Mention Albuquerque, and people will talk about the city’s famous balloon festival. Indeed, very impressive, for a couple of weeks each year. But the Sandia Peak Tram is available every day, waiting to take you up, up, up…
Go for the ride, stay for the view
The Sandia Mountains sit directly east of Albuquerque, in the Cibola National Forest. The highest point is Sandia Crest, 10,378 feet, exactly where the tram cars deliver passengers. From the ground, the cables are barely visible–and certainly don’t seem sturdy enough to support two glass boxes that each hold 50 people.
Board the Sandia Peak Tram in a high desert climate for the “flight,” as the trip is called. During the 3,819 foot ascent–the tram starts at 6,559 feet–you pass from rocky canyons to lush forests. At times, the canyon walls seem close enough to touch. Only two towers hold the cables; after passing the first tower at 7,010 feet, there’s a small “dip,” and everyone gasps. The tram car attendant reassures us that this is normal, and we return our attention to the dramatic scenery. The attendant also gives a short talk and answers questions. Very helpful!
Fifteen minutes later, we step onto a platform that seems too small to hold us, so we all scurry off to solid ground. Then we begin to take in the view…
At the top of the world…or so it seems!
Surrounded by an 11,000 square mile view, the horizon seems infinite. Mount Taylor, 100 miles away, is often visible. You can barely make out Albuquerque. And those colorful hot air balloons? They’re tiny dots.
Stay on the peak as long as you like. The Visitors Center has information on the area, as well as restrooms and snack machines. Sandia Peak Tram runs from 9am to 9pm, during the summer. Until 8pm in fall and winter. But dress warmly–temperatures are about 30 degrees cooler at the top. Sturdy shoes are important, too, for walking the uneven ground.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore:
- Over 100 trails give hikers the chance to roam. Not into hiking? The short 1/4 mile trail loop provides an easy walk, with interpretive signage.
- Skiers can take the tram to the top of the mountain, where three chairlifts and two surface lifts wait. There are slopes and trails for all levels. Equipment can be rented or purchased at the top.
- In the summer, mountain bikers claim the ski areas and 26 miles of trails. (Note: bikes are not permitted on the Sandia Peak Tram. You’ll have to drive up on the Sandia Crest National Scenic Byway.)
- Just want to relax and enjoy a meal? A new restaurant opens at the top in Fall 2019. Visitors will have a choice of options, including fine dining with a view.
- Plan a trip in the evening to watch the sunset. Come at different times of the year to experience the peak in all seasons. My photos are from a morning in mid-November, when snowfall was just beginning.
How did they build that tram system, anyway?
The tram opened in 1966, to serve the Sandia Peak Ski Company. One of the ski company’s co-founders, Robert Norhaus, had seen tramways in European mountains. Bell Engineering Company of Lucerne, Switzerland, built Sandia Peak Tram as a “double reversible jigback aerial tramway.” “Jigback” means that when one tram car is ascending, the other is descending. The cars pass each other at 1,000 feet above ground level.
Bell Engineering started building tramways in 1888. By the time they started the Sandia project, the company had built 50–but because of the rocky terrain and steep cliffs, the engineers declared it one of the most challenging.
While the first tower is 232 feet tall, the second tower is only 80 feet tall. It was built on an outcrop, using helicopters, because a construction road was impossible. The longest span is between the second tower, at 8,750 feet, and the top terminal. This span is the third longest clear tramway span in the world, at a length of 7,720 feet. (Gulp!)
Construction took two years, followed by 60 days of rigorous testing before allowing passengers. Alignment of the towers was so exact that when the 100,000 pound cables were placed–which took five months–the line from the bottom to top was within 3/8 of an inch.
Multiple safety measures are in place. Each cable exceeds the standard for carrying a tram car; Sandia Peak Tram uses two for each. There are also track cable brakes. These brakes close automatically and hold the car firmly in place in an emergency or cable failure. The brakes on the main drive are electronically/hydraulically opened before the tram cars can move. If the power fails, the brakes are applied automatically, stopping the moving cables and tram cars. Then the cars can return to the terminals with an auxiliary Ford industrial engine. They’ve thought of everything!
Ready to go?
Sandia Peak Tram is wheelchair accessible.
Advance tickets not available. Buy onsite.
- Memorial Day to Labor Day: 9am to 9pm
- Labor Day to Memorial Day: 9am to 8pm, except Tuesdays: 5pm-8pm
- During Balloon Festival (First Saturday in October to second Sunday in October) Daily 9am-9pm
- Adults $25
- Seniors (62 years+) $20
- Students 13-20 years $20
- Military with ID $20
- Children 5-12 years $15
- Children under 5, with an adult FREE
AT THE BOTTOM TERMINAL:
- Gift Shop (a really good one!)
- Sandiago’s Grill at the Tram. Mexican restaurant using locally-sourced ingredients. Present your ticket and get $5 off meals $25 or more.
- New Mexico Ski Museum and Hall of Fame
More New Mexico? Sure!