In late July and early August of 2008 I took another trip out west to visit my family in El Paso, Texas, and had the chance to travel to the Santa Fe region of New Mexico, my favorite state. My sister and brother-in-law, and myself, took off from El Paso and headed north on I-25 the day after the remnants of Hurricane Dolly had drenched their northwest El Paso neighborhood with over four inches of rain - a very rare event for that city in the desert! It was only drizzling when we left El Paso the morning of July 27, and the further north we drove along I-25 the more the skies cleared. By the time we had reached the mid-point of New Mexico it was mostly sunny, although in every direction we could see the remains of the low-pressure system that had once been Hurricane Dolly circulating around us, which by that point covered the entire state.


Our destination was Santa Fe, not so much to explore that wonderful city, but to use it as a base of operations to explore some of the surrounding countryside, in particular a couple of the US National Monuments - Bandelier and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. On our way, once we had reached the Albuquerque metropolitan area, we headed east on I-40 for a few miles to reach the junction of NM14 which heads north to Santa Fe. This is the scenic route known as the Turquoise Trail - a two-lane highway through some very beautiful country, and much preferred to the interstate route if you have the time. There are a number of funky little towns along the way, the most compelling of which is a place called Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), which was an old coal mining town until the last mine closed around 1954 and it became a ghost town for the next 20 years.

Then in the early 1970s Madrid's revival began, driven largely by artists who were drawn to the area, and it has since become one of the funkiest and coolest little artist colonies in New Mexico, and a place not to be missed if you happen to be nearby. A town of only about 149 people according to the 2000 US Census, it is a stopping-off point on the way to Santa Fe, a wide-spot in the road lined with art galleries owned by those who either cannot afford the ritzy glitz of Santa Fe, or choose not to, preferring the rural ambience that Madrid offers.

We stopped at one of the only places in town to get some lunch, the Mine Shaft Tavern, which seems to be the social hub around which Madrid revolves. Opened in 1946, it features a 40-foot long bar reputed to be the longest in the State of New Mexico, live music, great food (although they were out of their famous buffalo burgers when we stopped by), and a relaxed, friendly and cheerful atmosphere. It ain't no fancy place, mind you, but it's definitely worth a visit whenever you're in the area. It also seems to be very family-friendly to all kinds, from the laid-back bikers for whom cruising NM14 is a major attraction, to vacationing tourists with kids, and everyone in between.

After lunch we took an hour or so to explore Madrid, which given its size is no problem if you're pressed for time. There is no main street aside from NM14, and everything in town is located within easy walking distance of the Mine Shaft Tavern. There are dozens of galleries which range from photography, sculpture, crafts, pottery, textiles, and even - in the words of one gallery - "curious thangs."  

Or perhaps even "very cool stuff" in the words of the Gypsy Plaza.

Above is the exterior of the Color & Light gallery just next door. One of the great things about New Mexico - and the southwest in general, for that matter - is the complete lack of inhibition for using bright, rich colors to accentuate the environment.

That theme carries over into the artwork as well, as you can see above in this whimsical sculpture. Price unknown, but I wish I had an apartment big enough with an appropriate corner for it, although I would imagine the freight would kill the deal.

Above is another one the galleries in Madrid, where you can revel in the funky-ness and bright colors.

And if the permanent structures aren't enough for your tastes, there is an endless stream of colorful folks passing by and stopping for a while, in this case a couple on their custom trike powered by a V8 engine. Looks like a very comfy and stylish ride and an excellent way to see the countryside.

Above is pictured the Engine House Theatre, where every weekend since 1983 classic "good vs. evil" western melodramas are performed, and audiences have the opportunity to pelt the villains with marshmallows.

This rugged Stonehenge-like arch is the gateway to another art gallery and sculpture garden.

And then, right in the middle of the main drag, among all the well-kept galleries and shops, lies this dilapidated old house, still apparently occupied judging from the cactus garden in pots on the front porch that seem well-tended. The roof on the main part of the house appears rather new, though the rest of it could use a bit of sprucing up and maybe a fresh coat of paint, but then again it does add something to the overall ambience and charm of Madrid.


We didn't spend a lot of time in Santa Fe proper, but "The City Different" doesn't seem to be lacking for visitors. It's compact downtown area surrounds a city block sized central plaza, and the adjacent and nearby streets are filled with countless art galleries, restaurants, and high-end clothiers. Above is pictured the Santa Fe Museum of Art, which exemplifies the unified style of architecture that the city adopted over the course of the 20th century.

Running the length of one side of the plaza is the Palace of the Governors, pictured above, which dates from 1610 and is the oldest continuously occupied public building the the US, now housing the New Mexico History Museum. The shaded sidewalk facing the plaza is lined with Native American artists displaying and selling their wares which, not surprisingly, includes a vast quantity of silver and turquoise jewelry.

One block away from the plaza is the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, or more simply, Saint Francis Cathedral, the main entrance and rose window of which is seen above.

Santa Fe is reportedly the second largest art market in the US after New York, and you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the city that does not have an art gallery within a stone's throw, but the highest concentration of those galleries, and probably the most expensive as well, lies along a two mile section of Canyon Road just to the east of the downtown plaza. The photo above was taken during a late afternoon stroll we took along Canyon Road.

Many of the structures along this narrow road were actually residences, some of which date back as far as 1750, but beginning in the early 20th century the neighborhood began its transformation into an artists colony. The galleries along Canyon Road are, for the most part, very high-end, by appointment only, and cater to the wealthy art collector. Yet it remains a very popular area for tourists to visit, even those who can't afford to enter any of the galleries.


Just off the road between Santa Fe and the Bandelier National Monument is the little town of White Rock, New Mexico, which was originally a town built for the construction workers of nearby Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, that now serves as a bedroom community for Los Alamos employees and their families. If you are on your way to Bandelier from the direction of Santa Fe, you owe it to yourself to visit the Overlook Park there which affords a spectacular view of the White Rock Canyon carved out by the Rio Grande. There are several trails into the canyon itself if you have the time and inclination.

Above is one of the vistas you can see from Overlook Park, with a cane cholla cactus in the foreground. Stay clear of those or you will be sorry!

Another view from Overlook Park shows the Caja del Rio Plateau in the distance.


Just a few miles southwest of White Rock and just south of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, off of NM4, lies the entrance to Bandelier National Monument. Beginning in 1880, anthropologist and historian Adolph Bandelier made the first extensive modern exploration of the area under sponsorship of the Archeological Institute of America, along with the help of the local Cochiti Pueblo people whose ancestors had originally settled the area beginning over 10,000 years ago. The national monument bearing his name was established in 1916. An overlook just a short distance from the entrance station affords the view pictured above of Frijoles Canyon, the main area of the monument that contains the largest collection of ancient ruins accessible by well-maintained trails. Bandelier's total area is nearly 34,000 acres, and while there are only three miles of road within it, there are 70 miles of trails for the adventurous backcountry hiker.

This is a very popular national monument, especially for families with children, and if you plan to visit during the summer tourist season, you would be well-advised to get there early in the day, as parking is very limited. We got there by around 10:30 am at the beginning of August and the main parking lot was already full, although we found a spot in the overflow area for picnickers and RVs just nearby. If none of those spots are available you're going to be out of luck until someone leaves, so get there early if you don't want to mess up your entire day's schedule.

On the short, paved loop trail just past the visitor center, the first site you come across is the restored remains of the kiva seen above. Kivas were rooms believed to have been used by the puebloans for ceremonial or religious purposes.

Just beyond, and still on the paved portion of the trail, lies the site of the pueblo of Tyuonyi, a portion of whose remains is pictured above, believed to have reached the height of its development in the late 1400s.

Archeologists are at work underneath the blue tents above restoring the mortar between the original stones used in constructing Tyuonyi to preserve the remaining structure for future generations. Each of the many rooms and there may have been more than 600 of them in the original pueblo measure somewhat less than ten feet square.

