Sandia Cave provides the perfect getaway from the city and offers a history lesson at the same time. The cave is about a 40-minute drive from Albuquerque along NM 165, south of Placitas, in the Cibola National Forest.
Once at the trailhead, visitors hike about a half mile to a metal spiral staircase below the cave entrance. From the mouth of the cave, visitors can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and the winding road below. The cave is some 100 meters above Las Huertas Canyon on the side of a large cliff face. Once inside, visitors can venture into the dark tunnel that stretches back about 138 meters.
Artifacts and controversy of early human use of Sandia Cave
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the cave was discovered by a University of New Mexico anthropology student in 1936 and excavated from 1937-41. Stone arrows, lance points, basket scraps, bits of woven yucca moccasins and skeletal remains of mastodon and other Ice Age animals were found inside the cave.
Frank Hibben, a UNM graduate student who oversaw the excavation, made several claims about the cave that shocked the anthropology world and stirred up plenty of controversy regarding the age of the artifacts found inside. Hibben claimed the artifacts found beneath several layers of dirt were approximately 25,000 years old, nearly 10,000 years older than Folsom Man, whose remains were first found in Folsom, New Mexico, in 1925.
Hibben believed the ancient flint spearheads and fragments of a Pleistocene mammoth were the products of an ancient human hunter he named Sandia Man. Unfortunately for Hibben, his findings were met with much skepticism and later dubbed a hoax by many in the anthropology community who accused Hibben of planting several of the spearheads.
The debate about the age of the artifacts Hibben found continues to this day, but most research points to erroneous dating methods and false claims by Hibben. One 1953 Time article says the tusk fragment Hibben found was tested using a radioactive carbon dating apparatus and Geiger counter by University of Michigan students. According to the article, their findings indicate the tusk is 20,000 years old and, “By implication, so is Sandia Man.”
In 1995 an article in the New Yorker by Douglas Preston put the controversy to rest. Preston concluded that Hibben’s findings were nothing but a hoax and that the oldest artifacts had indeed been planted. A plaque that was once displayed along the trail to Sandia Cave with Hibben’s name on it is no longer there, and the term Sandia Man has been struck from textbooks.
Despite the controversy, the cave is still a place of intrigue and mystery. In 1961, Sandia Cave was named a National Historic Landmark and to this day continues to be visited by thousands of adventurers and explorers each year.
Inside the cave and what to bring
From the mouth of the cave, visitors can climb up and over a large rock before the tunnel narrows to about 2-4 meters in diameter. The air is stagnant and dusty, and the cave floor is riddled with sharp rocks explorers will have to crawl over to get to the very end. Although there are no ancient artifacts left in the cave to observe, there is plenty of graffiti left behind by vandals wanting to leave their mark and deface the historic landmark.
There are several places where the crawlspace is very tight with little room for extra baggage such as a backpack or other accessories. Every movement will stir up dust that rests in the air and will inevitably be sucked into the mouths and nostrils of explorers, making it difficult to breathe in the darkness. For those who decide to venture all the way to the end of the tunnel, here’s what to bring:
- Extra flashlight
- Long pants/long sleeved shirt
Getting to Sandia Cave
From the north end of Sandia Ranger District (Placitas): From Albuquerque, drive north on I-25 to Exit 242 Bernalillo/NM 165. Stay to the right and proceed east on NM 165. The drive to the Sandia Cave is approximately 11.3 miles from I-25. NM 165 veers south and heads into the Sandia Mountains. When the pavement ends, the road is bumpy. The parking area is on the left.
From the South end of Sandia Ranger District (Albuquerque): From I-40 and Exit 175, drive toward Cedar Crest on N-14. Follow N-14 for approximately 6.5 miles to NM 536. Turn left onto NM 536. At about one mile past the base of the Sandia Peak Ski area, turn right and then take a quick left onto NM 165. Follow NM 165 for approximately 4 miles. The Sandia Cave parking area will be on the right.