Archives for category: Desert Feature
View to Chain of Craters from NM-117

Overview:

This backpacking route explores a long chain of small volcanic cinder-cones and finishes with a crossing of the El Malpais (“Bad Country”) National Monument on the the dramatic Zuni-Acoma Trail. It features desert grasslands, juniper and ponderosa forest, cinder cones, lava tubes and the opportunity to dance the Scoria Shuffle. This hike could be done as a loop that includes a 20 mile walk on NM-117 (paved). Most hikers will prefer to set up a shuttle or to hitch-hike the paved section.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-40, west of Albuquerque, take exit 89 signed for NM-117 East / Quemado.
  • At the end of the exit ramp turn onto NM-117 East. The initial direction is actually south; west-bound drivers will turn left and and east-bound drivers will turn right.
  • After 14.9 miles on NM-117 turn right into the Zuni-Acoma trailhead. There is a brown Forest Service sign for the trailhead on NM-117. If you are setting up a shuttle then leave the first car here.
  • After 19.2 more miles on NM-117-E turn right onto County Road 42 (dirt). The junction is signed. You can thank your driver and stop hitching when you reach this corner.
  • In less than 0.1 miles on County Road 42, besides an information kiosk (that is, a signboard) on your left, park the second shuttle car.

A sign at the start of County Road 42 warns that this road is unusable when wet. Judging from the deep ruts on this date, that sign is not exaggerating.

Trailhead:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cdt-logo1-Converted-e1450300899983.png
image from the Continental Divide Coalition

Apart from the information posted on the kiosk there are no services at either the Zuni-Acoma trailhead or on Co. Road 42. The CDT leaves from the east side of the Co. Road 42, across the road from the kiosk. Look for cairns or the white and blue plastic tags that mark the trail.

On this route the trail bears northwest, then north, northeast and southeast. All of this meandering is simply described as “north” in the text below.

Data:

Map note: my GPS unit is still misbehaving. The above map is not a GPS-measured track. Instead, it is a “route” traced from the CDT map on Caltopo. The line traced on this map may be somewhat distant from your actual position in the wilderness!

Distance between trailheads: 55.8 miles

Chain of Craters / Zuni-Acoma Elevation Profile

Hike Description:

A loess-filled and grassy depression in the malpais

From the kiosk on County Road 42 find the trail and follow it as it slowly diverges away from the road. This is open desert grassland and the trail usually leaps out at you. But, setting a major pattern, the tread will occasionally play out. Sometimes it simply sinks into the grasses and at other times it weaves into cattle paths that are much better defined than the official trail. Look for cairns. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead the trail arrives at the edge of lava flow. Initially the trail skirts to the left, but soon nerves-up and leaps onto the black and convoluted surface. Bobbing east, ducking north, swerving west and even veering south, the trail tracks lava tubes, chases lava crevasses, mounts lava mounds and dives lava depressions. The last of these can be loess-filled and grassy, but scoria still protrudes above the soil. Watch your footing! That’s hard, because you must also watch constantly for cairns, your only guide across this trackless terrain.

First cinder cones – Cerro Brillante (glowing hill) is the cone on the right

At about 2.2 miles the trail leaves the lava and regains the grassland. The pace picks up as the tread improves. At roughly 5 miles from the trailhead you will see a windmill to the south (on your left for north-bound hikers). On this date the mill appeared to be in good repair and was spinning – there might be some water there. The trail swoops across shallow depressions and threads rocky outcrops, but on balance it gently rises. Very large cairns are placed off the trail on the top of the higher knolls. These may be intended as beacons for the lost. At about 10 miles, nearing the Cerro Brillante cone, a juniper forest makes a tentative first appearance.

Tire tank – also check the barrel nearby, sometimes that water is better.

The tread swings southwest to contour around the small cone adjacent to Cerro Brillante. It then contours north and gains a small amount of vertical (that alarming spike shown in the elevation profile at 12.7 miles). Aside from the scoria underfoot this is very pleasant walking. Ponderosa pines offer gratifying shade. The woodlands are open. Deer, elk and cattle regard you with dark suspicion. At 13.3 miles cross a faint two-track and look to your left to find a water tank made of an old tractor tire. (It is at several hundred yards off-trail). On this date the water in the tank was pretty good, although green enough to encourage careful filtering.

