Sandia Mountains

Coordinates: 35°12′32″N 106°26′49″W / 35.20889°N 106.44694°W / 35.20889; -106.44694
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Sandia Mountains
The Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande at sunset, looking southeast from Bernalillo
Highest point
PeakSandia Crest
Elevation10,678 ft (3,255 m)
Prominence4,201 ft (1,280 m) (crest)
Coordinates35°12′32″N 106°26′49″W / 35.20889°N 106.44694°W / 35.20889; -106.44694
Length17 mi (27 km) N-S
Width8 mi (13 km) E-W
Language of nameDził Nááyisí (Navajo)
Location of the Sandia Mountains within New Mexico
CountryUnited States
StateNew Mexico
Parent rangeSandia–Manzano Mountains
Borders onAlbuquerque, NM

The Sandia Mountains (Southern Tiwa: Posu gai hoo-oo, Keres: Tsepe, Navajo: Dził Nááyisí; Tewa: O:ku:p’į, Northern Tiwa: Kep’íanenemą; Towa: Kiutawe, Zuni: Chibiya Yalanne)[1] are a mountain range located in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, immediately to the east of the city of Albuquerque in New Mexico in the southwestern United States. The mountains are just due south of the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, and are part of the Sandia–Manzano Mountains. This is largely within the Cibola National Forest and protected as the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. The highest point is Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet (3,255 m).


Sandía means watermelon in Spanish,[2] and is popularly believed to be a reference to the reddish color of the mountains at sunset.[3] Also, when viewed from the west, the profile of the mountains is a long ridge, with a thin zone of green conifers near the top, suggesting the "rind" of the watermelon. However, as Robert Julyan notes,[4] "the most likely explanation is the one believed by the Sandia Indians: the Spaniards, when they encountered the Pueblo in 1540, called it Sandia, because they thought the squash gourds growing there were watermelons, and the name Sandia soon was transferred to the mountains east of the pueblo."

In Southern Tiwa, Posu gai hoo-oo means where water slides down arroyo.[5] Sandia Pueblo Indians, who are Tiwa speakers, sometimes call the mountain Bien Mur, "big mountain". In Tewa, O:ku:p’į means turtle mountain (oku, turtle; p’į, mountain). The Sandias are mentioned in pueblo mythology as a sacred mountain of the South of the Tewa.[6]

Layout and neighboring ranges[edit]

The Sandias are a small range, a part of the Basin and Range Province, but built by a different phenomenon known as rifting, consisting of a single north–south ridge, which rises to two major summits: Sandia Crest and South Sandia Peak, 9,702 ft (2,957 m). The range measures approximately 17 miles (27 km) north-south, and the width in the east–west direction varies from 4 to 8 miles (6.4 to 12.9 km). The west side of the range is steep and rugged, with a number of sheer rock walls and towers near Sandia Crest. The east side has a gentler slope.[7]

Sandia Crest from the west, with adjacent radio and TV towers

The Sandias are part of a single larger geologic unit, the Sandia–Manzano Mountains, which consists of two other parts: the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzano Mountains (both of which lie to the south of the Sandias). The Sandia mountains are separated from the Manzano mountains by the Manzanitas. One of the notable features in the Sandia mountains is Tijeras Canyon which leads to a historically important pass; the canyon is traversed by Interstate 40, following the route of historic U.S. Route 66.

The Sandias are the highest range in the immediate vicinity, and are well-separated from the higher Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This gives Sandia Crest a relatively high topographic prominence of 4,098 ft (1,249 m). Lying to the east and northeast of the Sandias are two smaller ranges, the Ortiz Mountains and the San Pedro Mountains.

The Sandia Mountains are home to the world's second longest tramway, Sandia Peak Tramway, which is 2.7 miles (4.3 km) long. Over this distance the tram cars ascend over 4,000 feet (1,200 m). The average speed of the tram car is 12 mph (19 km/h), and the length of the ride is approximately 15 minutes.[citation needed]


Climate data for Sandia Crest, New Mexico (elevation 10690 ft; 1953–1979)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 48
Mean daily maximum °F (°C) 26.8
Mean daily minimum °F (°C) 13.1
Record low °F (°C) −15
Average precipitation inches (mm) 1.96
Average snowfall inches (cm) 19.3
Source: Western Regional Climate Center[8]


The Sandia Mountains are a fault block range, on the eastern edge of the Rio Grande Rift Valley. The Sandias were uplifted in the last ten million years as part of the formation of the Rio Grande Rift. They form the eastern boundary of the Albuquerque Basin. The core of the range consists of Sandia granite, with a U-Pb age of 1453±12 million years. There is also some metamorphic rock of age 1.60 billion years.[9] This is topped by a relatively thin layer (approximately 300 feet (91 meters) of sedimentary rock (mostly limestone, and some sandstone) of Pennsylvanian age (circa 300 million years ago). The limestone contains marine fossils including crinoids, brachiopods, gastropods, horn corals, and bryozoans. However, most of the fossils are too small for the human eye to detect.[10] Potassium-feldspar (K-spar) crystals embedded within the Sandia granite give the mountains their distinct pink color.

