Friday, June 15, 2012

Hiking: Fourth 10-mile report - South Crest and CCC Trails (Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains)

Starting off on the South Crest Trail
A year ago, when I first started hiking, planning a two-mile hike into the woods would have made me nervous. But yesterday I hiked 10 miles through the Sandia Mountain Wilderness in the Cibola National Forest - with a 3,000-foot elevation gain - to nearly reach the mountain's South Peak Summit.

This was my fourth 10-mile trek since I started this mission in November 2011, and it was by far the most difficult. Besides the distance and elevation gain, my weight - at 270 pounds - also added to the difficulty. (Going up wasn't so bad, but coming down I felt like I was carrying another person on my back.)

I started out on the South Crest Trail at 8:15, just after arriving at the Canyon Estates Trail Head, located just off Interstate 40 in Tijeras, New Mexico. The South Crest Trail is a through trail that starts in Tijeras and winds the entire length of Sandia's Crest to reach Placitas some 26 miles later. The trail begins by climbing steadily through the densest forest I've seen since I began hiking the Sandias in January.

Trail markings on the South Crest Trail
Located on the mountain's lush eastern slope, the trail for the first two miles follows several switchbacks that take you up through Hondo Canyon. Early on, the trail passes by the Travertine Falls, a nice fresh water feature - not to be confused with the amazing falls of the same name in Arizona.

At this lower section, I encountered two pairs of hikers, apparently enjoying a quick hike to the falls and back; They had no packs with them and didn't even appear to be carrying water. These were the last hikers I would encounter for a very long while.

En route to the Sandia's South Summit
At about the one-mile mark, the South Crest Trail passes the junction with the Faulty Trail, which rises quickly to the north. After another mile, the South Crest Trail reaches a clearing where the Upper Faulty Trail and CCC Trail head off to the north and west, respectively.

The CCC Trail is a very steep trail that my guide book recommends taking down from the crest, which I did (more on that later).

Just after passing the Upper Faulty Trail spur, the South Crest Trail makes a big loop around to the south, with sweeping views of Tijeras Canyon and the Manzanita Mountains. Then it heads back to the north again, where it follows the ridge line for a while, featuring even more amazing views of an unnamed wide canyon below.

My lunch spot
Two switchbacks from the ridge line took me into some very interesting terrain. It was a mix of desert with lush forest, dotted by large pines and reddish brown stones. After the switchbacks, the trail follows the ridge line for some distance.

The views from the approximate four-mile mark are breathtaking, so I decided this would be a good place to stop and have some lunch. I took a small spur trail to the rock face and found a nice spot on a rock overlooking the canyon and enjoyed the cool breezes flowing up from the canyon.

Looking out at the expanse of mountains to the west and the city of Albuquerque in the distance, I recognized the canyon below as being the place where I had hiked the Three Gun Springs Trail two times this spring while waiting for snow to melt at these upper elevations. I remembered being impressed at how much higher those rock faces were than the ridge those shorter five-mile hikes in the foothills. Now, as I was standing there on the precipice some 1,000 feet higher than I'd ever climbed before, I was elated, and a swell of accomplishment came over me.

About 20 minutes of rest, some food and hydration is all I needed to regain some energy. Then, I decided it was time to get going again.

The lush variety of Sandia's plant life is surprising
Once back on the main trail, I trekked on another half mile or so and soon came into an entirely different type of landscape. This one was dense with scrub trees - I think scrub oak mostly - and was dotted with only some pine bushes, juniper perhaps, and some smaller trees. The trail in this section was spectacular, as it was lined with five or six types of wildflowers and had sweeping views of a huge valley to the south and the Ortiz Mountains to the north and west.

This section of about a mile or two was listed on my map as moderate hiking, but it was pretty challenging due to the narrow width of the overgrown path. Beyond this stretch, though, things leveled out for a while as I reached what seemed to be a plateau at the top of the mountain. This gentle plateau led me to Deer Pass and the junction of the South Crest and Embudito trails.

I wanted to continue hiking to the summit at this point, but I surmised that this could add as much as two miles to my hike, and my legs were already feeling the burn! Besides, my planned route down along the CCC Trail made me a bit anxious. The grade on that trail, and the fact that it was a historic, non-maintained route, made me think I needed to have my wits and my strength about me in case I should run into any problems on the way down. In hindsight, I'm VERY glad I made this decision.

Winding toward Sandia's South Summit
I continued on just about another minute until I saw the CCC Trail. I wouldn't have noticed it if it weren't so well described in my guide book (The Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide). The trail actually had some timber lain at the entrance - a brush in.

I have never crossed a brush-in before; I typically stick only to official and maintained trails because I figure whoever did the brush-in had a reason, probably to remediate some problem like erosion or because it is in some way unsuitable for hiking. But since the CCC Trail was listed in the guide book and listed on the map I was using, though, I figured it would be okay. Besides, I have a fondness for the Civilian Conservation Corps and have taken many CCC trails before, in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The top of Sandia reminds me of forests back east
Just over a crest to the east, the CCC Trail begins an unrelenting descent. I estimate that the grade was between 20 and 30 percent for much of this two mile section of trail. There was quite a bit of erosion, with loose rocks being the typical trail surface for at least 80 percent of its length. The CCC trail often built trails by placing small rocks and boulders along the route. This works great when the soil is sturdy enough to keep these rocks in place. But in the dry climate of the southwest, the soil over time has allowed this trail to deteriorate.

The CCC Trail is definitely a dangerous hike, and I would not recommend it for anyone who is a novice. In fact, I doubt I will ever take it again. By the time I reached the bottom of it and reconnected with the South Crest Trail for the final two miles of my descent, I felt totally and utterly spent.

I took several breaks in that last portion and found myself having to convince myself to keep going. I really just wanted to take a nap - but from experience I learned that this is a cue to drink more water. So I downed a half liter each time these thoughts entered my mind and I was given extra bursts of energy which allowed me to reach the end of the trail safe and sound.

This 10-mile hike took me about 7.25 hours. I started at 8:15 a.m. and plopped into my truck at just after 3:30 p.m. I took several breaks along the way, but I guess I was hiking for at least 6.25 hours in total. I'm so glad to have finally accomplished this amazing hike! As I look to complete my fifth and final 10-miler before then beginning to plan my capstone 20-mile hike, I'm not sure if I'll look for something easier or just something different. I'll be posting more on that in the coming week.

One thing I know for sure is I need to lose some weight before doing the 20-mile hike. I'm going to focus more on weight loss in the coming weeks so I can get back down to 255 by the end of August. I'll plan to do the 20-mile hike once I reach that goal.


  1. Brian!
    Another excellent post! I am so proud of you! Years ago I backpacked near Lake Chelan in Washington and was so surprised at the different types of landscapes I came across...and the wildlife! I'm glad you kept going and had the presence of mind to drink more water and made it back to your truck safely!
    What a fantastic journey Brian...thank you for taking us along!


  2. Thanks Laina! I'm so glad you're getting back into hiking. It'll be great to meet one day out on the trail!

  3. Brian -this is a great post and very inspiring. I too am hoping to do a lot more hiking in my life and to work up to exploring new places. Thanks for sharing your story.