The Sandia Mountains, immediately east of Albuquerque, have several dozen if not over 100 Medallion Trees. They are very large trees that have a round metal medallion (smaller than a silver dollar) mounted on them about chest high from the ground. Each medallion is named for an event that occurred on or around the tree’s germination date. The medallions are briefly mentioned on page 100 of The Gentle Art of Wandering.
The medallion’s creator (or creators) has not been made public. Whoever did make the medallions had the patience to locate very large trees in the Sandias, drill core samples, carefully count the rings, make the medallions, and then return to the tree to mount them.
What an incredible pastime for the medallion creator. And for us, what an incredible way to enhance a hike by spotting one while walking through the mountains. Many of them can be found along or near the Faulty Trail on the east side of the Sandias. The Faulty Trail is featured in Hikes 2 and 14 in the 3rd Edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Albuquerque.
If you search hard enough on the Internet, you can find a list of the medallions with their GPS coordinates. The lists are probably not complete, but they are a good start. As for using a GPS to find a medallion, I have oftentimes found it easier to just spot a medallion rather than rely upon the GPS. A handheld GPS device can get you into the vicinity of a medallion, but with variables such as map datum and inherent inaccuracies in handheld devices, there is a very good chance that you’ll have to do some searching before finding the medallion.
To look for medallions along the Faulty Trail, we’ll start at the trailhead of Hike 2 at Canyon Estates in Tijeras. If you don’t have the book, there is an excellent trail map at the trailhead. The hike actually begins on the South Crest trail, and we’ll have to follow it for a mile before reaching the Faulty Trail.
When you reach the very small stream or trickle of water crossing the trail above the travertine cave, you might want to look at the limestone wall to your right just before the stream. It’s loaded with marine fossils.
We’ll actually find our first medallion tree on the South Crest trail after the stream and a little before reaching the Faulty trail.
Soon after the Huygens Manometer tree, we’ll reach the Faulty trail. The first part of the Faulty is very steep, but it soon levels out and enters a mixed forest of piñon, ponderosa, and wavyleaf oak.
If you’re lucky, you might spot what was once a path or route heading off to the right. Our next medallion is around 200 or 300 feet off to right on the old trail. It celebrates the First Performance of Hamlet. I found this medallion a few years ago totally by accident. I bumped into it when I left the main trail to use the facilities.
While wandering around the area near the Hamlet medallion looking for other possible medallion trees, I spotted something unusual for the Sandias – a small chunk of obsidian and a potsherd. With Native-American settlements at the base of the mountain, the mountains were a place for hunting or gathering wood and acorns. When you let yourself wander, you’ll always find something. Even if it isn’t what you were looking for.
Not long after the Hamlet medallion, you might see another medallion off to your left and high up the slope mounted on a large ponderosa.
Continuing up the trail, there will soon be a cluster of three medallions. Two will be 20 or 30 feet off to the right in the middle of the woods but still visible from the trail. And one will be off to the left right on the trail. It’s so close to the trail that it is easy to miss.
Very soon after the Phosphorous medallion, the trail will enter a ponderosa grove. Off to the left you might see a huge, now fallen, ponderosa with a medallion celebrating George Washington’s Birth. According to the list I found on the Internet, there are two other medallion trees right in this area. So far I have never found them. I don’t know if the trees have fallen or if I’ve just missed them. Regardless of what you find in this area, you’ll still be able to breath in the wonderful scent of the ponderosa grove.
From here, there is a gap in medallion trees (or at least in what I have found). If we continue north on the Faulty trail, we’ll soon pass the junction with the Upper Faulty trail. There are two more medallion trees very close to each other maybe a half mile or so north of the junction.
At this point, you might want to turn around to keep your hike within the five-to-seven mile range. You might even want to complete the route of Hike 2 by taking the Upper Faulty trail back to the South Crest trail.
If you have the time or, even better, have a car spotted at the trailhead of Hike 14, you can continue north on the Faulty trail. Along the way, you’ll have a chance to spot several more medallion trees – including these.
When you reach the Native-American thong tree, you’ll be entering the area of Hike 14 and will have one more medallion tree to go. It’s on a section of the trail that has now been bypassed. The Forest Service has mounted a trail sign pointing the way to the medallion tree.
The Forest Service has never authorized the medallions and does not encourage these types of endeavors. But they do recognize that they are out there and that people like to look for them, and that’s why they erected the sign pointing the way to the medallion.
As for us, the medallions are one more incentive to get out there and wander and to see what we can find when we go on a hike. Even if you don’t find a medallion, you’ll still have a wonderful hike, a chance to take in the scents of the ponderosa, and also get in some great views along the way. And if that isn’t enough, with forest cover the entire way on the Faulty trail, you’ll have the chance to engage in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing!