Archives for posts with tag: Desert Feature
Castle Rocks in Last Chance Canyon


This is a desert jewel. Paved roads lead to the trailhead and from there the trail wanders into a dramatic canyon where water flows. Enjoy greenery, a myriad of birds, hoodoos, riverine meanders, vertical canyon walls and blue skies. The turn-back point described here is purely arbitrary. Make the hike as long or as short as your moment supports.

A massive flood in 2013 closed the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area for a long time. Funding was eventually found to clear the immediate damage and re-open the Area. This history may explain why the first few miles of the Last Chance Canyon trail are obvious and clearly signed. At about 2.6 miles, where the trail makes a broad swing to the south, the tread becomes considerably more ambiguous.

Driving Directions:

This hike is located a little east of Carlsbad, NM in the extreme southeast corner of the state.

  • Drive Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 139 (about 8 miles south of Socorro).
  • After 0.5 miles on the exit ramp, as the ramp goes beneath I-25, the road becomes US-380 East. Reset your odometer. (This transition is not signed, and it may be that the official transition is not until the road crosses US-1 about 0.5 miles ahead).
  • After 107.5 miles on US-380 East, at a T-intersection, go left onto combined US-70 East/US-380 East. (There are signs for US-70 just before the intersection. If they mention US-380 I missed it).
  • After 43.5 miles on US70/US-380, at a traffic light, go right onto Relief Route (signed).
  • After 7.6 miles on Relief Route, at a T-intersection, go right onto US-285 South (signed).
  • After 59.4 miles on US-285 turn right onto NM-137 South (signed). In places this road is signed as Queen Highway for the town of Queen, NM.
  • After 22.8 miles on NM-137 turn right onto Sitting Bull Falls Road. There is a sign saying “Eddy County 409” just a short ways down this road.
  • After 7.1 miles turn right into the paved trailhead.

Some of these milages are taken from Google, please treat them as approximations. (It snowed hard the evening that I traveled down to the trailhead, taking my attention away from tracking mile markers and odometer readings!).



The trailhead has a paved parking area and a covered picnic table with a trash barrel. It is the first such parking spot along Sitting Bull Falls Road. There are no toilets or water here. There was no fee for parking. The Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area, just up the road, has water, toilets and fees (currently $5.00, but check here). There is a gate across the road just past the trailhead, so if you drive into the SBFRA then make sure you drive out before the gate is shut.


Note on map: the yellow line shows the main trail. The short orange line indicates a side excursion on cattle paths.

  • starting elevation: 4450
  • ending elevation: 3830
  • net elevation: 880 feet
  • milage: 3.6 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

View into Wilson Canyon from Last Chance Canyon

Trail 226 (signed) jumps straight up the canyon wall from the parking area, soon turns northeast (right, going in) and contours across the wall to reach the mouth of Lost Chance Canyon. A brisk descent brings you to a fence in the canyon bottom. Take note of where the trail enters the bottom – I couldn’t find it on return. The tread follows the fence for 100 yards to the fence end, then sojourns out in to mid-canyon. This is cattle terrain and the next half mile is a celebration of the Cow Pat Polka. That song ends at 0.6 miles where a sign directs you west towards paired and nearly vertical canyon walls.

Rise to vertically walled section

Here the waters of the canyon rise to the surface. Flood-tossed tree trunks, branches, boughs and twigs lie in neatly delineated piles that often block the trail. Cross the stream bed to the right side (looking upstream) at first opportunity. The remnants of an old ranch road appears and fades away; finally terminating at the mouth of Robert’s Canyon. The views are classic. The sun-blasted canyon walls, barren of vegetation, contrast with the verdant canyon bottom. Semi-detached, cone-profiled meanders tower above you like castles. The water flows smoothly past your feet. That water is somewhat plagued with algae, bring a good filter if you plan on using it.

Algae-laced water

Thorny vegetation abounds in this region. Some of the prickly pear cactus display enormous pads and these cacti grow in huge clusters. More solitary forms of columnar cactus display a density of spines that resembles fur. The plant that catches the most attention, and the most flesh, is a spindly shrub. Possibly the New Mexican Locust, this bush rises to mid-thigh, exhibits medium-gray bark on a half-dozen stems and these branch into a haze of twigs. Each node on every twig is graced with a pair of short, stout, curved and opposite thorns. Those thorns carry a money-back guarantee for ripping pant legs in outward trip and gouging the exposed skin on the return trip. Spotting these plants is quickly learned skill.

