IN AND AROUND SANTA FE, NEW
BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT
CERRO GRANDE, THE JEMEZ MOUNTAINS, & VALLES CALDERA
KASHA-KATUWE TENT ROCKS NATIONAL MONUMENT
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 -
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
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
Above is another one the
galleries in Madrid, where you can revel in the funky-ness and bright
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
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
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
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.
THE JEMEZ MOUNTAINS
& VALLES CALDERA
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
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
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
Copyright © 2017 by Rich Lauver - Baltimore - Maryland - USA