The Challenge Trail (233) parallels the Crest Highway (NM 536) between the Tree Spring Trail and the Switchback Trail. For years I didn't consider the trail when looking for new places to hike in the Sandia Mountains. Two reasons for that. First, I don’t like being near the road noise from the Crest Highway. Second, I thought the Challenge Trail was a straight-up-and-down trail, and as an older hiker I prefer trails not dominated by steep grades. I’m here to say that with one proviso, the Challenge Trail is worth checking out.
The grades along the trail are very manageable. While the trail gains about 1800 feet, that’s over about 6.8 miles by my calculation (about 265 feet a mile). There are many level stretches along the way, and much of the trail follows old road beds (a great formula for easy hiking). Most of the time, the Crest Highway isn’t visible from the trail; instead you pass through woods and meadows.
Now for the proviso. On weekends and holidays, the traffic on the Crest Highway is noisy, in large part due to hordes of motorcycles loudly making their way up and down the mountain. Also, tracks I’ve seen in the trail suggest that peak mountain bike use of the trail can be heavy. During weekdays, neither the motorbikes nor the mountain bikes are much in evidence, so you can enjoy some peace and quiet despite being so close to the road.
Several formal parking areas provide easy access to the Challenge Trail. Here I assume that you access the trail at some point, hike upward, stop for lunch, and hike downward until you’re back at your car. The Challenge Trail is evolving, so don't be surprised if the following information is incomplete.
To start at the bottom of the trail, park at the Tree Spring Trailhead and walk up that trail about a third of a mile before hanging a right. From there to the bottom of the ski area is about 1.7 miles. (To continue on the Challenge Trail, you cross about 0.2 mile of the ski area while paralleling the highway.)
To start at the bottom of the ski area, park in the parking area next to the highway and walk up to the upper parking lot (closed in the summer). From there to the Capulin Picnic Ground and snowplay area is about 1.1 miles.
To start at the Capulin Picnic Ground, park there, cross the highway, and head a few meters upslope until you intercept the Challenge Trail. The obvious path up from the road begins downhill from the turnoff into the picnic ground. From there to the 10K trail is about 2.3 miles. Along the way you'll pass through the Nine Mile picnic area, which is closed but has some picnic tables that allow for a very civilized lunch stop.
To start at the 10K trailhead, park in the south side parking lot (to your left as you head up the mountain). Start on the trail at the southeast (downhill) end of the parking lot, and almost immediately take the right fork (the left fork is the southbound 10K Trail). A few meters later, take the right fork again. From there to the upper terminus of the Challenge Trail is about 1.5 miles. Shortly before reaching the end, you'll cross Service Road 488, which leads south from the Ellis Trailhead.