New Mexico Stories and Tips

Growing up in the Shadow of the Sandias

Balloons Adrift Against the Sandias Photo, Albuquerque, New Mexico

I tell people that the Sandias are my mountains: they belong to me. Despite the fact that they have not been a daily physical presence in my life for more than four decades, they are still my mountains. Their silhouette was imprinted on my mind in youth, and that persistent image is a constant in my life that is both nostalgic and comforting.

My mountains owe their name to early Spanish explorers who saw them at sunset and decided that the reddish golden glow they reflected resembled the color of ripened watermelon. I never quite got the watermelon vibe when admiring the glow, but a name ultimately defines its object, so ‘Sandia’ seems thoroughly right.

Albuquerque, my childhood home, lies in the Rio Grande rift valley between the Sandia Mountains and the West Mesa. The mountains loom imposing above the city and their magnificent presence to the east was part and parcel of my everyday life as a child. For example, I had a constant directional reminder—find the mountains, that’s east. It’s impossible to be truly lost if the mountains are in view. Given that the Sandia range tops out at more than 10,000 feet, it’s never that difficult to find them. So, lucky me, as a kid I never felt lost. My mountains saw to that.

My favorite memory of the Sandias involves setting outside our house on cool desert nights to watch lightning dance across the peaks. That particular view was and is an almost surreal vision. The mass of the mountains blocks the view of stars that one might expect above the eastern horizon. Against the deep black of night-shaded mountains, the lightning was magic—the gods sparring on Mount Olympus or the thunderbolts of Native American lore. The light shows on the peaks fired my imagination, and they were quite simply beautiful. They are always on the edge of my memory, where they are prized as a living remnant of my youth.

The Sandias were also a practical resource for family outings and recreation. Having the mountains so near at hand allowed for long drives to achieve spectacular views. They were a place where children of the desert could play in snow that so rarely fell in the valley below. They welcomed picnics in the wilderness and exploration along mountain trails. The mountains were our playground. A drive to Sandia Crest (elevation 10,679 feet) on a hot day was a major treat. On days when the temperature reached 100F in the valley, it would be 75F to 80F on the Crest—a serious difference, especially in the days before AC was common.

In the years since my childhood (the many years since my childhood), recreation in the Sandias has expanded and formalized to include enhanced ski lifts and runs, more and better trails and related facilities under the auspices of the Cibola National Forest, the addition of a world-class tram with a visitor center on Sandia Peak (elevation 10,378 feet), and a network of parks and trails in the foothills. There is even an award-winning golf course, Paa-ko Ridge, on the gentler eastern slopes. (In our later lives together, Himself found the course a satisfying challenge to play.)

In addition to playgrounds, the mountains provide outdoor classrooms for students and scholars interested in climate zones and geology. And they provide a magnificent backdrop for the colorful hot-air balloons that drift up from the valley floor north of Albuquerque.

For all this, the Sandias are still my mountains. They still belong to me. But I share them willingly—as do all those other New Mexico who feel similarly proprietary. All we ask is that you respect our mountains as you enjoy their beauty and their bounty.

© BawBaw/LovesTravel

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