is located just down hill from the Cienega Trail parking area.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon as Richard and I drove to the east side of Sandia Mountain for a hike on the Cienega Trail. This hike is rated as moderate. It is not too long, about 2.2 miles one way, but it is a steady uphill climb of about 1,720 feet.

The quintessential "bubbling brook", this mountain stream flows beside the Cienega Trail. Though classified as intermittent, there was water flowing on the day of our hike.

The Cienega Trail parking area is part of the National Fee Project, and normally requires a $3.00 day use fee.  However, this weekend the fees were waived, a pleasant surprise.  Probably due to the fee waiver, there were many visitors in the area, and we snagged the last open parking spot.

Due to the large number of trees that have died due to insect damage, the Forest Service is making them available for firewood.

There are several picnic sites around the parking area, and all were full of families enjoying the outdoors.  We hiked a short way past the picnickers to the Cienega trailhead.  The path led us along a beautiful mountain stream.

The Cienega Trail starts out with a small grade that quickly picks up the slope. This large boulder is located near the start of the trail.

The Sandias are having a problem with insect infestation that has killed many trees.  The Forest Service is cleaning up the dead wood.  Our hike led us past stacks of firewood.  A Forest Service volunteer later told us that the firewood permit fees had been waived to expedite getting the wood out of the area.

Large areas of the more open woodland had these purple flowers.

We passed the intersection of the Cienega Trail with the Faulty Trail into an area containing high trees, with the stream still on our left.  The trail alternated between open areas with some grass and flowers and wooded sections.

This bee was buzzing from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollinating.

After passing the source of the stream, the trail became steeper, rockier, and more sparsely vegetated.  The trail followed the bank of a deep ravine for some ways.  After the meadow ended we entered what appeared to be a jungle, with the trail nearly overgrown.  This portion of the trail had many flowers.

This is the view from the termination of the Cienega Trail at the juncture with the Crest Trail. We are looking west, across the Rio Grande valley.

Just before the final push up the mountain, Richard’s daypack broke a strap.  He had to carry it on one strap for the rest of the hike.

Nice views greeted us as we reached the summit.  The Cienega Trail ends here, at the intersection with the Crest Trail.  We could see Corrales in the distance but without binoculars we could not pick out our house.

While there was sunshine on the crest, the downhill path on the eastern slope of the mountain was in shadow as the sun dropped below the mountain.

I went off looking for a geocache located at the crest.  Of course it was set up to access from the Crest Trail, so I ended up bushwhacking to get there.  I did finally find the geocache.  There are many geocaches hidden in the Sandias, but we did not take the time to hunt more than the one.

Indian Paintbrush was one of the many wildflowers found along the trail.

The trail down was almost as difficult as the trail up.  I did not want to risk a fall by hurrying, so it was hardly any faster going down hill than up.  My legs were very tired by the time we reached the trailhead.

The Cienega Trail was an "out-and-back" and we retraced our steps past the landmarks seen on the way up.

Leaving, we stopped at the meadow below the trail.  A Forest Service volunteer approached us, just checking up.  After introductions, we found he is the camp host further down hill.  He regaled us with stories of bears, including a couple that had tried to get into his travel trailer.  One night a bear was trying to get in the window, while the volunteer was rattling the shades trying to frighten the bear away.  Eventually he left the trailer in such haste he nearly forgot to put on his pants!  On another occasion a bear was trying to tip the trailer over.  Our volunteer thought it was funny, until it occurred to him what a disaster it would be if the bear succeeded.  A loud shout sent that bear back into the woods.

I took many more pictures on this hike than I included here. You can watch a slide show of these photos, georeferenced to the location they were taken, at this link:
Cienega Trail at EveryTrail

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Cienega Trail Elevation Profile

Sandia Crest Hike

The Sandia Crest Trail #130 is 3.25 miles round trip from the Crest to the Tram terminal, with an elevation change of 650 feet.

Saturday afternoon Richard and I drove up to the top of Sandia Mountain for a short hike along the Crest Trail, and perhaps some geocaches of opportunity.  It was a cloudy day; for much of the early afternoon the mountain was obscured by clouds and what appeared to be thundershowers.  However, the weather service was reporting cloudy skies — no rain — at the crest.  By mid-afternoon we could see the mountain top from the house, so off we went.

The road from the base of the mountain to Sandia Crest is 13 miles long and full of switchbacks like this one. Note that at this elevation we are above a cloud layer.

Richard is taking Driver’s Ed, and he had just gotten his Learner’s Permit a week earlier.  His first Controlled Driving lesson would be the the next day.  He was not comfortable driving on the freeway, but was excited to drive up the mountain.  Richard is a careful driver and went slowly.  I was not so much stressed out over his driving as by watching him stress out over all the switchbacks!

The valley to the west was covered by clouds, but to the east the valley floor was visible.

As we drove up about 3,00 – 4,000 feet, Richard commented that it would be fun to hike in the clouds we saw forming on the downhill side of the road.  His wish would be granted that day.

Visible from our house, Sandia Mountain presents an alpine habitat, very different from the riparian habitat of the Rio Grande valley, or the desert habitat further away from the river.

Elevation of Sandia Crest is 10,678 feet (3,255 m).  The entire Rio Grande valley was obscured by a cloud layer below us.  There was also a cloud layer above, lending a mystical aura to the woods. Mountain Chickadees were flitting through the trees.

During the winter the trail is used by cross-county skiers. Blue blazes mark the path.

Our objective was to hike down to the tram terminal and back.  We would also look for any geocaches along our route.  I had downloaded coordinates for geocaches in the area to my GPS unit before we left.  The Sandia peak area is popular for placing geocaches.  We saw there were several along the Crest Trail and we picked one to search for.

Below this limestone cliff, on the ledge, is supposed to be a geocache. Despite spending considerable time searching, we did not find it. Note the steep drop beyond the ledge, covered with fog.

Cresting a slight rise, we had our breath taken away by the sheer drop down the side of the mountain.  Gray clouds filled the unseen valley, but we knew the valley floor was 5,000 feet below.  20 feet down was a ledge — our GPS indicated the geocache was down there.

Carefully making the descent to the ledge — it was a good 10-15 feet wide, not dangerous but an adrenalin rush nevertheless — we spent quite some time hunting for the geocache.  The receiver and the clues said it should be right there, but the Force was not with us this day.  We eventually had to record a DNF (did not find).

Like something out of Lord of the Rings, tree roots seemed to be reaching out to grab the feet of unwary travelers.

In places the trail seemed to be paved with stones that had become jumbled by an earthquake.

A fence closes access to a mountain meadow so that it can regenerate after the stress of 300,000 visitors annually.

Mountain meadows are rare in the Sandias. The one along the Crest Trail was being worn out by 300,000 visitors per year. It is now closed to allow it to regenerate.

Trail leads to a mountain meadow. The meadow is closed to visitors to allow it to recover from overuse.

By this time it was after 7 PM, and I was worried about being caught in the woods after dark.  Abandoning the rest of the hike to the tram station, we turned around and started back up to the peak.  Not to worry, we made good time back to the trail head.

My birding skills have become rusty from disuse, but I'm pretty sure this is a Mountain Chickadee at lower center. (Click to enlarge.)

This little guy was scurrying about, but paused just long enough to get his portrait taken.

Shrouded in fog, the antenna farm at the top of Sandia Crest hosts transmitters for many Albuquerque area radio and TV stations.

Sandia Crest Hike at EveryTrail

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