Northern Crest Trail

Distance: Varies

Season: Spring and Fall

Water: No Water Available

Trail Conditions: Good to Excellent


Beginning from the Tunnel Springs Trail on the north end of the Sandias, the Crest Trail offers an excellent opportunity for views over the middle Rio Grande Valley and into the Jemez Mountains. For anyone who regularly makes the trip between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, this trail affords unique views over familiar territory, and in spring with cactus and other flowers blooming, it is a great way to bide your time before the high country opens.


Directions:

From Exit 242 on I-25, turn east NM-165. After 5 miles, turn right onto Tunnel Springs Road. After 1.5 miles, the dirt road dead ends at a parking lot in a stand of cottonwoods just after crossing the spring.


After about 100 feet from the trail head, you will cross a dry gulch and come to an unmarked junction with a rough trail that parallels the gulch headed up canyon. From this point, there are two options for the start of the hike:

The main trail, Crest Trail – #130, heads straight and slowly winds its way through small side canyons before meandering switchbacks eventually wrap around back into the canyon where the trail begins. The other option, the short cut, takes less than a mile to reach that same point. By taking the significantly steeper shortcut, you will save about 2.3 miles, one way.

On this trip (and my general recommendation), we took the short cut on the way up and took the main trail on the way back. For people who prefer saving their knees by going up steeper slopes and down shallower slopes, this is the better option, and because the main trail can be excruciatingly long, taking the shortcut in at least one direction is recommended.

Taking the short cut, the trail because more packed down after 100 feet. It is narrow for the entirety, but easy to follow. After about 1/3 of a mile, there is a small split in the trail. The left fork is the trail, but the right fork leads to a shuttered mine that is worth the short side trip.

Once back on the main shortcut trail, follow it as it climbs steeply up the canyon. As you hike along, you will be able to see the large rock band above you. The shortcut rejoins the main trail at the base of this feature. Also, be sure to take in the views behind you. In addition to vistas over Placitas, you should be able to see the Rio Grande Valley and the mesas leading into the Jemez Mountains.

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Looking north over Placitas and into the Jemez

Just before reaching the main trail, the shortcut trail begins switchbacking. You may eventually see another fork in the trail. Either one will quickly lead to the main trail.

Once you’ve reached the main trail, turn right. You will soon cross over the drainage you should climbed up as the trail heads west from there towards the edge of the rim. After about 10 minutes, you’ll reach the first of a handful of overlooks that offer views of the higher ridges of the Sandias, the Sandia Pueblo and north Albuquerque. If you turn back here and take the main trail back, this will be about 4.5 miles.

To continue follow the trail, which will then leave the edge of the rim and continue to wind through the pinyon forest. Compared to the first part of the trail, the pinyon pines here are taller and should provide a fair amount of shade. There are occasional views, but for the most part, this is a pleasant forested walk.

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Blooming Claret Cup

 

Eventually, the trail switchbacks back towards the ridge although the grade remains modest throughout. It eventually returns to the rim once again for another, similar view but with a couple hundred more feet. As you take in these views, take note of all the undeveloped open space on the various Pueblo lands. If not under the authority of these Pueblos, it would be easy to imagine the sprawl from Albuquerque and Rio Rancho consuming this entire valley.

Once again, this overlook could make a good turn around point for a roundtrip distance of roughly 6.5 miles, but to keep going, follow the trail as it leaves the ridge once again.

After about .5 miles, gambel oak becomes the dominate vegetation, overtaking the pinyon pine that had characterized the trail until now. Soon after the trail becomes a tunnel of oak, you will reach a junction with the Penasco Blanco Trail – Trail #334.

From this junction, you get new views looking south further in the Sandias. This is another potential turn around point, making a roundtrip distance of about 9 miles.

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In early May, the gambel oak had yet to leaf out

But to keep going, turn right to continue to follow the Crest Trail as it returns towards the rim once again. At this point, the scrub oak trees become thick, and if you’re not wearing pants, you may very well wish you were. As the trail slowly climbs toward the rim, it will head north, but as soon as it meets the rim, it switchbacks to the south and follows the rim, continuing to climb.

The views only get better from here, but looking back north, take note of the striated rock bands, a defining feature of the Sandia Mountains. Although the Crest Trail continues south for another 20 miles to the Canyon Estates Trailhead, the Del Agua Overlook is probably the last best turnaround point for a day hike. Enjoy the views before returning the way you came.

Upon reaching the junction of the main trail and the shortcut, to stay on the main trail, continue straight following under the small cliff band. The trail follows the cliff for about .5 miles before wrapping around to the east and slowly making its way downhill through the scrub pinyon/juniper forest.

Lookout for horned toads and blooming cactus throughout this section.

Eventually the trail traverses above a small slot canyon before winding in and out of small side canyons. At this point, you should be able to see houses, but don’t be fooled as this section of trail can drag a bit. You know you are close to the trailhead when you can see the cottonwood trees whose growth is made possible by Tunnel Spring.

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