Sandia Mountains as seen from Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Sandia Crest with a wisp of snow, viewed from Sandia Resort & Casino, just north of Albuquerque
A panoramic view from Sandia Crest in August, centered to the southwest and showing Albuquerque in the distance
Sandia mountains in January 2016


View from Sandia Peak, looking southwest

Entirely located within the Arizona/New Mexico Mountains ecoregion, per the Bailey's Ecoregions (US Forest Service) and the EPA Ecoregions systems, the Sandia Mountains vary much in land form, climate, species. Affinities with interior chaparral occur on lower elevations of the western slopes, while the crest and upper elevations of both slopes have affinities with the Rocky Mountains to the north.

The Sandia Mountains also encompass four different named life zones from the base to the top, due to the large changes in elevation, temperature, and precipitation. The desert grassland and savanna at the western base of the mountains (near the eastern edge of the City of Albuquerque, east of about Juan Tabo Boulevard) is part of the Upper Sonoran Zone. From 5,500 to 7,200 ft (1,700 to 2,200 m) on the milder climate western slopes of the Sandia Mountains on mostly granitic bedrock, the Upper Sonoran Zone is found. A juniper savanna mixes with desert grassland in lower elevations, while slightly higher a mixed Piñon-Juniper-Oak zone expands outward and upward from arroyos, including a thin cover of grasses such as black grama (Bouteloua eriopoda), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Broadleaf evergreen shrubs and dwarfed trees are common including shrub live oak (Quercus turbinella), gray oak (Quercus grisea), and hairy mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus breviflorus). Rosette succulents include beargrass (Nolina greenei), banana yucca (Yucca baccata), Navajo yucca (Yucca baileyi), and various cacti. Deciduous shrubs include threeleaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata). Some plants of Chihuahuan Desert affinities are found in this area, including oreganillo (Aloysia wrightii), mariola (Parthenium incanum), desert marigold (Baileya spp.), and a few subspecies of the often-numerous Engelmann prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii).

From 7,200 to 7,800 ft (2,200 to 2,400 m), in the Transition Zone, Ponderosa Pine dominates, and evergreen oaks change to more cold-tolerant deciduous oaks. From 7,800 to 9,800 ft (2,400 to 3,000 m), a mixture of conifers occurs in the Canadian Zone; Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) is at its upper natural range in this zone. Finally, from 9,800 ft (3,000 m) to the Sandia Crest at 10,678 ft (3,255 m), mostly on the eastern slopes, Engelmann spruce and white fir dominate the Hudsonian Zone.

On the eastern slopes of the Sandia Mountains, the life zones respond to a cooler climate than the western slopes, plus mostly limestone bedrock. Broadleaf evergreen plants, some succulents, and those with Chihuahuan Desert affinities are mostly absent, though other characteristics correspond to the same life zones on the western slope, except at slightly lower elevations. In the east slope's portion of the Upper Sonoran and Transition zones, alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) occurs, absent on the western slopes.

All zone boundary elevations are approximate, depending on microclimate or aspect of the land.

Access and recreation[edit]

One can reach the top of the Sandias via two easy ways. The Sandia Peak Tramway ascends from the west side to a point on the crestline about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Sandia Crest, at the top of the Sandia Peak Ski Area, which is located on the east side of the mountains. A road (NM 536) from the east provides access to the bottom of the ski area and also to the Sandia Crest itself, where there is a gift shop, restaurant, scenic overlook, and a large electronic communication site with numerous towers and antennas.

Sandia Peak Ski Area

The Sandia Crest Scenic Byway is also a popular path for motorcycle riders with its miles of winding road to the summit.[11]

The Sandia Mountains are the most visited range in New Mexico. Numerous hiking trails exist on both sides of the range, such as the popular La Luz Trail and Crest Trail. Much of the west side of the range is included in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness; the trails on that side are steeper, and water is very scarce. Numerous picnic and recreation sites can be found on NM 536. These sites, along with some sites on the west face of the Sandias, require a $3 daily use/parking permit as part of the National Fee Program. No developed campgrounds currently exist in the Sandias.

The rock walls and pinnacles on the west side of the range provide abundant rock climbing opportunities, from bouldering and top-roping to multi-day big wall climbs on the Shield, the largest rock feature on the mountain. However, the long hikes (often off-trail) required to reach many of the climbs, and the variable quality of rock (often poor), prevent the Sandias from being a major climbing destination.

