Snow lingering on the snow-fringed plateau below S. Sandia peak.
Albuquerque, NM  (March-April 2015)  

South Sandia Peak
Albuquerque’s South Sandia Peak is rapidly becoming my favorite big hike in the SW. Prior to this year, we’d only made the effort twice. Each time it was a finale event for that year’s stay in Albuquerque and each time it was a struggle. 

In 2013, the fun of the first assault withered as we wandered too long in the dense scrub oak on the windy plateau looking for the final bit of trail to the summit. Last year, Bill had inadvertently run too short on his salt and water intake, which compounded his altitude issues, and made the hike an almost impossible ordeal for him. This year however,  we knew the route, Bill was tip-top, and we reveled in the trail’s enchanting features.

Unlike a number of peaks we’ve summited, the S. Sandia Peak route is both a splendid journey and a satisfying destination. It’s a fascinating route to the top through ever-changing vegetation, rock formations, and perspectives. The final approach to the peak has a wonderful sense of place because its open plateau adds foreground interest to the big panoramas along the way. And once at this welcoming plateau, it is just a little farther to the summit. 

Even though it’s always ferociously windy at the almost 9800’ terminus, we now know that we can take refuge in a small sinkhole nearly filled with a stand of stubby aspens. It provides welcome shelter that is rare on peaks and is a hide-away reminiscent of a child’s fort. We are all smiles when sitting there in comfort while we eat and reflect upon the day’s journey.

Picnicking on the rim of the snow-filled sinkhole.
And who would have thought? I was stunned to see how much more we enjoyed the experience at the top of S. Sandia Peak in our new-for-2015 jackets than when previously there in layered garments. In the fall, we’d caught great sales on Patagonia Nano Puff jackets, which are highly compressible and only weigh 10 ounces. 

A couple of years ago I had noticed that the quilted jackets were an obligatory part of the 30-something rock climbing set’s costume. Since even I was choking on the regular price of $200 for those little things, I figured that they must really be special if all of the “kids” had them. My first wearing on a cold, windy day at Yellowstone convinced me that they were worth every penny (at least at the discounted price) and Bill grabbed one for himself during the next sale.

Protected from S. Sandia’s always brutal winds in our new jackets, we could actually linger on the peak after exiting our sinkhole picnic den. Instead of hunkering down and rushing off the top, we strolled about noting that the views on the way down to the plateau were even better than those on the way up from it. On our 2nd visit to the top in 2015, we even spotted pink versions of the Green-Flowered Fishhook cactus and with further exploring, discovered about a dozen of them in bloom. We would never have noticed the little spiny balls without the relaxed mood created by the cozy warmth of our new “Nanos”.

Bill early in the descent in his new "Nano."
A little reading explained my fascination with my favorite hike in the SW: the Sandia’s on which we trod have 3 of the 7 ecosystem life zones that are found in North America. Our starting point of around 6,000’ has the dense, complex mix of the Sonoran Desert vegetation that we always enjoy when hiking around Tucson. The base of the Sandia’s have the upper range of the Sonoran Desert plants of which the cactus, pinion junipers, gray oak, and box elder are the most distinctive.

As we go higher, the vegetation transitions to low forests of ponderosa pine, Gambel or scrub oak, and pinion. And higher yet, Douglas fir, white fir, and aspens are added to the mix and amazingly, the Fishhook cacti. The changing vegetation is against a backdrop of granite boulders in the lower and midsections of the route and then terraces of limestone are prominent higher up. We get tired, but we never get bored on this trail.

Hiking for hours can be tedious and we make a habit of being fascinated for as much of the time as possible and fortunately, it’s easy to be fascinated on the S. Sandia route. Fascination morphed into delight and amazement when we spotted the Wood Betony in bloom around 8000’ on our first trip up of the season. 

It is a plant we had previously seen around the same elevation near Flagstaff in 2012 on our way to Elden Lookout. At that time, we admired the plant but were unable to give it a name. Then, when on a granite formation in the Brenta Dolomites in 2013, we spotted what seemed to be the same flower, which we identified as a Kerner’s Lousewort. Using the botanical name for the European flower, we were finally able to give the Flagstaff plant a label. And what a surprise to spot it again in Albuquerque.

It’s rare for us to see these 2 members of the Pedicularis genus because they only grow in granitic soils. And at least in our experience, they favor the thin air because we only spot them in small patches above 8000’. They are a spring flower in the US but a summer bloomer in the Alps. These flowers have provided a fun bit of continuity between our hiking in the US and Europe and feel like trophy finds on any trail.

