Goin' Up on a Mountain
Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains and Mike Coltrin's Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide
By Steven Robert Allen
When I first moved to Albuquerque several years ago, I bought a hiking map of the Sandias at the base of the tram. It's that simple one with red lines marking the trails, the map most people have used if they've spent much time traipsing around our mountains. It's old and battered, but I still have it. My copy is a bit worse for wear, though—it's dirty, it's torn, and it's got a big old nasty cigarette burn located about an inch from South Peak. It's a nice artifact, but it's ready for retirement.
As luck would have it, UNM Press has just published a pair of beautiful new books on the Sandias, and one of them—Mike Coltrin's Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide—includes a sturdy new hiking map. If you're a hiker, then this new book is a worthy replacement for Mike Hill's venerable Hikers and Climbers Guide to the Sandias, a book that, in one edition or another, has served as the standard user's guide to Albuquerque's mountains for decades.
Coltrin is well known among many Sandia fanatics for creating a website in which he describes his experience hiking all the trails in the mountains over the course of a year. His site is still online at www.sandiahiking.com. It remains a good online resource for information about individual trails.
Coltrin's new book, though, is a lot more polished. It also has the advantage that it can be carried in a backpack. In addition, for hikers at least, it's definitely a huge improvement over Hill's book in terms of content. The durable foldout map is very easy to read, and the maps printed inside the book itself are clear and useful. The trail descriptions seem accurate and simple to follow. Each description also includes a handy elevation chart so you can quickly gauge the relative difficulty of each trail.
Coltrin's guide includes several additional useful sections. The one on safety is something that should be read and reread by anyone who wants to venture into the mountains. I, along with two friends, almost got lost in the San Pedro Wilderness Area near Cuba last summer. Quite frankly, the experience scared the crap out of me, and I've since vowed to take wilderness safety more seriously.
Don't make the mistake of thinking the Sandias are just some piddling recreation area. People have gotten lost in these mountains and died. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen.
Then, of course, there's the heat. The sun, especially on the west side of the range, can be brutal, so bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
The mountains present any number of other dangers as well, including snow storms, lightning, flash floods, rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions and poison ivy, all of which are individually addressed in Coltrin's book. The book also presents sections on conservation, animal life, geology and life zones. If you really want to gain an understanding of these subjects, though, you need to pick up a copy of Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains.
Edited by Robert Julyan and Mary Stuever, this book is by far the more fascinating of the two. Its glossy full-color layout makes it a beautiful book to browse. From start to finish, it's filled with lots of beautiful diagrams, maps and photographs.
The book isn't just pretty to look at, though. It's organized to maximize its usefulness. A color-coding scheme allows you to quickly flip to sections on geology, trees, wildflowers, birds, mammals and other categories. The wildflower section includes a clever design that lumps flowers of specific colors together to aid in identification. In a similar manner, the section on conifers includes detailed black and white drawings of cones and needles, just as the mammals section includes drawings of tracks and poop for each animal.
It's just a really cool book. Over the years, I've hiked every trail in the Sandias. I've trekked through these mountains on the hottest summer afternoons and on the snowiest winters days. Before seeing this book, I prided myself on having a fair amount of knowledge about the Sandias. Browsing through the Field Guide, though, makes me realize how much I have to learn.
I didn't know, for example, that New Mexico Game and Fish trapped over 20 turkeys near Chama and released them in the Sandias last year. (Something to remember come Thanksgiving.) I had no idea that there were foxes and badgers in the Sandias either.
Both the Field Guide to the Sandias and the Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide boast lightweight spiral bindings for ease of use and transport, although the Field Guide's binding and full-color glossy production are of much higher quality. That said, both guides are indispensable to anyone interested in exploring the Sandias to the fullest.
You might not have the money for a vacation in Italy, but that doesn't mean you have to sit around your apartment all summer feeling sorry for yourself. The Sandias are Albuquerque's playground. A short drive to a trailhead will bring you to the gates of a pristine natural environment capable of providing a much needed sanctuary from the hurly burly stress and strain of city life.
One last bit of advice: Don't be a selfish pig. Treat our mountains right. Don't trash the place, and if you have a few extra minutes, pick up some garbage left by other people. The Sandias need caretakers, and taking a little time to clean them up will make you feel a lot better about yourself—which is never a bad thing, right?
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