Ponderosa shaded flanks of a cinder cone

The tread bumps upward on the flanks of the next cinder cone and then descends to the plain that will lead to the cone beyond, creating a new pattern. In this way you pass Cerro Colorado (Red Hill), Cerro Negro (Black Hill), Cerro Chatito (Dawn Hill, maybe?) and Cerro Chato (Flat Top Hill? – it is a cratered cone with a huge breach in its northern wall). The trail comes its high point on the flanks of Cerro Lobo (Wolf Hill). The trail is nowhere steep and the ponderosa offer numerous and comfortably shaded rest spots.

Camping on warm and soft duff

Camping between the cinder cones is easy. The conifers put down a lot of duff and level ground is abundant. Beyond Cerro Lobo there is a scattering of very small cones, often hidden by the forest. Then then CDT climbs the flanks of a second cinder cone dubbed “Cerro Negro” and descends to a crossroad at 24.7 miles. Watch for it! If you go off-trail, 0.5 miles to the east along the road, then you will come to a metal tank. On this date the tank had very good water in it. The regulator looked broken – it is possible that the tank has water only when the rancher has recently activated the pump! Return to the trail and continue north.

Shallow earthen tank

The trail, which has been heading almost due-north, now bends to the northeast. Passing Cerro Leonides (Lion Hill), Cerro Americano and Cerrito Comadre (Midwife Hill?), the trail returns to County Road 42 at mile 30.2. Follow the road north (go left if you are north-bound). But, if you happen to be short on water, then first turn right onto the road and walk about 200 yards to an earthen water tank. On this date it was extremely shallow and muddy – but it could be a life saver.

NM-53 crossing the divide

The CDT stays on County Road 42 for the next 5.7 miles. This seems like an odd trail-engineering decision. Soon, however, you come to to a region where the terrain on your right is paved with shattered and knife-edged lava; the reason for staying on the road becomes evident. Towards the end of the road, just past Cerro Bandera (Flag Hill), watch for a second earthen tank on the left side of the road. On this date the tank had barely an inch of water in it, but the water was exceptionally clear. County Road 42 ends at a T-intersection with NM-53, which is paved. Go east (right for hikers going north) on NM-53. At 37.5 miles from the trailhead you regain the signed top of the continental divide.

Whew! An obvious cairn!

The road-walk ends at the El Malpais Information Center, 39.6 miles from the trailhead. The CDT goes into this complex and passes on the west side of the eastern-most building. On the east side of this building is a water faucet. An attendant at the complex said that hikers can use that faucet. There is every conceivable luxury: picnic tables, clean water and even a trash receptacle! Make a meal here because there is no water for the remainder of this hike. Camel-up, fill your bottles and go to the other side of the building to regain the tread. Oddly, this tread gets on top of an earthen berm and stays there for more than a mile. Is it an old railway? An abandoned aquecia? It is hard to say. Past the berm the tread becomes entirely sketchy. The ground is piled with scoria and in many places there is no tread. It becomes routine to stop and scan (and rescan) the surrounding woods to find that next cairn.

Peering into a cave formed by a collapsed lava tube

At 41.8 miles, on ground characterized by brown dirt, brown grass and brown rock, come to a T-intersection with a trail that has been covered with crushed white limestone. Suddenly, almost surreally, you are presented with a foot path that could not be more obvious. Turn left and enjoy this short break from navigational challenges. Those challenges return when the trail brings you to a trailhead boasting vault toilets. Go left around the toilets, where the trail regains its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nature. The trail jukes and jives as it winds its way around huge, winding, and partially collapsed lava tubes. Give yourself extra time in this leg of the trip, the footing is an authentic challenge.

Sign at junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail

Come to the last of the cinder cones, Encerrito, at 47.6 miles from the trailhead. This is the last good opportunity to camp before entering the heart of the malpais. Ponderosa and juniper produce duff here, although the ground bristles with scoria. Setting a tent peg is difficult. The trail loops around the south end of Encerrito. On the east side the CDT reaches a signed junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Go east (right if going north) and follow the combined trails into the heart of the malpais.