Wood Betony & their European cousins, Kerner's Lousewort, are so distinctive.
We made the journey to the peak 4 weeks in a row in 2015 and always looked forward to re-examining the Wood Betonys. More patches appeared each week, though still only in a very small area on the trail, which was also the case at the other 2 sites where we’d seen them. And finally, one patch had the 2” tall flower stalk shown in field guides instead of the flush-to-the-ground form that we had always seen.
Spring Training Camp: Albuquerque Journeys (formerly “Central”) KOA
Albuquerque was 1 of 2 long-stay locations on our winter route for 2014-15. Like with Palm Springs, it was the combination of predominately sunny, dry weather; readily accessible, steep trails; nearby markets; and a suitable RV park that coaxed us to stay. The bonus at Albuquerque was seeing our primary destination, S. Sandia Peak, from our dinette window.

KOA’s aren’t favorites for us, largely because they are expensive. But last year we learned about the monthly rate at Albuquerque, which was sweet at under $20/night, less than half of their daily rate. The ambiance could be better, as in farther from the freeway noise, but it was a good compromise. A thirty minute walking radius of the KOA included a Costco and 2 major supermarkets. A 10 minute drive landed us at Trader Joe’s or our favorite 2 trailheads. "Location, location, location" makes up for a lot.

Like during our long-stay at Palm Springs this winter, we emphasized a walking lifestyle while in Albuquerque instead of searching for distant, new hiking venues. Once we applied ourselves at our latest encampment, we quickly found the 3 markets and 3 rather meager parks also within walking distance.  On our rest days, we could picnic in a park during our walk to buy groceries. 

One park was on a plateau above an unusually deep, broad arroyo which provided us with a steep dirt trail for alternately running uphill for 90 seconds and then walking back down. Last summer we discovered that these hill workouts, or intervals, were dandy CV training but without the usual stresses and strains of continuous running. 

A pink version of the Green-Flowered Fishhook cactus at 9600'.
Because of Albuquerque's 5,500’ elevation and a bout of persistent asthma for me, we temporarily abandoned our weekly long run and settled for 2 short runs a week. We’d run uphill only when doing the intervals and downhill only on another day after a 40 minute speed hike up a favorite trail. Letting the local terrain shape our workout routines injected welcome variety into it.

Unfortunately, a bicycle chop-shop crime gang had moved into our Palm Springs RV park neighborhood this year which resulted in us doing very little biking while there. Shoe-horning the bikes into the backseat of our truck was the only way to keep them safe, which was a deterrent to riding. But the Albuquerque KOA was still a low risk site, so the bikes were stored in the open air, which invited weekly rides. Being on the edge of town, it was safe and easy to bike up into the hills on Historic Route 66 for  30-40 mile rides. (Unfortunately a significant bike theft half way through our stay in Albuquerque relegated the bikes back into the truck.)

With the ready access to bike routes, trailheads, and markets, we quickly settled into a welcome, minimal-driving routine in Albuquerque. A hike to the top of S. Sandia Peak kept our weekly big hike program going; a once a week bike ride tuned me up for cyclotouring in the Dolomites in the summer; hill workouts in the arroyo gave our CV training a good pop; and speed hiking up 1200’ and jogging down on another nearby favorite trail rounded out the routine. That left 3 days each week for walking to the markets and picnicking off the grounds. A bit rigid, but who cares for only 4 weeks out of the year.

The view just below where we spotted the blooming cactus.
The month-long stay with 3 relative rest days per week built-in to the schedule not only pleased the lazy parts of our beings but it gave us hours of catch-up time to do projects like our photo albums, European trip planning, and following through on low priority chores that kept falling to the bottom of the list. It’s hard to get to those necessary chores when we are on the road every day and we looked forward to returning home in May with our “A List” completed for the first time.

The Right Place At The Right Time
Only when we were more than half way through our month-long stay in Albuquerque did we realize that we were at the right place, at the right time, and were doing the right activities to witness unfamiliar aspects of the fast paced changes of spring.

We’d only hiked to the top of S. Sandia Peak once per stay during our previous 2 visits to Albuquerque whereas this year we were making the trek weekly. Unexpectedly, it was the vegetation changes over the last thousand feet to the almost 9800’ peak that were the most startling. Last year, we’d made a weekly hike to Oso Pass at about 8200’ on the same trail, but that just wasn’t high enough to see the more stunning, early transitions.

The first week, it was a bit treacherous walking across the several stretches of snowy trail and we were snowed-out of our sheltered picnic spot at the peak. The second week we could walk around almost all of the snow and our sinkhole lunch spot was available. The 3rd week, the bit of snow remaining on the trail was but a novelty. And by  the 4th week, the nearby sun-sheltered faces were nearly free of snow.