Both Sandia Peak and Sandia Crest are popular launching sites for recreational hang gliding due to the sheer drop-offs to the west. Launches at the Peak occur throughout the summer.

Walking the entire spine of the Sandia Mountains is possible, a 26-mile hike with over 4,000 feet in elevation gain.[12]


Sandia Cave
Early snow on the Sandias,
October 28, 2009

The Sandias contain a location notable for prehistoric archaeology: the Sandia Cave was believed by some in the 1930s to the 1950s[13] to have been inhabited 10000 to 12000 years ago by the "Sandia Man," a cultural classification that is no longer used.[14] The cave can be accessed via a 1/2 mile trail in Las Huertas Canyon, on the northeast side of the range, near Placitas, New Mexico.

Ancestral and early Pueblo peoples have lived in the Sandia Mountains area for thousands of years.[citation needed] Examples of previous Pueblo settlements, now unoccupied, include Tijeras Pueblo and Pa'ako Pueblo, both founded around 700 years ago. Sandia Pueblo is a modern pueblo, abutting the Sandia Mountains on the northwest side of the range. Some of the foothills of the range are on Sandia Pueblo land; there have been disputes in the past between the Pueblo, the Forest Service, and private landowners over rights to various parts of the range. The people of Sandia Pueblo consider the mountains a sacred place.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Harrington, J. P. (1920-10-12). "Old Indian Geographical Names Around Santa Fe, New Mexico". American Anthropologist. 22 (4): 341–359. doi:10.1525/aa.1920.22.4.02a00050. hdl:2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t14m91k6v. ISSN 0002-7294.
  2. ^ "sandía - Diccionario Inglés-Español". Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  3. ^ "Popular belief holds that the striped appearance of the rocks or the pinkish reflections of the surfaces at sunset led to the name "watermelon mountains" in Spanish." Pearce, T. M. (1965) "Sandia" New Mexico place names; a geographical dictionary University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, p. 142, OCLC 420847
  4. ^ Julyan, Robert, The Place Names of New Mexico, (revised edition), Albuquerque, NM: UNM Press, 1998.
  5. ^ Pearce, T. M. (1965) "Sandia" New Mexico place names; a geographical dictionary University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, p. 143, OCLC 420847
  6. ^ Harrington, J. P. (1920). "Old Indian Geographical Names around Santa Fe, New Mexico". American Anthropologist. 22 (4): 341–359. ISSN 0002-7294.
  7. ^ Robert Hixson Julyan; Mary Stuever (2005). Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains. UNM Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-8263-3667-5.
  8. ^ "Western US Climate Data". Retrieved 2013-02-26.
  9. ^ Grambling, Tyler A.; Karlstrom, Karl E.; Holland, Mark E.; Grambling, Nadine L. (2016). "Proterozoic magmatism and regional contact metamorphism in the Sandia-Manzano Mountains, New Mexico, USA" (PDF). New Mexico Geological Society Field Conference Series. 67: 169–175. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  10. ^ Julyan, Robert; Mary., Stuever (2005-01-01). Field guide to the Sandia Mountains. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 9780826336675. OCLC 56982334.
  11. ^ Richard Backus (January–February 2008). "Sandia Crest, New Mexico". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved 2009-08-10.
  12. ^ "Albuquerque, NM: Sandia Crest Trail (South)". 20 September 2013. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  13. ^ Hibben, Frank C., Association of Man with Pleistocene Mammals in the Sandia Mountains, New Mexico, American Antiquity, 2(4):pp. 260-263, 1937.
  14. ^ “the continual inconsistencies in the literature gave rise to the general view that all data from Sandia Cave were unreliable” p. 342, Thompson, Jessica C., Nawa Sugiyama and Gary S. Morgan, Taphonomic Analysis of the Mammalian Fauna from Sandia Cave, New Mexico, and the Sandia Man Controversy, American Antiquity, 73(2):pp. 337-360, 2008.


  • Chronic, Halka, Roadside Geology of New Mexico, Mountain Press Publishing, 1987.
  • Julyan, Robert and Mary Stuever, eds., Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque, NM: UNM Press, 2005.
  • Schein, Mick, Sandia Rock, Boulder, Colorado: Sharp End Press, 2003.
  • Hibben, Frank C., Association of Man with Pleistocene Mammals in the Sandia Mountains, New Mexico, American Antiquity, 2(4):pp. 260–263, 1937.
  • Thompson, Jessica C., Nawa Sugiyama and Gary S. Morgan, Taphonomic Analysis of the Mammalian Fauna from Sandia Cave, New Mexico, and the Sandia Man Controversy, American Antiquity, 73(2):pp. 337–360, 2008.

External links[edit]