Destinations: Sandia Crest, New Mexico

Known best for the 2.7mi tram that climbs to the crest from the base of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest, Sandia Crest has another side every motorcyclist should experience — the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway.

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Cell phone hell: The antenna installation at the crest.

Photo by Richard Backus

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Sandia Crest, New Mexico
Where:
Central New Mexico, just east of Albuquerque in the Cibola National Forest.
What: A spectacular ride through the Sandia Mountains, with plenty of scenery and side trips along the way.
Best kept secret: Keep an eye out for the sign for the Tinkertown Museum, located on your left about two miles after you start the climb to the crest from Route 14. With walls made from glass bottles, the 22-room museum features an eccentric assemblage of highly detailed miniature scenes carved from wood, most arranged in dioramas. It was created by Ross Ward, a self-taught local folk artist, famous for saying, "This is what I did while you were watching TV."
Scenic route: Whether you stay in the mountains or head down in the valley or surrounding canyons, it’s hard to find an area around Sandia Crest that’s not scenic. That said, if you have the time, check out Route 165 about half way up to the crest on 536. It takes off to the right at the Balsam Glade Picnic Area, running west back down to the valley. With few cars and lots of curves, it’s a great way to stretch out the ride to the crest.
Avoid: Riding in the early afternoon, when it’s most likely to rain: The road gets slick fast. Car traffic isn’t too bad, but keep an eye out for bicyclists, who seem to pop up around every corner.

Known best for the 2.7mi tram that climbs to the crest from the base of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest, Sandia Crest has another side every motorcyclist should experience — the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway.

While most tourists flock to the east side of this range just west of Albuquerque, lining up for a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, the real fun is happening on the other side of the peak. There, snaking up through the woods for 14 miles, you’ll find state Route 536, a slice of riding heaven if ever there was one. Beautifully maintained with ample shoulders and runoffs, this lovely ribbon of blacktop sweeps riders through dozens of
curves and switchbacks as they make their way up to the crest’s 10,678ft summit.

While you’re likely to pass plenty of bicyclists on your way up (and down — and they’re moving a lot faster then!), car traffic is amazingly light, leaving the road mostly open and free for a little throttle fun as you twist your way to the top. But as much fun as it is playing on the tarmac, it’s a great road for taking it easy, if only for the incredible diversity of scenery the area has to offer.

The surrounding lowlands are mostly desert scrub, but once you start moving up in elevation, things change quickly. The route takes you up through stands of pinon, juniper, ponderosa, aspen and spruce trees, not to mention locust trees at lower elevation that flower brilliantly in the spring. On your way up, you can spot signs of the Great Unconformity, a break in the mountain’s rock that signals a geologic period of immense erosion followed by a massive layer of sedimentation. In this area, the rock below the visible line is some 1,400 million years old, while the layer above is a relatively young 250 million years old. Kinda makes that 1972 Triumph you’re riding suddenly seem young.

At the top, there’s a spectacular view of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande to the west, and to the north and east are the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez and Ortiz mountains. Bizarrely out of context to the surroundings is the Sandia Crest Electronic Site, visible for a few miles before you reach the summit and unavoidable once you’re there. Looking like a misplaced military installation, the site is populated by a mix of receiving, transmitting and repeater stations for radio and radar, both military and civilian. It’s uniquely odd, and it also pretty much guarantees you won’t be placing any calls from your cell phone at the summit.

Getting there from Albuquerque is easy. Just head east on Interstate 40 about 15 miles to the Cedar Crest/Route 14 exit. After you exit, duck under the highway and head north on Route 14 through Cedar Crest (keep an eye out for the Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture on your left, a great place to learn about the local culture), and then another five miles later look for Route 536 coming in on your left. From there, just head up 536 into the mountains, and enjoy the ride. MC