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Hidden Treasures: The White Rock Overlook

The Rio Grande and the Cerros del Rio from the White Rock Overlook

The Rio Grande and the Cerros del Rio from the White Rock Overlook

When you are making that drive to Bandelier National Monument, or taking a day trip to hike in the Valle Grande National Preserve, don’t forget to make a short side trip through the little town of White Rock to enjoy the view from the White Rock Overlook. It’s just a few minutes jaunt off of Highway 4 – turn at the “white rock” and follow the signs through a neighborhood and a pleasant community park to the end of the street. (White Rock is a bedroom community to Los Alamos and the National Laboratory, and I never drive through it without hearing a Rod Sterling voiceover in my head. This place is suspended in 1950’s paranoia. Just keep driving. . . ) There’s parking and a little viewing platform:

The path to the viewpoint

The path to the viewpoint

and a spectacular view into the canyon of the Rio Grande – the Caja del Rio – waiting for you:

Looking northeast toward the Rockies from the Overlook

Looking northeast toward the Rockies from the Overlook

In the warmer months you’ll probably see a kayaker far below, or maybe a string of rafts. 

I like to take students here. The river has nearly dissected the small volcano that forms La Mesita and you can see some interesting details from the viewpoint:

La Mesita

La Mesita

And if you look at the rocks you’re standing on, you can see some the characteristic features of a basalt lava:

Vesicular basalt underfoot at the White Rock Overlook

Vesicular basalt underfoot at the White Rock Overlook

There are hundreds of “Black Mesas” scattered over the American West, and more often than not, they are held up by a resistant flow of black basalt forming their flat tops. This flow, which is actually related to the cluster of low volcanoes across the river from you, has a good display of gas bubbles frozen into the rock – vesicles – and also shows the very characteristic crusty white weathering of basalt in an arid climate like ours. Basalt is full of calcium-rich feldspars, and in dry climates the element leaches out to form these strikingly white caliche crusts. This is so diagnostic that you can impress your friends with your rock-identifying skills, with this simple observation.

So keep your camera ready and follow the signs to the White Rock Overlook the next time you head west out of Santa Fe. This is definitely one of those “off the beaten path” stops that you’ll want to make when you come to visit us.

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