The paved portion of the trail ends at Tyuonyi, and from there on involves some slightly more strenuous hiking and climbing into the cliff faces, although not a hardship at all for anyone in reasonably good health. In the photograph above you can see some of the trails, handrails, and visitors making their way along the well-maintained route past the talus houses portion of the trail. The rock faces of these cliffs have a natural "Swiss cheese" appearance owing to their volcanic origin, and the ancient puebloans took advantage of these existing openings by enlarging the soft rock into rooms and adding facades to the front.

Above is pictured a reconstruction of one of the talus houses next to the cliff.

A closer view of a reconstructed talus house is seen above. The horizontal timber beams were used to support roofs and allow for multiple levels to these structures. The interior rooms are exceedingly small and the passageways between them even smaller. There were apparently no obese people among the inhabitants.

The odd erosion characteristics of the rock sometimes leads to unexpected results like the natural sculpture seen above, a bird-faced seated creature that seems to be gazing out over Frijoles Canyon. An early afternoon thunderstorm billows up in the background.

Just past the talus houses cliff dwellings is a connection with the Frey Trail, a wilderness trail which ascends steeply up the cliff side to the top of the ridge and eventually leads to the Juniper Campground, a two mile hike away. We followed the trail only to the ridge top before returning to the main trail, but even that short side trip is worthwhile and affords some spectacular views like the one above. It's also much less heavily traveled and a nice way to escape the crowds for a little while.

Rejoining the main trail and continuing on, the next major attraction is called Long House another series of cliff dwellings which have been partially restored. Visible in the photograph above are some of the foundation stones of structures which were built in front of the cliffs, as well as evidence of the many small rooms which were carved into the cliff face. Many small holes which parallel the ground surface were apparently anchoring points for the timbers used to support roofs and allow for multiple levels to the original structures.

A closer view of the cliff face at Long House shows the timber support holes at several levels, showing that this must have been a three-story structure. Also visible are several of the many petroglyphs carved into the rock face. From the Long House you can either take the trail back towards the visitor center, or continue on about a mile along Frijoles Creek through the forest to Alcove House.

Alcove House is only accessible by climbing a series of four wooden ladders that ascend a total of 140 feet above Frijoles Creek to just below the ridge line. The photograph above shows the last of these four ladders and Alcove House just below the ridge line. I have to admit not being a fan of heights, and I can feel acrophobic standing on a six-foot stepladder, but for me at least, the sensation is not quite the same when I'm in an environment like this. These are very sturdy ladders which are securely bolted together and bolted to the cliff face they don't sway one bit and feel very secure. Even some rather small children were scampering up and down them with no problem, but then again children are fearless.

I did not ascend this final ladder to the Alcove House, although I had already ascended the first three without a problem. My problem with the last one was the thunderstorm that was just about on top of us by this point. Lightning has a tendency to hit ridges like this. That threat didn't stop others, including my sister and brother-in-law, from going all the way up. I stayed at this level so I could identify the remains if it came to that, although fortunately it did not. They eventually came down safely and we trekked back to the visitor center for some lunch at the snack bar there before leaving. The thunderstorm passed uneventfully and it was sunny again by the time we ate. 


Leaving Bandelier National Monument we continued west along NM4 and headed into the Jemez Mountains. At the highest point of the road, near Cerro Grande and still within the boundaries of Bandelier, the altitude is about 10,000 feet, and the sky takes on that deep blue color you normally only see at such high altitudes. In May of 2000 the vegetation in the Jemez range was tinder-dry, and Bandelier officials made the fateful decision to proceed with a controlled wilderness burn in the hopes of preventing a disastrous wildfire which could easily have been sparked by lightning or human carelessness, and which could threaten nearby Los Alamos.

