One of the most remarkable hikes you can make in the entire American Southwest is all of about 40 minutes drive southwest of Santa Fe, in one of our newest National Monuments, Kasha-Katuwe. This phrase means “white cliffs” in the Keresan language spoken by Cochiti Pueblo, which you will drive through on your way over to the Monument. For those of us around here it’s always been known as “Tent Rocks” – for obvious reasons, as you can see from the photograph above. It’s an amazing geological window into an apron of white volcanic tuff ejected from one of the older volcanic centers in the Jemez Mountains, and its display of bizarre “hoodoos”, or earth pillars, is about as perfect as any on the planet.
The drive into Tent Rocks is well marked now, and since its induction into the Federal Park System, the road from Cochiti to the parking area has been completely paved. There is an entrance station where a $5 charge per vehicle will be taken, and once you get to the parking area, you’ll find plenty of paved spaces, some shelters, an interpretive kiosk, and a restroom. There are two trails in the park, one short loop that takes you to a small habitation carved into the soft tuff, similar to ones in Bandelier National Monument, and another, a little over a mile and a half long, that takes your into a beautiful slot canyon and then out again, and then up a mesa for some of the most expansive views in the Southwest.
After crunching across a short distance of soft pumice underlying the typical juniper biota of this part of New Mexico, the trail will veer into a much more enclosed canyon:
There’s an unusual assemblage of vegetation here, highlighted by the white tuff. A few Ponderosa Pines thrive by virtue of water channeled by the canyon. An almost endemic species of manzanita grows here and nowhere else I’ve seen in the region. At the appropriate time of year, in May, you’ll see cholla cactuses blooming in every shade of magenta, prickly pear in festive yellow, with their rose-like extravagance of stamens, clusters of hedgehog cactus in scarlet bouquets, and sidebells penstemon flowering on short spikes growing out of impossibly arid slopes.
Soon the canyon literally closes over your head:
It is extremely narrow in places and you might find yourself walking sideways. This is NOT a place to be caught during a summer thunderstorm. On this visit, a layer of icy snow, covered in wind-blown grit, actually smoothed the walk through this confined place.
This part of the walk has an almost cave-like feel. Eventually the slot opens again into a light-drenched Shangri-La of desert landforms:
Everywhere you turn there seems to be a photographic opportunity. You’ll start channeling your inner Ansel Adams before you know it:
The trail turns again, shortly, and you’ll begin your ascent onto the mesa that crown the Monument:
In summer you’ll be reaching for your water bottle at this point. In winter, you’ll probably be wishing you’d put on crampons; this part of the hike faces north and there are some treacherous places, slippery with ice.
Once on top, however, the views are unsurpassed:
Every mountain range in Northern New Mexico is on display, in panoramic vistas.
If you have any interest in geology, Kasha-Katuwe is an imperative stop. Almost every way that volcanic pyroclastics can be deposited is displayed here, from air falls of tephra, to pyroclastic flows, to volcaniclastic aprons laid down by floods. If you’re interested in landforms, well, the place speaks for itself. Be sure and get a copy of the High Desert Field Guides for Kasha-Katuwe before you go!
Whatever you do, bring the camera: