Friday, June 2, 2017

Our plan was to hike this 11.1 mile loop in one day. Unfortunately, due to building storm clouds and thunder at the crest, for safety reasons, we cut the hike short at the Ellis Trailhead and took the Challenge Trail back down to the 10K Trailhead. It turned out to be a good move on our part because about two hours later, the rain was coming down pretty good. We came back the following Friday and finished the loop.

Before I get into it, I want to share our reasons for terminating this hike at the half-way point.

When hiking in the mountains, lightning safety is extremely important and you really need to remain aware of the possibility of thunderstorms, some of which can appear without a lot of warning.

A few years ago, we were up near the Valles Caldera visiting one of Marty’s friends. After our visit, we decided to hike the Coyote Call Trail across from the caldera. By that time, it was late morning. It was also monsoon season. It’s not really a good idea to start a mountain hike that late in the day during monsoon season. However, the sun was out. Looking towards the northwest, the skies over the caldera were clear. From all appearances, it was a perfect day for a hike, so we decided to go for it. Not a wise decision.

Since that hike wasn’t really part of our plans for the day, I hadn’t checked the weather forecast for that area before heading out that morning. There is a ridge line about 1,000 feet higher than the trailhead that blocked our view to the east and southeast. We got about half a mile or so up the Coyote Call Trail and suddenly, without warning, storm clouds starting rapidly rolling in from over the ridge line.

Things started happening very fast. A quick buildup of storm clouds. Followed by rolling thunder. Then lightning started with a vengeance. I am not exaggerating when I tell you the thunder was loud and the crack of lightning sounded like bombs exploding. All this was happening right above our heads and it was intense to the point of being unnerving. And at almost 9,500 feet, it seemed we were right in the clouds, right in the belly of the beast. Fortunately, we were able to make our way safely back down to the trailhead, but that was the closest we have ever come to being barbecued! 😉

So when hiking in the mountains, especially during monsoon season, try to get a very early start so you can be off the mountain and back to safer terrain by mid-day, before storm clouds tend to develop. And it is ten times more important to do that if your hike will take you above tree line. Lightning is not something you want to contend with when hiking at elevation. In fact, if you hike in the mountains, you might want to download a copy of this and keep it on your phone, as I do, for handy reference.

NOLS Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines 

Now to the hike…

As previously mentioned, our intention was to hike the entire loop in one day, but due to the threat of thunderstorms, and remembering our Coyote Call lightning experience, we cut our hike short. Not only did we make the right call, for reasons mentioned, above, but also because when we came back to finish the hike the following Friday, since we had not hiked the 10K South before, we ran into some unexpected delays on that trail and it took us longer than we had originally anticipated to get back to the trailhead.

It is worth noting that we knew there was a 40% chance of storms after noon on that day, but we also knew we had a bail-out option at the Ellis Trailhead. And since it wasn’t far from home, we decided to give it a shot. However, without that bail-out option, we would have postponed the hike.

I am going to split this loop hike into two parts and I will provide multiple mileage numbers for each of the those parts. That way, you can figure distance totals whether you hike the entire loop at one time, or hike each part separately.

You will have two other options on this hike, as well. In Part 1, you can do as we did and make the short trek up to the North Crest Trail and the Del Agua Canyon Overlook. In Part 2, you can also do as we did and make the short trek up to the Kiwanis Cabin. I recommend you do both because the views are incredible! 🙂

The 10K Trailhead is not far below the Sandia Crest, just off the Crest Highway. Elevation at the trailhead is 9,953 feet. The trailhead is a fee area, so bring $3 for parking unless you have a pass. There are two parking areas with adequate space for a lot of cars. The 10K North Trailhead is on the north side of the highway, while the 10K South Trailhead is on the other side of the highway. There is no shade over either of the two parking areas. There are pit toilets.

The 10K Trail gets its name because the 10K North Trail tends to follow the 10k contour line, as seen on a topo map. The north part of the 10K South Trail tends to follow that same contour, but the south part deviates down-slope to around 9,400 feet.

The 10K North Trail starts at the far end of the 10K North parking area. From there, it is about 2 miles to the junction with the Osha Loop Trail. If you were to follow the Osha Loop Trail, it would lead you to the junction with Osha Spring Trail and the Penasco Blanco Trail on the north side of the Sandias, but that hike is for another day. Continuing along the 10K Trail, 0.3 miles past the Osha Loop junction is the junction with the Ellis Trail. The Ellis junction is where you will need to decide whether you are going to make the trek up to the Del Agua Canyon Overlook.

To get to the canyon overlook, remain on the 10K North Trail. The junction with the Survey Trail is only 0.2 miles farther.  From the Survey Trail, it is a short 0.2 miles to the junction with the North Crest Trail. Take the North Crest Trail north for 0.1 miles to the Del Agua Canyon Overlook. If you watch the video, you will first come to an area that looks like the main overlook. That is an overlook, but it’s not the overlook you are looking for. So just remain on the crest trail for a few more minutes until you get to the next overlook. From the Ellis Trail junction, it is all of 0.5 miles to the Del Agua Canyon Overlook and it is well work the extra mile of round-trip hiking. And it’s a great place to take a break and snap some pics.

Then head south on the North Crest Trail, going back the way you came. When you get to the 10K Trail junction marker post, take the left fork and follow the 10K Trail back down to the Ellis Trail junction. Take a right on the Ellis Trail and follow it to the crest road. The Ellis Trailhead is on the other side of the road.

There was some confusion as to the distance from the 10K/Ellis Trail junction to the Crest Highway. The sign at the highway shows that distance to be 1.75 miles. My GPS shows that distance to be 1.9 miles. Take your pick! 🙂

When you reach the Ellis Trailhead, it’s decision time. Are you going to hike the entire loop in one day? If so, Part 2 of this hike will go over that in detail. If you are going to cut it short, as we were forced to do, from the Ellis Trailhead, you will take the Challenge Trail back down to the 10K Trailhead. The Challenge Trail starts at the Ellis Trailhead and you will find the trail sign just past the locked gate. The hike down to the 10K Trailhead is only 0.7 miles. although the Challenge Trail, itself, continues farther south.

Let’s go over some mileage numbers.

Hiking counter-clockwise, from the 10K Trailhead to the Ellis Trailhead: 4.3 miles

Round-trip to the Del Agua Canyon Overlook: Add 1 mile

Ellis Trailhead back down to the 10K Trailhead: Add 0.7 miles

For us, total hiking distance was 6.1 miles. You wouldn’t think there would be a lot of climbing on this hike, but total climbing was 1,365 feet. Not to worry, though, because the climbing wasn’t anywhere close to brutal: The trek up to the overlook was only at a 7.5% grade. The steepest grades approached 15%, but only for very short sections on the Ellis Trail. Actual hiking time was 2.5 hours, but with stops, it took us 3.5 hours to complete. All trail junctions were clearly signed. Trails were easy to follow. Most of the hike was under tree cover, except for the Ellis, which was out in the open.

Click the map and elevation profile for a larger view. Then click the icons on the trail map for more information. If the icon notes come up empty, you will have to reload the map.

Trail Route and Topo Map

Trail Route and Terrain Map


Elevation Profile

Elevation Profile