5 - 6
FATMAP difficulty grade
The Whitewash Loop is an epic route into the high country of the Sandia Mountains that's great for trail runners and hikers alike.
Just a short drive from Interstate 40, this lightly-traveled loop will provide you with an astonishing contrast to the fast-moving city below. There are many ways to form a route, but the most common starting point is arguably the Menaul Trailhead.
Embudo or Copper Trailheads are great alternatives.
If you are in a larger vehicle or towing a trailer, Copper Trailhead will be the best bet. Though mountain biking is popular in the Sandia Foothills Open Space, the majority of this loop lies within a wilderness area, where bicycles are prohibited.
Consequently, during the cooler weather, these trailheads can become extremely busy, but this loop quickly takes you into the backcountry where only experienced hikers and runners should venture. Beginning at the Menaul Trailhead, Take either Trail 401 or 365 to the beginning of the White Wash Trail.
This four-mile-long trail is minimally marked and can be difficult to follow as it climbs over 2,500 feet into the Sandia Wilderness.
Roughly one mile in, an unmarked trail to the right serves as a connector back into the foothills.
If you find yourself beyond your abilities, this is the last option to turn back. Though most of the trail is steep for the first two miles, it eventually levels out, giving you an opportunity to catch your breath.
The path will also become much more distinguishable.
Tight and twisty, the trail leads to one more steep climb as it nears Oso Pass. White Wash Trail ends at an intersection with Embudito Trail and Three Gun Spring Trail—a location sometimes referred to as Oso Pass.
For the most adventurous of hikers and runners, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to continue to the summit of South Sandia Peak.
For those interested in a slightly shorter day, take the hard right onto Three Gun Spring Trail and continue along the loop. Continuing straight, the Embudito Trail climbs quickly onto a narrow bench cut that gives way to exhilarating views of the valley below.
As the trail becomes more rugged and narrow, you'll round a corner and find yourself at an intersection with a spur trail to the summit of South Sandia Peak at 9,700'.
Several side trails lead to various overlooks and a large clearing that would serve as an excellent overnight camping spot.
Take some time enjoying the vantage point and panoramic views from the summit before returning back to Oso Pass. Note that during the winter months, snow and ice can be present at this elevation, even with 60-degree temperatures in the valley below. Once you reach Oso Pass, a slight left will lead onto Three Gun Spring Trail, where you'll be welcomed with unique rock pinnacles and several other picturesque formations.
Though mostly downhill, a few punchy climbs will remind you that you're still at 8,000'.
Countless picturesque picnic opportunities line this area, many of which lie on large, prominent boulders with views of the surrounding mountains. Shortly after, you'll reach the intersection with Embudo Trail, the final trail to complete the loop.
As it begins descending, you will be led into a series of switchbacks as the high mountain terrain gives way to the barren desert below. About halfway down, the trail leads through a boulder-filled wash and at several points, three points of contact will be necessary.
A horse bypass runs around this stretch should you wish to avoid it.
After merging back together, take one of the many side trails, typically Trail 401, back to the trailhead. Though you're never more than 5 miles from a trailhead, this is very serious backcountry and there is no reliable source of water along the way.
The trailhead kiosk also warns of the wildlife in region, specifically bears and cougars.