Under The Volcano

Under The Volcano


Under the Volcano

Today I’m going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on this area, Stephen Maynard: “The Geology of the Cerrillos Hills“. My intention is to highlight some of the bold features you might see on a walk in the new State Park on a sunny afternoon, with a few photographs to guide us along. If this piques your interest, don’t hesitate to build some context by having a look at Stephen’s excellent and easy to read summary.

“Grand Central” in the Cerrillos Hills

Everyone has seen pictures of volcanoes, but did you ever wonder what it might look like under the smoking mountain? A walk in the Cerrillos Hills will give you that opportunity, with a little guidance from the geologists. All that pent-up magma, liquid and mobile, seeking a new equilibrium in the Earth’s crust above those places where it has been born, exerts a tremendous amount of pressure as it wedges its way up through the rocks. In places it pauses and pools horizontally, splitting the crust and lifting it up, forming a sort of gigantically hot flat pancake in the crust. If the magma freezes there, the body of rock it leaves is called a sill. (Think flat, like a window sill).

If the pancake of magma continues to grow, eventually its roof will rupture in vertical cracks, and the hot batter will squirt up into the splits with great violence, propping them open. If the magma freezes here, the body of rock it leaves is called a dike. Exposed by erosion at the earth’s surface, these features often stand up like walls or dams, hence the name. Here’s a small dike you might walk by in the park:

A dike exposed by erosion in the Cerrillos Hills

While these splits and ruptures can cease at any time, if they do continue upward and breach the surface, the magma gets out. We call the “getting out” a volcanic eruption.

In our part of the American West, it so happens that a very thick body of shale – mud that has accumulated on the floor of an ocean or a lake, and subsequently compacted into rock – stood in the way of the ascending magma and led to some unusual effects.

Laccoliths are sills with bulging roofs, bowing up the rocks above, like a blister. In the Cerrillos area, these blisters actually stacked themselves one above the other, forming – in the fevered imagination of a geologist – something like a stony Christmas tree. The relative weakness of the thick shale encouraged this phenomenon. To put you out of your suspense, the magma did eventually reach the surface, forming a volcano, but persistent erosion dispersed the volcano and etched its way down into the stack of sills and dikes among which we can walk, today.

An outcropping along the railroad tracks that might help put things into perspective.

The pale grey stuff on the left, with the skirts of loose talus, is the shale. (It has a name, the Mancos Shale, about which more in another piece) The craggy orangy-grey cliffs, forming the little peak on the right, is a partially exposed sill of frozen magma. Keep in mind, from this perspective, the magma didn’t so much push up through the shale as out toward you. And it froze in place far underground. The little layer of orange stuff capping the grey shale on the left is a modern blanket of loose rock eroded from the sills and dikes and spread out as a thick rocky soil.

The magma frozen into the sills and dikes in the Cerrillos Hills has a very distinctive texture. Here’s an example:

Andesite porphyry

You can see a thick speckling of white crystals and clots of black crystals suspended in a greenish-gray mass of stone. An igneous rock with this sort of texture – visible crystals floating in a fine grained groundmass – is called a porphyry. To a geologist’s eye, this texture indicates at least two episodes of cooling. And the stony appearance of the groundmass is a clue that the final episode of cooling was fairly rapid and occurred under low confining pressures, a characteristic of volcanic activity.

By the way, that dark mineral you see is rich in iron, so as these rocks weather at the surface, they acquire a patina of rust. That’s why the rocky outcroppings in the hills are more orange than grey.

As if all this blistering wasn’t enough, in a second episode of igneous activity, a big slug of magma of somewhat different composition forced its way through the pile of laccoliths to feed another generation of volcanism. Some of this magma froze into a large, roughly cylindrical plug – called a stock – right in the middle of our stack of sills, and when erosion hacked its way into this mass, it left the stock standing in relief. It’s big. We call it Grand Central, now, and you can see a picture of it at the beginning of this entry.

This second episode of intrusion was sufficiently forceful to dome up and distort the entire package of shale, sills, and dikes. And this mass of melted crust had an additional cargo of elements humans find either useful or attractive – like gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. Now we’re talking!

An intrusion of this magnitude takes a long time to crystallize and cool off, and as it does so, all kinds of secondary effects can occur. The heat of the magma sets groundwater into motion. Much of this water is superheated and aggressively corrosive. The crystallizing magma itself rejects volatile elements like hydrogen (i.e. more water) chlorine, and sulfur. It also rejects elements that don’t fit into the atomic framework of the bulk of the minerals that are crystallizing: the heavier metals that we love to use in wedding rings and bullets and car batteries and telephones. This hot brew of chemicals seeks its way toward the surface as best it can, staining everything it touches and leaving behind crusty residues of exotic minerals rich in those valuable metals.