Lava landscape in the El Malpais

This is extraordinary terrain. Much of it is naked lava, forming steep hillsides and narrow gullies. Vegetation will not be denied, however, and every crack in the rock is an invitation for claret cup cactus, grama grass, juniper and mullein to colonize. Some of these cracks, moreover, are less like “crazes” in a sidewalk and more like crevasses in a glacier. Stresses in the cooling rock apparently introduced yard-wide gaps, gaps that cleave downward more than 25 feet. Fortunately, trail builders have been at work here for more than a 1000 years. Bridges were constructed by dropping rocks into the crevasses to chock across the gap, then pouring more rocks on top of the chock stones. These bridges makes crevass-crossing much easier, but looking down is still vertigo-inducing. And, again, navigation is not trivial. It takes time, but try to find that next cairn before leaving the previous cairn. Eventually the lava ends. It is just another two miles until, having traveled 54.8 miles, you arrive at the Zuni-Acoma trailhead.

Recommendations:

Finding the trail divisive.

I did this in two and a half days, which was silly. A four day schedule would be better and there is currently enough water to support such a trip. Give yourself time to explore some of the cinder cones and investigate (cautiously) some lava caves.

This has been a markedly cool and wet year. Warm gear was a huge asset at 8000 feet. Good water-filtering gear, including filter-flushing gear, is essential.

The CDT Water Report presents a table listing water reports filed by CDT hikers. This one table covers the entire CDT. As a consequence it is huge and awkward to navigate. The easiest way to get started is to use the “Search By Mile Number” option at the top of the page. If you search for mile number “471.9” (without the quotes) then you should get an entry named “Junction To Water Tank”. This is the first water report on the Chain of Craters segment. It displays the single, most-current report for the tire tank. You can click on the “read more” button to see if there have been other reports for this resource. Browse down the table to check out the remaining water resources – the last relevant report is for the El Malpais Information Center.

Other than the faucet at the El Malpais Information Center, all water resources are provided by ranchers. It would not be possible to hike this stretch without their profound courtesy. Please return the favor by quickly collecting water and moving away from each water source. Your presence can stress the cattle (and wild life) badly.

This is not a good place to test out shoeless hiking! The sharp-edged lava is merciless – even the soles of trail shoes will take a beating. Consider wearing boots since the opportunity to twist an ankle is exceptionally high.

Links:

A short and approachable discussion of the geology of this region is presented by New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources here.

A succinct and well-written discussion of the Chain of Craters portion of this hike can be found at the Four Corners Tourism site, here. (Note that the southern-most portion of the trail no longer stays on County Road 42, but instead departs immediately from the Co Rd 42 at the kiosk).

Rambling Hemlock, an experienced backpacker, has a report on hiking the Chain of Craters as a two day venture in 2015. Some of the water resources were dry, and the hikers got by on the strength of tiny snow patches.

New Mexico Nomad has compiled an extensive report on the outdoor resources near the El Malpais National Monument, including the Narrows Rim Trail. If you are visiting and want to see it all, then this is a valuable resource.

Sierra Ladrones seen from the north (the high point lies to right of the notch)

Overview:

The rugged and ancient Sierra Ladones lie only 50 miles south of Albuquerque. You will not, however, be troubled by crowds. Unpaved roads take you to a ‘trailhead’ in a range devoid of trails. Towering above the surrounding desert, Ladron Peak is a trial for legs and a challenge for navigators. Experienced scramblers will enjoy the isolation and the demands. Novice hikers will not. The summit offers incomparable views across central New Mexico. Take strong friends and scramble Ladron.