As things turned out the controlled burn, which began on May 4, 2000, quickly got out of control due to high winds, and the resulting Cerro Grande Fire became the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history, not being declared fully extinguished until July 20. By May 8 the fire forced Los Alamos National Laboratory to close, and on May 10 the entire town of Los Alamos was evacuated and 235 homes were destroyed. Several of the laboratory's buildings were also destroyed, though reportedly none which housed any critical nuclear material. Nearby White Rock was evacuated a day later. The lingering effects of this huge fire can still be clearly seen on many of the mountain slopes and ridges, such as in the photograph above taken near the Cerro Grande summit, which shows numerous trees which were consumed by the conflagration.

The photograph above, taken from the same vantage point looking east, shows an aspen tree completely shorn of branches, and huge ponderosa pines felled by the fire teams battling the blaze. Scorching is evident on the bark of the felled trees as well as those that remain standing, both here and throughout the range, but you can also see how the forest is beginning to recover. Fires are critical to the ecology of a forest, clearing dead undergrowth and allowing for the continual rejuvenation of new growth in fact, some species of trees have evolved seeds which will only germinate once they have been charred by fire. Modern forestry attempts to manage wildfires to benefit the forest as well as protect the properties of humans which have been constructed in their midst or nearby, which is why sometimes so-called prescribed fires are started by forest managers. Sometimes it doesn't work out quite the way forest managers intended, as in the case of the Cerro Grande Fire. Fortunately most wildfires such as this one do not occur in the vicinity of laboratories which work with critical nuclear material.

A short distance west beyond Cerro Grande lies one of the most remarkable landscapes I have ever seen, the basin of the Valles Caldera, an ancient supervolcano that erupted over a million years ago. The collapse of the lava dome here created a 14 mile in diameter crater, a small portion of which is seen in the photograph above, which is now the largest grassland meadow in the world. To say that this place is huge is a grand understatement. You cannot capture or convey its size in a photograph you simply have to see it before you to attempt to comprehend its scale. It spans from horizon to horizon, ringed by the forested mountain ridges in the distance that define the cone walls of the volcano. The land was formerly known as the Baca Ranch, but for $101 million, the 95,000 acre ranch was sold to the US government in 1999.

On July 25, 2000, President Bill Clinton enacted the Valles Caldera Preservation Act, 16 U.S.C. Sections 698v-698v-10, that created the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Noting that the careful husbandry of the Baca Ranch by its private owners, including selective timbering, limited grazing and hunting, and the use of prescribed fire, had preserved a mix of healthy range and timber land with significant species diversity, including New Mexico's largest herd of elk, thereby serving as a model for self-sustaining land development and use.

Thanks, President Clinton!


Located in between Santa Fe and Albuquerque several miles west of I-25 and just beyond the Pueblo de Cochiti lies the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, one of America's newest national monuments, having been declared such in January 2001 during the last days of the Clinton administration. It is a relatively compact area of just over 4000 acres, with less than three miles of trails, but includes some astonishingly beautiful scenery and unique geological features.

Access to Kasha-Katuwe, which means "white cliffs" in the native language of the Cochiti people, is accomplished only by a five mile drive beyond the entrance station along a very rough gravel road. I'll give you a tip if you're thinking about visiting the road seems to be negotiated much better at the posted speed limit of 25 mph than it does at slower speeds. That seems counter-intuitive, but apparently at the posted speed limit your vehicle's suspension doesn't have as much time to react to the bumpy surface of the road, so it seems smoother that way, although keep in mind that you're merely skating along the surface that way, so be careful.

Another important tip, especially if you plan to visit in the summer as we did, is to take plenty of water with you. There is no drinking water available at Kasha-Katuwe, and it was about 100 degrees in the shade when we arrived in late morning, so bring more water than you think you will need. Also, there is no visitor center, so don't expect any souvenir t-shirts or a snack bar. There are some nice, covered picnic tables near the parking area, as well as clean, well-maintained latrines. Cooking fires and camping are not permitted.