In the Cerrillos Hills a system of fractures oriented in a northeasterly direction guided these potent juices to create bleached and iron stained zones of rock the old miners called veins or lodes. Erosion gradually unearthed some of them (with weathering effects adding lovely new complexities, one of which is called turquoise) and miners both ancient and modern began poking around for the riches:

Prospect pit in the Cerrillos Hills

The ancient ones (and not a few modern rockhounds) sought turquoise, which was used for adornment and was traded far and wide. They also used some of the lead minerals to make pottery glazes. The pragmatic Spanish had no use for turquoise, but lead was always useful for bullets, copper for utensils, and silver for money. The turn-of-the-last-century Anglo miners loved that silver too, but also had industrial markets for lead, zinc, and copper. (There’s not much gold in the Cerrillos Hills, but in the rugged mountains you can see just to the south, the Ortiz Mountains, there was – and is – plenty of gold) Turquoise experienced a new vogue in jewelry and small mines were developed to find it. (You always wondered why the box from Tiffany’s had that particular color, didn’t you?)

As usual, the richer and easier to find deposits were exploited to the point of exhaustion. There’s still a faint halo of copper minerals in the rocks, exploitable by modern mining techniques – but it would require the removal of the Cerrillos Hills themselves to get it (not to mention an ocean of unavailable water) and this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But for now, we can admire the efforts of the early miners, preserved in the park, and we can enjoy a unique natural museum of subterranean activity – under the volcano – laid out for anyone who takes the time to look.

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano Today I'm going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on...

read more

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holiday Greetings from everyone at the Inn on the Alameda! All of us at the Inn are hopeful for a happy and prosperous holiday season, and a New Year of abundance and health. The Schepps Family have been owner-operators now for 34 years,...

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The Acceleration Into Summer

The Acceleration Into Summer

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Cerrillos Hills State Park has a number of trails, all of which you can see on the maps found on the website cerrilloshills.org. There is little shade in the park and your exposure to the sun is high, so be prepared with hats, water, and sunblock. Pets are welcome on leashes. Broken Saddle Riding Company uses many of the park’s trails for escorted horse rides. Since this is a State Park, there is a $5 day use fee, payable at the parking area near the entrance of the park. There are no camping facilities.

Apache Plume in full headdress in the Cerrillos Hills

We are moving rapidly into summer, here in the Southern Rockies, and the natural world is bursting with activity. My favorite change can be seen from here in Santa Fe, looking up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east: the grey expanses of aspen high on the mountains are donning their bright yellow-green coat, with the usual suddenness that never fails to impress me. It’s a look as soft as the fuzz on an elk’s new antler, and as welcome as summer itself.

Red columbines along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

The alchemy of change is strong up there among the leafing aspen, and this is that brief moment of transition when the fairies appear in the forest. By which I mean, the fairy flowers; those two species that seem the most fairy-like of all our woodland flowers here – the diminutive Red Columbine, and the elusive Calypso Orchid.

A flower like this, bright red, with nectaries perched well up into tubes, is naturally pollinated by hummingbirds, and you can hear the flying jewels chattering under the forest canopy and whirring about. The complexity of this flower is fascinating:

Hummingbird’s view of a columbine

Even more intriguing are the ephemeral Calypso orchids, or fairy slippers. After finding just one of these, years ago, along the Bear Wallow Trail, I have been searching in vain for another look. Our wet winter must have been the key to my luck this year, because I found an entire cluster of these beauties:

Calypso bulbosa along the Winsor Trail

This orchid has a surprisingly sweet fragrance, although I have to warn you that you’ll have to put your head practically on the forest floor to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, here below, in the more arid hills, a tougher set of flowers is showing off its resiliency. Our newest State Park, the Cerrillos Hills State Park, south of Santa Fe, has been offering a variety of nature walks including a Wildflower Walk.

There were splashes of color everywhere:

Paintbrush growing among the rocks

Verbena

This was a very pleasant way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon.

You can keep track of activities like these by visiting the New Mexico State Parks website. And if you prefer to explore on your own, local bookstores like the Travel Bug, Collected Works, or the Nature Center at the Randall Davey Audubon Center have good selections of guidebooks, from the most basic pamphlets, to tomes only a botanist could love.

