Archives for posts with tag: Desert Feature
Peñasco Blanco

Overview:

Roughly 1200 years ago the Ancestral Puebloans raised monumental rock structures along Chaco Wash. This hike follows the Wash past several enormous structures, turns back at the Peñasco Blanco ruin and finishes by ascending a narrow cleft to a pair of the high pueblos. Go! There is no better way of introducing newcomers to hiking in the desert southwest.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 near Bernalillo (just north of Albuquerque) take exit 142 for US-550 North.
  • At the end of the ramp turn onto the north-bound lanes of US-550. If you are coming from the south then the ramp will be 0.2 miles long and you will want to follow it as it follows an extensive bend to the driver’s left.
  • After 112.6 miles on US-550, after a National Park sign for Chaco Canyon Culture Nation Park and after mile marker 112, turn left onto Indian Service Road 7061. There is no sign naming this road, but about 100 feet down the road is a large NP sign for Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.
  • After 5.0 miles on ISR 7061 turn right onto County Road 7950 (signed). This road is initially paved, but turns to gravel in 2.9 miles.
  • After 12.4 on CR 7950 miles veer sharply left onto CR-7900 (not signed). The turn is obvious – there is a “straight ahead” option but that alternative sees very much less traffic.
  • After 5.8 miles on CR7950 (which becomes paved as you enter the park) come to the Vistor’s Center. Registration is required, see below, so stop in. On exiting turn right to continue on the Park’s Loop Road. You will pass several ancient pueblos on the Loop Road and each is worth a substantial visit.
  • After 3.4 miles on the Loop Road come to a junction where an extension road (not named) continues straight down the wash towards the trailhead. (The Loop Road goes left at the junction). Go straight ahead. Note: there is a parking lot just before this junction for the Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl complexes. Both are amazing.
  • After 0.4 miles, in the parking lot at end of the extension, park your car.
Sign at start of ISR 7061

It is also possible to come into Chaco Canyon from the south, on NM-57. On this date I drove that way while leaving the park and the experience cannot be recommended. It was perfectly passable for high-clearance vehicles but it is a dusty, bumpy, long, slow drive. Deep ruts could be found mid-road in all the low spots, frequently accompanied by tall piles of displaced dirt. A low-slung sedan would not be happy with this experience. There are numerous cattle guards in the road. Sometimes the initial ridge on the cattle guard can be exposed several inches above the roadbed. It is tire hell. Definitely stay away from NM-57 if the conditions are wet.

Trailhead:

Rutwo below the north canyon wall

A park fee is charged at the Visitor’s Center. Each car is $25. If you come in by some other means then it is $15 per person. National Park and military passes are accepted in lieu of payment. Ranger guided tours are available. I briefly overlapped with a guided group and it seems like a good option. The restrooms are currently closed although port-a-potties are available. There are trash receptacles. There is quite a museum and drinking water is said to be available in the Visitors Center.

At the trailhead you might want to leave your pack in the car and go get the paperwork out of the trail register. The paperwork records the date on which you start your hike and the make and model of your car. This paperwork just gives the rangers an edge at finding the lost hikers. You will need to return to your car to leave part of the registration ticket on your dashboard. Now pick up your pack and off you go!

Data:

The altitude gained and lost is small, although acrophobes may want to stay off the steep climb up to Pueblo Alto.

Distance: 10.8 miles

Hike Description:

Follow the broad gravel road as it heads northwest, past the trail register. A relatively small ruin know as Kin Kletso (Yellow House) is well-preserved and very much worth exploring. This construction makes use of relatively large and uniform sandstone blocks that resemble bricks. Evidently this style of construction arose later than the style found in other complexes such as Chetro Ketl. Behind the ruins a trail leads steeply onto the canyon rim, as described below.

Casa Chiquita

The roadbed bends sharply into a side canyon but swings right back, reaching Casa Chiquita in1.2 miles. The centuries have been less kind to the “Small House” (although it anything still standing after 1000 years gets good marks for ruggedness). With 50 rectangular rooms and two large round-rooms it tells a story of enormous public commitment, even while distaining to name what aroused that commitment. It is reported that this ruin has not been excavated, so some of the rooms hide beneath wind-deposited sand and silt.

At this point the road narrows into a single track, but one that obviously receives a great deal of expert care and attention. You won’t get lost. At 1.7 miles take a fork to the right (signed as Petroglyph Trail) to follow a side loop that keeps close to the north-eastern canyon wall. At scattered points along the wall the ancestral puebloans pecked images and geometric shapes that have survived the ensuing millennium. Spirals are a very common motif, although it is not obvious what this meant to the artists. The Una Vida trail (near the Visitor’s Center) has at least one glyph depicting a person holding a spiral like a shield.

This is parched terrain. Four-wing saltbush, apache plume, and claret cactus all dwell here, competing for water but not for sunlight. Signs warn of the danger where the trail crosses the Wash bottom. That is probably true, but on this date the key element (water) just wasn’t present. Looking further down canyon (northwest) you will see a wall. This is not a dam, but rather the confluence where the Chaco Wash joins the Chaco River. At 3.2 miles come to a puzzling sign saying “Supernova Pictograph”. Look directly above the sign for rock art showing a hand, a moon, and an image often interpreted as the supernova of 1054 (bright enough to remain visible during the day for 23 days)

Once-Oculated Rock

The trail gently switchbacks up onto the southwest rim of the canyon, bringing you to the site of the Peñasco Blanco complex at 4.1 miles. This site, like Casa Chiquita seems to be preserved for future excavation. The visible walls, unprotected by the canyon, have taken a beating by frost and sun. The remaining walls show extraordinary artfulness, with alternating rows of larger and smaller rock panels. Evidently this work was either meant for the amusement of wall-builders or as offerings to the supernatural since these rocks were usually covered with adobe and hidden from sight.

Pueblo Bonito

Return the way you came. Energetic hikers can then take the trail leading from behind the Kin Kietso site to the northeast rim. The tread leaps up the northeast wall, using a cleft behind a fin of rock to bring you to the top. From the rim you have many options, including a spectacular overlook of Pueblo Bonito and a loop trail that will take you past the Pueblo Alto complex.

Recommendations:

Standard desert hiking advice holds, including:

  • Your car can fail out here. Bring gear. You want to have extra clothing (adequate for waiting out a cold night), extra water in the car, jumper cables, a well-greased jack and an inflated spare tire. Check your gear before leaving home.
  • There might be a cell tower in the park, but that is line-of-sight transmission and there are long miles in the surrounding canyon land where you will have no cell coverage. As always, it is a good idea to have someone outside of your hiking group who knows your travel and hiking itinerary.
  • There are long stretches of trail where there is no protection from the sun. Even in October that can be draining. Water, sunscreen, sunglasses are necessities. If you have a larger group then it would be a great idea to have a couple umbrellas to provide shade if someone gets too roasted.
Pueblo Bonito door frames

The park’s campground is very popular and currently is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. If you do want to camp then you will also want to come with backup plans.

Links:

The Hiking and Walking site has a nice description of the Peñasco Blanco hike, which includes a chart of elevation change (and obligatory warnings about the quality of the roadbed leading into the park!).

The folks at Explore New Mexico give the loop route to Pueblo Alto a big thumbs up. Their post includes some photos of people ascending up the slot that leads to the rim of the canyon.

Taos News also has a writeup, which includes some of the history and a warning about the changeable weather in the desert.

There is a detailed description of this hike at the Hiking Arizona site (a great general resource for southwest hiking).

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.