There are two adjoining peaks that compete for “high-point” status. Older maps sometimes place the “Ladron Peak” label on the shorter, eastern summit. Current USGS maps place that label on the taller, western summit. This post follows the current convention.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take Exit 175 (about 50 miles south of Albuquerque or 25 miles north of Socorro).
    • If you were heading north on I-25 then: 
      • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left following the sign for North 116. (This turn could be easy to miss, the ramp is designed to merge you directly onto US-60 East).
      • After 0.3 miles on 116, immediately before it becomes the ramp onto I-25 South, turn right onto Old Highway 60 (signed).
    • If you were heading south on I-25 then:
      • after 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, immediately turn left onto Old Highway 60. (This turn might be easy to miss because the ramp merges directly onto 116).
  • After 1.5 miles on Old Highway 60, in front of the signed gate fronting the Sivelleta National Wildlife Refuge, turn right onto County Road 12. No sign names ‘CR-12’.
  • After 20.8 miles on CR-12, a good gravel road, veer left onto County Road E-65. No signs name this road, but look for small signs on both sides of the entrance saying “Limited Area”.
  • After 0.8 rough miles on CR E-65, veer left onto a primitive road. From this point on a you will want high clearance vehicle.
  • After 1.9 miles (estimated) on the first primitive road veer left onto a second primitive road.
  • After 0.4 miles (estimated) on the second primitive road, in front of a gate in a barb wire fence, park at the trailhead.

Old Highway 60 is paved at its start. After crossing a battered bridge over the Rio Puerco the pavement breaks up and the ride is very bumpy, then the road turns to gravel. A new bridge, in mid-construction, lies upstream of the battered one – this particular road-quality concern should have a short lifespan.

I drove only 0.7 miles on the first primitive road, at which point my worries for the Aging Camry’s suspension overwhelmed my aversion to road-hiking. As a consequence the length estimates for the two primitive roads had to be taken from Google Maps.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry in front of Ladron Peak

The second primitive road ends at a gravel pad with a fire ring. There are no vault toilets, trash receptacles or water services. The flat spot where I left the sedan (off the first primitive road) offers some seclusion but little else.

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Data:

In the map above the yellow line indicates the ascent route while the orange line indicates the descent.

  • starting elevation: 6200 feet
  • ending elevation: 9209 feet
  • net elevation: 3010 feet
  • distance: 4.7 miles (one way, includes the road walk)

Hike Description:

Stone ruins beside the ranch road

On this date the hike began with a road walk of 1.7 miles. (The hiking distances listed in this description include this extra length). At the road’s end you will find a gate through a barbed wire fence. Go through the gate and onto a faint trail. After another 100 yards the trail intersects a ranch road. Make note of this junction, it would be easy to miss on return. Turn east (left on ascent) onto the road. The road soon goes through a fence opening and then passes a stone ruin. These, too, make good landmarks for your return voyage.

Frozen algae

The ranch road is cut into the south side of a hogback. A water pipe extends along the length of the ranch road. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead go past a cattle trough. It contained 6 inches of water and was frozen on this date. It also enjoyed a dense algae population. Don’t count on it as a water resource. The road soon ends, but the pipe continues along a service trail. Follow the trail until you see open grassland on the hogback above you. Ascend on loose soils past juniper and prickly pear to reach the hogback’s spine. At 3.0 miles arrive at the high point on the hogback.

View to Mt Taylor from bench on east wall of canyon (double click to enlarge)

Descend to a small saddle and then veer northeast into a canyon (left on ascent). Here you leave the juniper realm and travel into the domain of pinyon and ponderosa pines. The track shows that I kept edging up to the east to study the high ridge line. Don’t be edgy. Stick to the pleasant, duff-dominated forest floor beneath the pines and ascend to where the forest thins out. The canyon wall south of you (right on ascent) has been cleared by fire. It looks like an attractive alternative, might it be a good line for descent? Look straight up-canyon as well. Near the 8000-foot level (at 3.8 miles) deceptive sight lines make the ridge look to be five minutes away. In fact, you are looking at a “false ridge”, the true ridge line towers high above. Clamber on, pushing your way past the pinch points on the steepening canyon bottom, until you find a way to turn east – towards the high and cliff-protected ridge that leads to the summit. Climb steeply on loose soils, bands of recalcitrant rock, past shin stabbers, cholla and prickly pear to slight mellowing of the grade at 8500 feet (4.1 miles from the trailhead).

View from mellowed slope to the main ridge, the north side (left) is cliffy.

The cliff-dominated terrain directly below Ladron Peak, to the north, looms as a fortress-barrier to scramblers. Continue rising as steeply as you can but with a robust acceptance of south-trending compromises. Zig zag to avoid exposed rock faces and thickets of Gambel’s Oak – either one will blunt your pace. The rib you are climbing has several near-shelves and each shelf makes a false ridge-line to cheat your hopes.