Getting There: Cerrillos Hills State Park is about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, just a couple of miles off of Highway 14, the famous “Turquoise Trail” that connects Santa Fe to the eastern outskirts of Albuquerque. Turn into the scenic little village of Cerrillos, and then turn right at the sleeping dog – er, first stop sign, and follow the dirt road past the railroad tracks and Broken Saddle Riding Company to the park. Be sure and bring $5 to pay the day use fee.

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano Today I'm going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on...

read more

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holiday Greetings from everyone at the Inn on the Alameda! All of us at the Inn are hopeful for a happy and prosperous holiday season, and a New Year of abundance and health. The Schepps Family have been owner-operators now for 34 years,...

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Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

GHOST RANCH AND THE RIM VISTA TRAIL

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

One of the most rewarding day trips you can make during your visit to Santa Fe is an excursion up to the village of Abiquiu and beyond, past Georgia O’Keeffe’s house (where you might want to pre-arrange a tour) and into Ghost Ranch, where you are always welcome to stop at the Presbyterian Retreat Center and stretch your legs, or even have a picnic, surrounded by the spectacular pastel cliffs that drew Ms. O’Keeffe into their embrace for so many years:

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

You might even drive a little ways beyond and visit Echo Amphitheater hollowed into the cliffs, or – if the weather’s fine – brave the 13 miles of rough dirt road skirting the Chama River and have a look at the haunting Christ in the Desert Monastery, isolated and spiritually charged, waiting silently for you in its own little Zion.

Or you can be a masochist and hike the Rim Vista Trail.

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

You can’t help but notice a dramatic change in the landscape as you leave the Rio Grande in the town of Espanola and drive up the Chama River toward Ghost Ranch. Not far beyond Abiquiu mounting tablelands of red rock replace the buff colored hills of the Rio Grande Valley on your horizon, and soon you are climbing up a narrow cut of the river to enter a new world: the “Piedra Lumbre” – the Luminous Stone – a bright vista of warmly glowing hills guarded by the cliffs of Ghost Ranch to the north, and the iconic blue Cerro Pedernal – Ms. O’Keeffe’s touchstone (and personal possession, if God kept His promise) – to the south. And in a sense you have entered a new world: you’ve made an abrupt transition from the sere rift valley that guides the Rio Grande southward, into the colorful mesas and buttes of the vast Colorado Plateau.

For years a friend of mine had noticed an intriguing entry in local Sierra Club’s book of day hikes, called the Rim Vista Trail, and on this past Sunday, eager for an outing, convinced me to make the hike with him. It promised great views of Ghost Ranch, and that, together with the weather being fine and the lure of New Mexico’s best breakfast burritos, sold by Bode’s, in Abiquiu, for a late breakfast on the way, was more than enough to pull me along.

I’m not sure I can recommend this trail for your first experience of O’Keeffe Country. For one thing, it is a relentlessly uphill trek, on a stony, ankle-twisting trail churned by cattle and elk. You gain at least 1700 feet of elevation and there isn’t much shade. In fact, the cruelty of our 2005 drought and ensuing explosion of pine bark beetle is strongly evident along the way:

Drought stricken pinon forest

Drought stricken pinon forest

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

We estimated that between 85% to 90% of the pinon pines had been killed here! Only an ecologist could take pleasure in this sad scene. And yet he or she would no doubt note the young and healthy new saplings emerging everywhere beneath the tough twisted junipers, bringing a new cycle of life to the land.

Unaccountably, a few old survivors still held their heads high:

The trail follows an ancient landslide of arid hills, covered mostly in juniper now, which allows you to avoid the impossibly steep cliffs of the Entrada Sandstone (which form such a prominent and colorful component of the landscape here) and gain some elevation on the mesa. Eventually you reach the base of another set of sandstone cliffs and begin an angled climb to the rim, to receive your reward:

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

The trees are healthier up on this mesa, and it’s a great place to shed your pack, eat a snack, and do a little nature journaling:

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

These ledges are formed by the Dakota Sandstone, one of the most important sandstone “bookmarks”, as I think of them, in the pages of the geologic record of the Rocky Mountain States. The ancient sands, nearly 100 million years old – well within the Cretaceous Period, the age of dinosaurs – are river-laid at the bottom and beach-like at the top, and they mark a major reorganization of the tectonics of western North America, and indeed, of the entire planet. The Jurassic stomping grounds of the dinosaurs went under the waves for the last time, to be buried ultimately by the thick grey marine muds of the Mancos Shale. These rocks wouldn’t see the sun again until the Rockies shouldered their way up, 30 to 40 million years later.

