Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tent Rocks National Monument Delivers Spectacular Scenery

It can be a challenging and exciting climb to the top of the Canyon Trail at Tent Rocks National Monument but those who make it are rewarded with a striking panoramic view of the valley floor below.

From on high one can see the sparkling waters of the Rio Grande forming the lake at Cochiti dam, the spreading plains to the east, the Ortiz mountains looming in the south and the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Moutains to the north and west.

But it is the view from behind, from where the hiker just came, that may be the most impressive as the eerie tent-shaped hoodoos for which this place is named dominate the scene.

Rising from the ground like so many dusty colored Christmas trees, the late afternoon light here in the canyon makes for impressive shadows, stunning contrasts and intriguing memories of these rock formations.

Located just south of Santa Fe near Cochiti Pueblo, the national monument has seen many improvements of late making it worth a return visit.

Gone is the bone-jarring, five-mile dirt road that used to lead to the Canyon and Cave Loop trailheads.

It has since been replaced by a smooth ribbon of asphalt and concrete pads where the road crosses several arroyos.

Visitors to the trailhead will find the easy, 1.2 mile Cave Loop trail and the more challenging and rewarding Canyon trail awaiting.

The Cave Loop trail provides a good view of the surrounding tent rocks and multi-colored hillsides along with access to a small cave carved into the rock wall by ancient dwellers.

The compelling Canyon Trail leads visitors up into a tight high-walled canyon where lone Ponderosa pines have taken root and stretch mightily for the skies.

Working one’s way up the sandy floor, squeezing at one point underneath a boulder wedged between the walls, one can’t help but feel a touch of claustrophobia.

Any anxiety produced by the tight confines soon diminishes though as one begins to climb up and out to the mesa top above. On the way one need only stop and look back to see the towering tent rocks and softly hued rock walls that make this place such a rare find.

The Canyon trail is listed at 1.6 miles with a short but steep, 630 foot ascent. The trail itself is well worn, with easily managed switchbacks and the resulting view is one of the more rewarding to be found in the state.

Upon climbing back down the canyon, hikers can take the Cave Loop trail at its intersection and find the hike is not much longer than just heading straight back to the lot. The trail ends as it threads its way through a well defined group of the tent rock formations.

The tent rocks are the byproduct of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago that helped shape and form the Jemez region. Formed of soft pumice and tuff many of the tent rocks are protected from erosion by a cap rock perched precariously upon its peak.

The multi-colored bands seen in cliff faced walls were formed by different layers of ash piling up during long ago, volcanic events.

Posted on the BLM’s webpage dedicated to the monument is an extremely informative student trail guide that can printed out and taken along for a more inclusive hike.

A map and guide specifically dedicated to the monument published by High Desert Field Guides of Santa Fe and authored by geologists Kirt Kempter and Dick Huelster can also be obtained at the convienance store in the nearby town of Cochiti Lake or through the Public Lands Information Center which operates a store off St. Rd 14 on Dinosaur Trail.

And just a few miles up the road from the monument trailheads, visitors will find a new mile long, wheelchair suitable, hiking loop has been installed along with new picnic shelters, a modern outhouse and improved parking at the Veterans Memorial Overlook.

Here the surrounding peaks of the Jemez Mountains and views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains dominate the horizon while Peralta Canyon and its impressive rock formations can be seen below.

The windswept bluff at the overlook is a quiet, contemplative kind of place where one might be inclined to have a picnic or relax with a good book.

Tent Rocks National Monument is also called Kasha-Katuwe (white cliffs) and is jointly managed by the BLM and Cochiti Pueblo. In 2009 the monument recorded about 50,000 visitors including 45 school groups, according to latest available manager’s report posted on the BLM’s website.

Specific rules are in place at the monument including no alcohol, mountain bikes or dogs allowed, not even those to be left in a vehicle. For more info see the BLM’s website at

The site is open during the summer hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and costs $5 for entrance.

 If You Go:

From Santa Fe take I-25 south to the turn off to Cochiti Lake at the bottom of La Bajada and follow St. Rd 16 to the intersection of St. Rd 22. Head west towards the mountains and Cochiti Dam. Just past the base of the dam turn south on 22 towards Cochiti Pueblo and the town of Sile. Follow the signs to the monument entrance.

Looking up and out from the bottom of Canyon Trail at Tent Rocks National Monument in  New Mexico.

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