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.
By Richard Backus
January/February 2008
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Worth the ride: Looking southwest from Sandia 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 


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Paul Schmolke
1/29/2009 7:39:16 PM
Some comments about Sandia and Albuquerque. The Tram is on the west face of the mountain and traverses the west face to the crest where there is a fabulous restaurant with most seats offering great views to the west. The article says it is on the east face when it is actually on the east side of town. There is good parking at the Tram base and a good restaurant there as well. Albuquerque is a motorcycle friendly town with bikes on the street almost every day unless it is snowing or icy. Most attended parking areas are helpful to us two wheel people and some even have motorcycle spaces set aside for for safer bike parking. The ride to the crest that is described is up the east side and is pretty much as described. The side road excursion that is mentioned is very pretty and downhill through a twisty water canyon to Placitas. This road is dirt and can be rough and sometimes rutted if the weather has been bad. It may not be a good ride for big road bikes but would be a blast on something like a KLR650. State Road 14, has many miles of great low traffic riding on decently maintained pavement. It ends in Santa Fe to the north and passes through the town of Madrid on the way - don't miss this one as Madrid is the featured community in the movie 'Wild Hogs'. It is a very biker friendly town with several good eating places and unusual shopping. State Road 14 to the south goes to the town of Mountainair and is about a two hour ride from Santa Fe. During weekdays, the roads are mostly empty and on weekends traffic doen't pick up until late morning. I ride these roads all the time as I live about 1 mile west of State Road 14 near Lone Butte. I usually have 14 to myself for many of my occasional rides to either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. I have been riding or driving these roads since the late 60's. These routes are all above 5,000 feet and will cause a significant loss in power. This is especially noticeable on smaller displacement touring bikes (750cc's








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