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

The Cretaceous Period, by the way, was a time during which flowering plants gained dominance over more primitive (yet very much still with us) spore-bearing plants. Infinitely adaptable, we enjoy them today, even in the most unpromising environments:

So be sure to include a day trip to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch when you come to visit us here in Santa Fe. I think you can safely skip the Rim Vista Trail – there’s more than enough to see and do with more gentle walks. But I’m not kidding about those breakfast burritos.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano Today I'm going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on...

read more

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holiday Greetings from everyone at the Inn on the Alameda! All of us at the Inn are hopeful for a happy and prosperous holiday season, and a New Year of abundance and health. The Schepps Family have been owner-operators now for 34 years,...

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Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

BANDELIER FROM ABOVE: THE FREY TRAIL

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

You would think, after all the hiking I’ve done around Santa Fe and northern New Mexico over the years, that I would have discovered this overlooked gem long ago. But it took a last-minute change of plans, leading me to an unpromising trailhead on the arid uplands of the Pajarito Plateau, to put me on its track.

On a recent Sunday, with splendid weather, I decided it was a perfect day for a drive to Bandelier National Monument and a walk along the Rito de Frijoles under the Ponderosas. Unsurprisingly, I was not the only person to have this idea, and while the drive to the park entrance was swift and uneventful, a little sign at the ranger’s booth let me know there would be at least a 20-minute wait in the canyon below, to find a place to park. This is extremely unusual. Plan B formed swiftly in my mind. I knew there was a little-used trail that leaves from the campground above Frijoles Canyon, called the Frey Trail, that winds its way to the canyon rim, but I’d never walked it. Now was an as good opportunity as any.

As I suspected, there was almost nobody parked at the trailhead. A dusty and unpromising path led off to the south:

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

Although the temperatures were mild today, the sunlight was intense, and I could imagine calling this the “Fry” Trail in June. But there were promising vistas above the pinyon and juniper:

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

It was certainly an easy walk. From time to time the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s was evident:

Old sign

Old sign

And then I reached the rim of Frijoles Canyon, and discovered what I’d been missing all these years:

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Amazing views of the ruins on the floor of the canyon, which I’d only walked past before, opened up from a raven’s eye perspective:

Tyuonyi ruins from above

Tyuonyi ruins from above

I could survey the heart of the canyon from my perch:

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

And looking east

And looking east

Below me a few other hikers traversed the lower switchbacks, pausing along the monumental stonework built by the CCC to take in the view:

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

I walked down as far as that clump of Ponderosa pines you can see above, and had a light lunch in their shade, gazing happily out over the canyon floor and the visitors walking along the paved paths to the cliff dwellings. Afterward, I wound my way back up the switchbacks and walked back to my car, meeting no one else along the way. Which is remarkable in itself in such a popular place, on a beautiful weekend.

I can’t recommend this walk highly enough. It’s only about a mile and a half hike from the trailhead at the Amphitheater in Juniper Campground down to the ruins at the floor of the canyon, and the switchbacks have been carefully constructed to make the descent – or should I say, ascent – relatively painless. Perhaps there’s a reason for the unusual beauty of this trail. Up until 1934, this was the only way into Frijoles Canyon and its wonders. And that’s reason enough, in my mind, to make the walk and relive the adventures of those early travelers, seeing the canyon as they saw it, back when the first parks and monuments – America’s Best Idea – were being conceived.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano Today I'm going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on...

read more

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holiday Greetings from everyone at the Inn on the Alameda! All of us at the Inn are hopeful for a happy and prosperous holiday season, and a New Year of abundance and health. The Schepps Family have been owner-operators now for 34 years,...

read more
Going to Maars in New Mexico

Going to Maars in New Mexico

GOING TO MAARS IN NEW MEXICO

The cliff face above the Upper Falls, Bandelier National Monument

No, that is not a typo. A maar is a type of volcano. New Mexico is infested with them, statistically speaking. By now you may have noticed that I seem to talk about volcanoes and volcanic features rather often. It’s impossible not to do so – New Mexico should have been called the Volcano State rather than the Land of Enchantment. You can hardly look out your window anywhere in New Mexico without seeing something volcanic. New Mexico has “one of the largest numbers, the largest diversity of type, the largest range of preservation, and some of the best type examples” of volcanoes in the North American continent. We even have a bun in the oven, so to speak, smack dab in the middle of the state: the Socorro Magma Body. This is a mid-crustal sill of magma that is slowly, but actively, inflating beneath the city of Socorro, New Mexico and surrounding areas, one of only three such features in the United States – and the only one that hasn’t expressed itself at the surface. Yet.

