It’s been three long years since High Finance—the hexagonally-shaped, wooden-paneled throwback restaurant once located atop Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak—was torn down. I say “long” as an avid hiker who also likes to eat and thus found great motivation in hiking to a restaurant sitting on a mountaintop to enjoy a meal I had most definitely “earned.” While this type of “backcountry hospitality” is a longstanding tradition in Europe, where hikers, cyclists and skiers have entire circuits of inns and taverns waiting to receive them, it was not something I had encountered until moving to Albuquerque’s East Mountains and discovering the astonishing network of trails available to me in the Cibola National Forest, just a short drive from my house.
Within a few years, with the help of a good trail map and some new hiking buddies, I’d identified several routes that would take me to High Finance, typically for a guilt-free green chile cheeseburger. (See the sidebar for my favorite loop hike.) Yes, the restaurant, built in the 1960s around the same time as the Sandia Peak Tramway, and later renovated in the 1970s, was dated. But I still loved the payoff of emerging from the meditative solitude of the forest—typically having passed more black Abert’s squirrels and mule deer than other Homo sapiens—and finding myself at a busy tram depot and packed restaurant, surrounded by all manner of mankind. That’s not to mention the stunning views and the opportunity to sit down, take a breather and tear into some hot food that certainly eclipsed my trail snacks.
Flash forward to August 2019, and imagine my pleasure at being able to do all of this once again, but in a sleek new building that cost a reported $7.5 million and, as promised by owner Benny Abruzzo (whose father Ben developed the original structure, as well as the tram and ski area, along with partner Bob Nordhaus), delivers views that are “ten times better.” That’s in part because this larger reincarnation designed with an uber-modern sensibility by the San Francisco architectural firm Bull Stockwell Allen, a high-altitude specialist, sits even closer to the peak’s vertiginous edge. And unlike High Finance, which was oriented only to the Western views of the Rio Grande Basin (not to say anything negative about this remarkable 11,000-square-mile panorama), the new incarnation manages to up the ante by offering sweeping dual views looking both West and East. As Abruzzo said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, it’s a forward-thinking destination built “for the next 50 years.”
Named Ten 3 in homage to Sandia Peak’s elevation of 10,378 feet, the new restaurant also offers two different dining areas: a sophisticated fine dining room that is reservation-only and dinner-only, and a more relaxed yet still surprisingly upscale walk-in bar that is open for lunch, dinner and in between. While most patrons of Ten 3’s bar/lounge arrive in waves via the tram—a 15-minute, 2.7-mile ride that is spectacular in its own right—we spot at least a few fellow hikers and trail runners when we arrive around 12:15 p.m. on a Friday and snag the last two spots at the hopping 16-seat central bar, which thankfully has comfy stools, footrests and bar hooks for our bags. As further evidence of our ilk being present, I soon overhear a fit fellow in a “Run Alaska” hat amiably discussing trail running shoes with our bartender—who’s clad in a hip black denim apron, gray button-down and dark jeans—while a bearded hiker is amusingly asked to check his large walking stick at the host stand.
While taking in the diverse mix of tourists and local outdoors enthusiasts, I am struck by the room’s decidedly industrial-chic décor, from the exposed ductwork in the ceilings to the metal-and-wire liquor display suspended over the bar to the black, gray and wood accents. Only a handful of nature paintings offer splashes of color, letting the wall-to-wall windows with expansive Eastern views of the ski slopes—still full of lush, knee-high grass—and beyond provide the true focal point. Surrounded by all this on-trend minimalism, I suddenly feel a tad grubby in my sweaty hiking attire. However, a British couple seated next to us assures me I look fresh as a daisy, while affirming that they too thought the place “fancy!” They share that they’re traveling the Southwest by RV and decided to take the tram up and spend their one day in Albuquerque at Sandia Peak—proving it remains the city’s top “must-do” activity for visitors, but happily, now with a significantly elevated dining experience.
And that, of course, brings us to Chef J. Steve Brockman’s bar menu, which comes in a few notches above casual fare. Yes, you can still get a burger, of course, but it will be grass-fed and served on brioche, for example. (My new friends—the British RVers—both enjoyed their burgers very much, they’d like you to know.) Personally, I found myself most intrigued by the shareables, an eclectic array of offerings ranging from Puget Sound Oysters on the half shell to Crispy Brussels Sprouts with pumpkin seeds to Arancini with tomato jam. While pondering my options, I sipped on a Cynar Julep from the creative cocktail menu. Made with the unusual choice of cynar, an Italian bittersweet liqueur derived from artichokes, plus 13 plants and herbs, as well as a citrusy twist of grapefruit, it was delightfully refreshing, deeply botanical and unlike anything I’ve ever had. Ten 3 also has 12 beers on tap, including local favorites like La Cumbre, Bosque and Steel Bender, plus a host of wines on tap, too.
