Today I’m riding the longest tramway in the U.S., third longest in the world, truly an engineering marvel. I’m taking the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway to the top of Sandia Mountain outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. With two towers on the trip between base and top, the tram has the second longest unsupported span in the world. From the top of the mountain you can look down and be unable to even see the closest tower.
The trip takes about 15 minutes each way, and a tram leaves about every 20 to 30 minutes. On my tram ride, a workman rode on top of the tram to check the cables. The tram stopped at both towers to let the workman off where he checks the cables daily as part of safety routine. I felt a lot safer riding the tram in the U.S. than I would in other parts of the world.
The tram travels over the mountainous Cibola National Forest. The mountains can be very windy. When the wind stirs up, the tram does not operate. At the top, it can be very chilly, even in the summer. I rode in late May, and there were plenty of fresh snow patches around. The mountains take on a pinkish tone during the right sunlight due to a mineral in the rocks on the mountain, thus the name of the mountains: Sandia or “watermelon” in Spanish.
Golden eagles, hawks, deer, bobcats, and bears are among the wildlife known to be spotted from the tram.
Once at top, during the season, you can ski down the other side of the mountain. During May, you can see several mothballed chair lifts that operate in conjunction with the skiing side of the mountain in season.
At top there are a number of walking trails. One of these trails goes to a lookout point built by the people that constructed the tram. You see it in the distance as your tram rides past it. Originally built in wood, it caught fire and burned to ground. Rebuilt in wood, it was again destroyed. The second rebuild was with metal which has withstood its harsh environment. Campers can get inside in an emergency, such as a blizzard.
Riding the tram isn’t cheap, $25 round-trip per person, with discounts for seniors, military, and children. There is also a charge for parking at the base of the tram.
If you happen to ride to the top and then the tram operations are stopped for high winds, preventing you from descending, there is a road that goes to the top (albeit bumpy). The tramway will send a bus to rescue you once the wait for the winds to die down reaches two hours. The road to the top takes about one hour from the base and is used by skiers who want to avoid the high cost of the tram.
A new restaurant with a breathtaking view is being built at the summit. At the base, another restaurant, Sandiago’s—also with a great view, just not as high—operates.
The base is over a mile high already, exactly 6559 feet. The summit is 10,378 feet. Each tram can carry 48 passengers. You can watch the huge cable gears pull the trams. There are locker facilities at the top for those who want to ditch their gear to hike or ski. At the base, you can safely leave a pet in a pet cage, visit a ski museum, or buy supplies at a well-stocked gift shop.
The tram took 2 years to build, from 1964 to 1966, including five thousand helicopter trips during construction of the upper tower where the clearance between the cable and ground is so tight it can be scary. At the time of construction, the entire project cost $2 million. On the tram’s 50th anniversary, new trams were purchased. The two tram cars themselves cost $1 million.
Perhaps the best part of the tram is the quietude and beauty of the view from the summit. You can see the entire city of Albuquerque and part of the Sandia Indian Reservation west of the mountain range. 250,000 visitors come each year. Judging from the passengers in my tram, many of the visitors are from outside the U.S.