A maar is shallow, flat-floored volcanic crater formed by violent steam explosions, caused when ascending magma meets water at or near the Earth’s surface. The eruption at the surface is confined to these explosions, which toss out great quantities of loose, water-sodden sediment mixed with shattered fragments of chilled magma and the occasional bit of exotic rock torn from the deeper crust. No great cone of lava is built, and in fact the low crater, usually only a mile to two across, typically fills with water to form a shallow, circular lake. Such relatively modest features don’t last long here at the surface, where weathering and erosion work relentlessly, so if you find a maar it’s probably pretty young. Geologically restless New Mexico has a world-class collection of maars, in all stages of preservation, and just west of Santa Fe, the Rio Grande River and its short tributaries have cut canyons right through an entire pock-marked field of these things, preserved by burial under the lavas of the Caja del Rio Volcanoes.

One of these short tributaries is the beautiful canyon of the Rito de Frijoles, which forms the centerpiece of Bandelier National Monument west of Santa Fe. This lovely canyon, which is mostly cut in the orange and pink deposits of the Bandelier Tuff, is accessible from end to end, nearly, by trails which start at the Visitor’s Center. The most popular trail heads up canyon to the Ceremonial Cave, with its 140 feet of ladders pinned to the cliffs and the restored kiva in its alcove far above.

A walk among the Ponderosa on the Falls Trail in Bandelier

But if you head down canyon, you will be treated to a number of wonderful sights along the so-called Falls Trail: meadows full of towering Ponderosa pine, the chortling music of the Rito de Frijoles, two waterfalls, a remarkable transition from woodlands to arid canyon vegetation, and some beautiful color in the autumn. You can follow this trail all the way down to the Rio Grande if you like, although the last bit is in a sloggy delta covered in dead junipers (once flooded by the lake behind Cochiti Dam) that I prefer to avoid.

For years I hiked down this trail and wondered at the tall cliffs of contorted lava above the waterfalls, which protect a softer wall of obviously stratified material, orange, buff, white, and grey, that could not contrast more strikingly with the somber rocks above. And this stratified stuff didn’t fall into any easy categories of sedimentary rocks I’d seen before: no water-cut channels, no dune or bar-like features, a weird regularity of bedding and the oddest mix of volcanic particles with regular sand, and – strangest of all – rough boulders of basalt sitting right in the middle of the beds, with the layers below bent down and contorted, as if someone had just thrown them there.

Finally I learned that I was actually walking inside of a volcano. Frijoles Canyon has cut a perfect cross section into the flanks of a maar, and the stratified beds are the remains of the wet sediment and shattered lava flung out by explosion after explosion of steam caused by an injection of magma into the floodplain of an ancestral Rio Grande. The gently sloping layers are punctuated by volcanic bombs ejected by explosions beneath the riverbed and hurled down onto the flanks of the growing tuff ring, as it is sometime called. That explained my mysterious boulders.

Lower Falls Trail Maar Crater

And if you turn around you will see this. It’s very likely that the Upper Falls is cascading down the lava-choked throat of the vent that fed the maar in the first place. Amazing!

Cliffs towering above the Upper and Lower Falls

You can see in the above picture that these lavas have a ‘sticky’ component, by the way they are thickened and contorted, rather than showing the flattened ‘runny’ layers characteristic of basalt lavas.

But it gets even better. Check out the photo on the left.  Just below the Upper Falls, you can actually see the curving interior of the crater of the maar, which has been filled with layers of lava, interbedded with scoria. The shallow crater filled with small lakes of lava!

lower-falls-trail-upper-falls

All of these features are preserved by thick flows of contorted andesite that form the cliffs above. Andesite is a lava rather closely related to basalt, but with a higher silica content. Don’t quote me on this, but I think of andesite as ‘contaminated’ basalt – basalt that has incorporated lighter material from the crustal rocks through which it has leaked upwards.

But I always found these particular rocks puzzling, since they are nearly as dark as basalt and full of tiny crystals of olivine – that component of the Earth’s mantle whose presence nearly always shouts ‘basalt’! Oh well, no one said igneous petrology was straightforward.