Ultimately, we decided on the Gulf Shrimp and Blue Corn Grit Cake and the Green Chile Mac N Cheese from the shareables, as well as a virtuous Quinoa Salad—with kale, sweet potatoes and black beans—for balance. The Mac N Cheese, served in an oval skillet, popped with generous chunks of smoky green chile and crunchy bacon—a solid crowd pleaser that three or four people could tuck into. The Quinoa Salad was also everything we’d hoped for, with tender kale that was perfectly dressed. But our hands-down favorite was the incredibly flavorful and aesthetically pleasing Blue Corn Grit Cake, which was beautifully presented in an artisanal black bowl that highlighted all the colors in the dish: the soft, purple interior of the crunchy grit cake, the plump pink shrimp, the winsome handful of microgreens and the luscious reddish-orange sauce, made with Manchego, chorizo and red pepper. While richer than expected, we simply couldn’t stop eating this dish. But hey, we hiked here, right?
Many people are familiar with the two most popular trails to Ten 3 and the upper tram depot: La Luz Trail (#137), which starts in the far-north Albuquerque foothills, and the Crest Trail (#130), which starts at the Crest House lower parking lot, located where the Sandia Crest National Scenic Byway (the twisty, roughly 14-mile road to the top of the mountain from the East Mountains side) ends. Ironically, they are the hardest and easiest ways to get there, respectively.
La Luz is a very strenuous, uphill, view-laden 7.5-mile hike for the seriously hardcore (you can then take the tram back down if desired). In contrast, the Crest Trail is an easy-to-moderate, relatively flat, mostly forested 1.5-mile hike across the top of the mountain. (You then typically take the same route back.)
But when it comes to impressing visitors and satisfying mildly adventurous hiking aficionados, I highly recommend a gorgeous, fairly easy loop variation that combines the Crest Spur Trail (#84) with the last, non-grueling stretch of the La Luz Trail (#137) trail, and then returns you to your car on the Crest Trail (#130). It’s only slightly longer than simply taking the Crest Trail back and forth—and it starts from the same parking lot—but it’s got breathtaking Western views as you essentially hug the edge of the lichen-covered limestone ridge that crowns the Sandias. That’s not to mention its otherworldly terrain full of wind-sculpted limber pines, Engelmann spruces, quaking aspens (which will turn bright gold come early October), white firs, shiny gambel oaks, neon-green ferns and myriad wildflowers, depending on the time o’ year.
WHERE IT STARTS: Many people don’t know this hike because the trailhead is a bit hidden. At the Western end of the Crest House lower parking lot, walk up the concrete stairs located right behind the Crest House building, and you’ll soon see the small sign for the Crest Spur Trail (#84). Here you’ll begin descending for a half-mile, with some steep and narrow downhill sections next to heart-pounding drop-offs, so watch your footing and go slow. Soon the limestone cliff will begin towering above you to your left, adding a staggering scale to an already vast perspective, and you may see peregrine falcons and cliff swallows circling the spiky formations in Chimney Canyon below.
WHERE YOU TURN: After roughly 30 to 45 minutes, you’ll reach a sunny clearing surrounded by massive ponderosas that is the junction with La Luz Trail (#137). During water breaks here, you might hear and see tanagers, goshawks, white-breasted nuthatches and other prized birds of the Sandias. When you’re ready to resume, veer left for the last 30 to 45 minutes of La Luz, which is rather pleasant, wide and gentle, comparatively. You’ll alternate between cool, shady sections and bright, jaw-dropping panoramas before you reach Ten 3 with a belly demanding attention.
HOW YOU RETURN: Follow the signs for the Crest Trail (#130) from the new deck on the lower level of Ten 3, which happily offers 24-hour public bathrooms and a water fountain complete with a bottle-filling feature. It’s pretty easy to make your way back to the parking lot except for one hard left turn you’ll have to make to stay on 130, right after Kiwanis Meadow, as well as a few uphill cardio sections. Just check the trail signs anytime you hit a fork in the trail and always stay on 130. For the last 10 minutes or so, the Crest Trail will emerge from the mossy forest onto a sheer cliff with killer views, a rock staircase and informational displays. (This stretch doubles as part of the Crest Nature Trail.)
TOTAL TIME ROUND-TRIP: This roughly 3.2-mile loop hike takes anywhere from two to three hours total (not including your refueling pit stop at Ten 3), but it all depends on your pace, conditioning and altitude acclimation. When you add in a meal at Ten 3 and the approximately hour-long drive from Albuquerque to the trailhead and back, you’re looking at about a five-to-six-hour adventure.
Note: Temperatures at the crest are about 20 degrees cooler than in Albuquerque, so dress accordingly and consider layers. It’s also a good idea to check the forecast in advance at sandiapeak.com/weather-conditions. Due to its steepness and high cliff edges, the Crest Spur Trail should be avoided during snowy, icy or muddy conditions. Also, proper hiking shoes with good traction are a must.