Ridge-line carpeting

Climb undaunted until, after many rest stops, you reach a saddle on the true ridge at 4.3 miles. This is just one of many saddles on the ridge, give it some study if you plan on retracing your steps on return. Footing remains critical. Not because the ridge is steep or exposed (it is neither), but because of the columnar cacti colonies that grow everywhere. Mind toes and fingers! Turn north and follow the ridge towards the summit.

Green lichen on steep boulder pile

The ridge runs into a lichen-bedecked boulder pile at 4.4 miles. Avoid this face by swinging to the east (right on ascent) and gingerly ascending on loose talus in a steep chute. A thicket atop the chute blocks your way. Push through to the ridge and stop to memorize how this thicket conceals the chute from descending scramblers.

View from knob over an abrupt fall

The only other difficulty comes at 4.5 miles. A knob ends with a fall of about 20 feet down to the ridge. Back up a few paces and descend in a narrow, boulder-strewn and east-facing chute. Fortunately, this chute is better consolidated and devoid of thickets. From the saddle at the base you can continue ascending directly on the ridge top, although an intermittent climbers tread runs along the east side.

Summit view southwest to Magdalena Range and distant Black Range

Arrive at the summit having traveled 4.7 miles into 360 degrees of awesome. In the north rises bold Mount Taylor (snow capped on this date). Sandia Peak in the Sandia Mountains and Bosque Peak in the Manzano Mountains dominate the northeast. Distant El Capitan Peak in the El Capitan Mountains and Nogal Peak in the White Mountains round out the southeast. Strawberry Peak lies near by to the south, while South Baldy (in the Magdelana Mountains) and the entire Black Range remained snow capped to the southwest. The gigantic plains to the northwest proffer the huge volcanic neck that is Cabezon Peak.

It should be possible to return the way you came. The map above shows that I tried a slight variation, descending back to the saddle where I first hit the ridge line and then staying on the ridge line as it descends gently to a point directly above the entrance canyon. Gentle descents don’t loose much altitude, so at this point there is a long, steep drop into the canyon bottom. Two big chutes lead down to the canyon. Pick the one to the north (right on descent) as lively drops bedevil the south chute. What follows is a long, sketchy scramble down talus slopes and scratchy bashes through oak thickets. Eventually you attain the southern rim of the canyon – open and mellow terrain. Lured by the thought of easy walking on pine duff I angled off the rim onto the canyon walls. This involved side-hilling long distances, a clear mistake. The wiser course, judging from the maps, would be to stay on the canyon rim as it drops towards the hogback. It isn’t clear to me if this descent route is any improvement over the line used for ascent.

Recommendations:

Author, blocking your view of Sandia Crest

This trip includes miles of tough footing amidst vexatious vegetation. Wear boots.

Between road-end and summit you gain 2600 feet in less than 3 miles. It is strenuous. Beginning hikers and the acrophobic want to look elsewhere.

I expect that the lower terrain rattles in the warmer months. Watch where you place your hands and feet.

Two liters of water was fine for a cool day but you’ll want some more to cover emergencies. In warm weather you will want much more. Stay off these ridges when thunderstorms threaten.

There are fossils on the flanks of the hogback. The one pictured above might be a piece of coral.

Links:

American Hiking offers a suggestion (PDF) for exploring the lower Ladrons without the navigation challenges and other hazards of climbing to the summit.

The Albuquerque Journal has a brief article on the range. The summit gets described as challenging and they, too, suggest other destinations within the range.

SummitPost describes the approach roads to this scramble, know that some of the signs they mention are no longer in place. In the “Climbers Log” link the commenters make frequent use of the word ‘rough’.

The PeakBagger page has basic data on the range, but check the trip report by Phil Robinson. He provides a GPS track and adds a description of the traverse from Ladron Peak to the lower eastern peak. It sounds daunting. If I understand his report correctly then he followed the canyon bottom all the way to the ridge line, but on descent he pulled off the ridge and descended on a line similar to the the ascent described here. In the dark!

Geocaching firmly notes the difficulties of this terrain. Additionally, they offer GPS coordinates for several of the turns on these unsigned county roads.