In any case, what an opportunity it is, to be able to see a volcano from the inside out, as you can do here on a lovely trail not far from Santa Fe. It’s just one more reason to visit Bandelier National Monument when you come out to see us, here in maar-velous New Mexico.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano Today I'm going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on...

read more

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holiday Greetings from everyone at the Inn on the Alameda! All of us at the Inn are hopeful for a happy and prosperous holiday season, and a New Year of abundance and health. The Schepps Family have been owner-operators now for 34 years,...

read more
Natural Albuquerque: The Rio Grande Nature Center

Natural Albuquerque: The Rio Grande Nature Center

NATURAL ALBUQUERQUE:

THE RIO GRANDE NATURE CENTER

Rio Grande Nature Center
It’s funny how, even in urban areas, nature makes a stand if you give her half a chance. Sometimes she’s a little too pushy, of course, if you count earthquakes and hurricanes – or termites –  those times she lets you know who’s really boss. Sometimes she nudges you lightly with a sparkle in her eye, when a hawk decides to nest on the upper floors of a Manhattan apartment building. I’m thinking, however, of those graceful places and moments where the natural and the cultural coexist with intention. At the end of Candelaria Street in Albuquerque, where the road ends abruptly in the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, there is such a place: the Rio Grande Nature Center.
The Rio Grande neatly bisects the state of New Mexico from north to south, entering the state with vigor not far from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and exiting at the southern border as a desert-bound river near El Paso, Texas, where it turns in an easterly direction, on its long way to the warm sandy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The northern stretch of the river is hemmed in with rocky canyons over most of its length – the Rio Arriba, or upper river, of the Spanish – but just southwest of Santa Fe the river leaves its confines near the Pueblo of Cochiti and takes up a more sedate course through the rest of the state.
rio-grande-nature-center-sign
rio-grande-nature-center-path

A path through the bosque of the Rio Grande

Most of New Mexico enjoys a semi-arid climate, and a great deal of the central and southern part of the state is downright arid – as in qualifying as true desert, where less than 10 inches of rain will fall in a year. The Rio Grande flows year-round even in the driest times, however, and its narrow floodplain supports a unique ribbon of deciduous forest throughout the central part of New Mexico. It’s called the bosque – a Spanish word for woodlands – and interestingly, the place it is best developed – and most accessible – is right in the middle of our largest city, Albuquerque. Walking and biking trails run for miles through the leafy cottonwoods of the bosque throughout the city; the Albuquerque zoo takes advantage of its pleasant shade; and at the end of Candelaria Street the city has created a park to celebrate its little Nile: the Rio Grande Nature Center.
Ponds in the floodplain attract waterfowl of all kinds, and there is a very pleasant room, perched on the edge of one pond, with floor to ceiling windows, sofas and chairs, a little library, and a view into a sea of birds and turtles:
Viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

The viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

Hidden microphones pipe the cacophony of peevish waterbirds right inside. Here culture and nature truly intersect, as you sit back in the comfort of a sofa and listen to avid birders point out the distinctive markings of the female wood duck – yes, that little brown one that has just pushed all the other birds off the feeder.
There are some good interpretive displays inside the nature center, as well as a sweet little bookstore and a children’s activity room.  Outside there is a network of trails under the cottonwoods of the bosque, with access to the banks of the Rio Grande and series of small gardens of native plants. Concrete walls with strategically placed holes form blinds for viewing ducks, geese, snipe, cranes, and other waterfowl at the edge of the ponds. There are excellent views of the Sandia Mountains to the northeast.
rio-grande-nature-center-interior

Interpretive displays inside the Rio Grande Nature Center

It’s funny: in spite of hiking all around the Southwest, some of my most fascinating animal sightings have been right here in the heart of Albuquerque. I’m thinking of enormous porcupines perched in the upper branches of the forest canopy, nesting owls, a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in its beak, and – best of all – a pair of bald eagles feasting on a fish on a sandy island in the river. So if you can tear yourself away from the historical delights of Santa Fe for part of a day, or if you have a few hours to kill in Albuquerque, waiting for your flight, consider a walk along the Rio Grande under the cottonwood trees. Keep your eye peeled for porcupines. And hey, it’s Albuquerque, so you can hit a Satellite Coffee or the Flying Star Cafe minutes later!
The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

Inn on the Alameda, That Enchanting Small Hotel in Old Santa Fe, proudly presents all historical blog posts written by Joe & Michael Schepps. Read about the authors here.

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Holiday Greetings!

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