Trigo Canyon, Part 1: A First Voyage Into The Manzanos

Living in the village of Bosque Farms off-and-on since 2011, I’ve spent many an evening gazing at the Manzano Mountains — the smaller, more southerly siblings of Albuquerque’s Sandia range.

A New Show Every Evening

Like the granite acclivities of the Sandias, which are famous for turning red late in the afternoon, the Manzanos also come fully alive at sunset, as the last of the day’s refracted rays sweep across the Middle Rio Grande Valley to settle in the mountains’ steep west-facing slopes.

Somehow it’s a new show every evening. Over the years, I’ve seen double rainbows arc over deep blue silhouettes during the monsoons of late July, crimson ridges during March’s ferocious dust storms, amarillo caps in October and pyramids of alabaster after a December snow. What I’d yet to see, however — at least until the journey I’m about to relate — is an up-close vista.

Trouble is there aren’t obvious roads to the west side of the mountains. The drive up the back is easy, of course; you can go through Abo Pass in the south or through a low spot between the Manzanos and Sandias in the north. All you need is a little time and gas to burn. But this isn’t the steep side — this isn’t the side I’m interested in.

Blood, Nerves And Silence

What me and Andrés (one of my go-to expedition partners) hadn’t noticed until our hundredth time looking at aerial photos of Valencia County is that there’s a faint labyrinth of tired-out dirt roads left over from an abortive attempt at urban sprawl dating back to the ’80s. One of these roads, it turns out, leads to an abandoned National Forest campground and trail hub. Perfection.

The day is young and the light immaculate as we trundle past Tomé Hill and over the arid wastes separating Bosque Farms from the Manzanos’ tawny foothills. Grey tumbleweeds are piled like a multitude of crumpled skeletons against oxidizing barbed wire fencing. What’s being demarcated here? Who owns these barren patches of Earth, these forsaken surfaces?

After about an hour of very turbulent driving, we arrive at what was formerly known as the JFK Campground. There’s snow everywhere: in the piñons, on the slopes, on the trail we start walking on. The absence of anthropogenic noise is palpable. There’s a ringing in your ears in places like these — blood and nerves singing against a silence few get to experience anymore.

Chino’s Boulder

The Trigo Canyon trail starts mellow and stays that way for a good while, running parallel to a small stream. There are no human tracks around, only the imprints of elk and big-horned sheep. (We’ll actually see the sheep themselves later on, when we’re happily bushwhacking through the nine circles of hell. To date, these are the only big-horned sheep I’ve seen in New Mexico.)

Being obsessed — albeit amateur — climbers, Andrés and I are fixated on the layers of stone exposed around us. We’re hoping hard for scalable rock out here, rock few others have climbed on. It isn’t long at all before we stumble upon a protrusion of swirled schist that is tall and overhangs nicely. Looks like there might be a number of fairly tall boulder problems here. Somebody scratched “Chino” into the schist at some point, so we call it “Chino’s Boulder” and vow to bring our climbing shoes next time.

As we continue up canyon, the schist gives way to what looks like quartzite and also the sort of potassium feldspar-encrusted granite you see up in the Sandias. There’s definitely rock to climb within view of the path, but apart from a single fin about an hour in, the approaches look extremely arduous. I suspect most climbers would prefer a more convenient destination.

Mortifications Of The Flesh

Me and Andrés are masochists, though. We prefer empty crags and are willing to suffer through much tribulation if it means we’ll be the only ones around. To us, then, Trigo Canyon is pay dirt, and we can’t wait to return again and again in the coming weeks and months to undertake a systematic scan of the side canyons branching off from the main arterial. Could there be some first ascents in our future? It’s remote as hell out here. If we even see anyone hiking, it’ll be a surprise — let alone some brood of shirtless, boomboxed knuckleheads out here defecating in the streams and chalking everything up.

I’m afraid describing the next six hours in detail would be terribly tedious. Suffice it to say that in that chunk of time we never stopped moving but only covered two or three miles. Navigating the steep and tortuous maze of scrub oak, cholla and prickly pear is no joke, especially when there’s a fair amount of snow around. If you leave the “beaten path” out here, plan on suffering exquisite and relentless mortifications of the flesh.

As exhilarating as our little expedition was, we’ll be sticking to stream beds and trails during our next visits.

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