The first week to the peak we didn’t notice the softball-sized Fishhook cacti at all and in hindsight, wondered if they had still been recovering from the recent recession of the snow. The following week we were delighted both to spot the cacti and some with blooms. And the 3rd week, almost all of these cacti that we were seeing in the 9100-9500’ level were in bloom. On the 4th week, the blooms were either fading or were partially closed because of the overcast. Oddly, none of the many other cacti from the trailhead on up were yet in bloom.

Now, those were the days....
In addition to the lovely cacti blooms, on Week 3, there was the bonus pair of delicate purple blooms.  Too bad I didn’t get a photo of the similar white flowers I’d seen the week before because they were completely gone by Week 3.

Lower down, I’d admired a thistle-like plant on Week 2. The thorny leaves looked so young and tender that I imagined making a soup or salad with them.  The following week, many of the same plants were sporting multiple, giant buds and the leaves were looking mean and tough as though they would growl if touched. It even seemed that the buds had enlarged over the course of our 5 hour round trip from their elevation. 

When making our weekly bike ride out of town on Route 66, there were unexpected spring-related transitions to be seen too. Our first week, the most conspicuous cargo in pick-up truck beds and open trailers was the yard trimmings destined for the transfer station on our route. Then it was lumber and supplies for small home improvement projects that were heading out of town on the following Sunday morning. The 3rd week it looked like there was a big sale on nursery items because there were a dozen or so drivers hauling shrubs or small trees out of town. And on the 4th week it was the women cyclists who had been conspicuous in their absence that suddenly were taking their places on the roads.

At last, the snow receded from our sinkhole lunch spot on the peak.
And just like wondering what flag dropped that suddenly had landscaping materials on the move, we had to wonder if there was an old car buff extravaganza in town because of the many collector autos that were appearing on Rt 66. There was an assortment of old cars and trucks out showing their stuff but it was the 2 cars and a travel trailer with fins that turned our heads the most.

Never Perfect
Fortunately, we’re never in search of perfection and spring in Albuquerque this year was accompanied by massive amounts of pollen and wind, a wicked combination.  The pollen count reached a score of 11.70 out of a possible 12 on our weather app one day and my usually nuisance-level asthma all but flattened me then. 

I’d completed running our intervals on the arroyo with minor but noticeable breathing difficulty; we ate our picnic lunch in the adjacent park; and then the wind gusts hit. A few steps into our 20 minute walk home, and I knew I was in trouble with asthma. By the time we reached the camper, standing was exhausting and I resigned myself to slouching on our dinette. Bill was bothered more by hay fever than I was, but lucky neither of us got very far up the runny nose/itchy eyes misery scale.

The winds in Albuquerque were much worse this year than in 2014, which was a nuisance. The weekly forecast often displayed 30-35 mph winds on multiple days and gusts in the 40’s and 50’s appeared on the special alerts.  Most nights our camper seemed to be well aligned with the wind but on the couple of nights that it wasn’t, I lost a lot of sleep due to the rocking and rolling with the gusts. It was both the movement and noise that disrupted my slumber though ear plugs helped a bit. And on one Sunday, we had to pedal the entire way down an 1800’ descent because of the early arrival of fierce headwinds.

What a find around 9,100' after the snow was gone.
We checked our weather apps multiple times a day while in Albuquerque and Bill signed us up for mobile alerts so as to know about sudden changes in the forecast and to aid in picking the best days for our 2 weekly big events. Most days the weather folks got it right but on other days, they were very, very wrong. We were lucky however, we never were caught high on the mountain the several days when some very nasty weather systems rolled through totally off script.

In addition to being encumbered by high winds and high pollen, we both again got caught in Albuquerque with our sodium levels down. It’s an annual SW hazard for us. Luckily I identified the issue in myself before I got to the headache and dizzy stage; this time I figured it out when I was feeling a little “off” for 3 days and then noticed that my typo rate skyrocketed. Bill however, gets no such early warning shots and only knows that something is amiss when he tanks on the trail. It takes the stress of exertion combined with low sodium intake totally sapping his energy for him to know he has a problem. As a result, rather than dealing with typos, he struggled for several hours on the way to S. Sandia Peak one day. 

Heading Home, Slowly
Fifteen hundred miles from Albuquerque to home: we know people who drive that distance in 2 days. With our low tolerance for driving however, it’s at least a 10 day trip. And with allowances for a day for a repair appointment for our camper and wanting the last day to be short, the travel time was rounded up to 2 weeks for planning purposes. And then this year another week was added to allow for several hiking and maybe, biking, days on the way home. Suddenly our trip home from the SW was budgeted to be longer than most people’s vacations. A little embarrassed, we shrugged our shoulders and set-off knowing that it was the right tempo for our wellness-focused priorities.

And it was during that journey home that we realized how lucky we were with our so-so weather in Albuquerque: day after day throughout the month of May we received alerts about record-breaking rainfall, flash floods, hail storms, and a tornado. Yikes!