There are two trail segments within Kasha-Katuwe the easy 1.2 mile Cave Loop Trail which is wheelchair accessible, but doesn't get you to the most impressive areas of the monument; and the 1.5 mile Canyon Trail which is more difficult, but takes you through the slot canyon, through the heart of the tent rock formations, and eventually to the top of a mesa that provides some truly spectacular views. The photograph above shows the beginning of the Canyon Trail and the entrance to the slot canyon. The ponderosa pine on the right is over 100 feet tall.

Above is a closer view of the roots of that ponderosa pine, a giant gnarled claw clinging to the canyon floor.

Between the cliffs pictured above is the beginning of the slot canyon portion of the trail. At the top of the ridge on the right you can see some of the tent rock formations, which result from the erosion of the various layers of volcanic pumice, ash, and tuff deposits, over 1000 feet thick. These layers were laid down over six million years ago by the pyroclastic flow from the Jemez volcanic field, much earlier than the last eruption of the Valles Caldera.

The slot canyon meanders for about a half-mile through the steep cliffs and gets quite narrow in some places. It is a place of extraordinary beauty and quiet tranquility, the rugged cliffs displaying the numerous layers of rock and the graceful lines of the erosion that formed the canyon.

Emerging from the slot canyon you enter a much wider portion of the Canyon Trail, dominated by the most spectacular tent rock formations in the monument.

We got a brief respite from the heat thanks to some passing clouds as we made our way through this portion of the canyon towards the most difficult section, the climb to the mesa summit a steep 630-foot ascent which takes you to an altitude of 6760 feet. Take this climb slowly and carefully, because the trail is loose gravel and can be slippery underfoot, there are no handrails, and if you fall it could easily be fatal.

Once you reach the summit of the mesa, you can walk along the ridge and enjoy incredible views of the canyon below, like the one I saw in the photograph above as a parting of the clouds allowed the sunlight to illuminate a portion of the scene.

Another view of the canyon from the mesa ridge shows many of the tent rock formations.

In the photograph above, a wider panoramic view to the east from atop the mesa ridge at Kasha-Katuwe, you can see many miles. Just to the right and below the mountain peak at right-center on the horizon is a patch of blue water, Cochiti Lake, which is formed by the massive earthen dam across the Rio Grande visible just in front of it. Cochiti Dam was constructed under supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1965 and 1975 as a flood and sediment control project, and was and remains a controversial project. The dam is the eleventh largest earthen dam in the world, containing over 65 million cubic yards of earth and rock. It rises 250 feet over the Rio Grande streambed and is over five miles wide.

The dam's construction was opposed from the beginning by the Cochiti Pueblo native American people, on whose land it is constructed, because it inundated agricultural land they had utilized for many years. The Cochiti people filed suit against the US government over construction of the dam, and finally winning their suit in 2001 were awarded get this a public apology from the US Army Corps of Engineers. If you arrive at Kasha-Katuwe from the east, you will drive directly past the dam, and it is huge.

There is only one way back from the mesa ridge at Kasha-Katuwe, and that's the way you got there, so it gives you another opportunity to get those photographs you might have missed on the way in. We returned to the parking area by way of the second half of the Cave Loop trail, and stopped for a little picnic of fruit, nuts, and trail mix at one of the canopied tables near our vehicle, wishing that we had brought more water with us.

Kasha-Katuwe is an awe-inspiring place and well deserving of its national monument status, though at the moment it seems to be relatively little-known, even among people who have lived in the area for years. As a result, and probably also due to its small size and the lack of amenities, you won't find the crowds of families that flock to places like nearby Bandelier National Monument. That being said, we were surprised upon descending the trail from the mesa ridge to encounter, ascending the trail, a couple from Germany and their two young boys that we had seen the day before at Bandelier, so it can't be that unknown.

Perhaps someday the Cochiti people will see fit to pave the road leading to this remarkable treasure, but even if they don't, it's still well worth the bumpy trip to experience.


Copyright 2017 by Rich Lauver - Baltimore - Maryland - USA