Brambles thorns and thickets

The tread crosses to the inside of a huge bend where the canyon turns to the south. It is here that the tread quality begins to degrade. Views open to a gigantic canyon wall directly in front of you and asks, “north or south?”. Unfortunately the trail chooses to disappear right at this point. The correct answer, it turns out, is to continue following the bend to the south.

Bosque Brush Bash

The bend will take you into a dead bosque – a long row of silver snags are all that’s left of the huge, old trees that once graced the canyon bottom. Their skeletal remains are now wreathed by dense, thorny shrubs. On this trip I opted to rise up on the left wall of the canyon (going in), where the previously mentioned thorny-twig plants grew in abundance but with better separation. After a quarter mile the snags disappear and you should return immediately to the canyon bed. Watch for a tall boulder, crowned with a cairn, on the opposite side of the canyon (right side, going in) where the trail leaves the bed and rises on the west facing wall. The trail rises quickly to a mellow shelf with a distinct track.

[Side note: on this date my phone died after just 3 hours. So, no more photos for this hike. Sincere apologies! I earlier recommended the CarryMap app, but since that installation my phone has rapidly lost power when it is out of cell tower range. This points to (but does not prove) CarryMap as the culprit.]

Hoodoos near canyon rim

There is only one further thing to mention about the trail. The mellow shelf with the obvious tread goes about 0.6 miles south and then swings sharply to the west. There the shelf cliffs out. To avoid this, watch the tread for a point where someone has left a 10-foot long line of white rocks curving uphill. Scout uphill, looking for micro-cairns and the faintest approximations of a trail. As you rise to the point where the canyon swings west this high tread finally becomes much more obvious. (The orange stub on the map shows where I stepped over the line of rocks and remained on the shelf. At the time it seemed reasonable as the lower tread was obvious and even cairned in spots).

The high trail is a tight-rope walk along the wall of the canyon. Creep along, taking special care where runoff-deposited riprap lies mounded on the tread. Don’t forget to stop and stare at the waters flowing 100 feet below you. Study the canyon walls beyond. Take in those classic blue skies. Welcome to a walking definition of “gorgeous terrain”.

On this date I noticed some dark clouds rolling in and turned back at about noon. Judging from the images on Google Maps you should be able to continue for at least two more miles. There are few desert features more intriguing than this canyon. Have a ball.


Do this hike!

This is a cold hike in winter. The canyon walls shadow the canyon bed and cold winds blew persistently. I was perfectly comfortable in my puffy jacket and wool hat, but surprised to find that I needed them for the entire day. Of course, in the summertime a trip along a south-facing canyon wall is going to be ultra-toasty. Prepare for temperature extremes.

There are plenty of cattle along the waterway. You will want to filter this water before using.

Expect to do some scouting along the way.

In researching the hike I noticed news articles from several different years that describe different trailhead closures due to flooding. Flash flooding seems to be a big concern, check the weather before going.


With the short day I missed the waterfalls in Sitting Bull Falls, that’s a shame!

A PDF file with a valuable map of the trails in the SBFRA and a link to GPX file (for your GPS) can be found here. That GPX file traces the tread from the lower trailhead (described here) to the trailhead at the upper end of the canyon. I found that I could download it as an XML file and still open it with Garmin BaseCamp.

Rick at BestHikes has some great photographs and endorses the Last Chance Trail as one of the best hikes in North America.

The driving directions provided here take you to the mouth of Last Chance Canyon. There is a separate trailhead near the upper end of the canyon, but that involves taking back country roads that are described as rough and require a high-clearance vehicle. Such a description, with a brief but useful writeup of the canyon can be found at SummitPost.

View of Pelona Peak up the eastern draw


A gently rising shield volcano, Pelona Mountain borders the Plains of St. Agustin and lies within the broader Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field. This off-trail desert ramble crosses dry grassland and ascends volcanic terrain, a challenge to plainsmen and mountaineers alike. The route shown here goes only to the base of the summit block. (An earlier ankle injury forced a turn-back). The remaining 200 feet of altitude poses little difficulty for experienced navigators.

Driving Directions:

Gila Wilderness from NM-163
  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
    • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
      • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
      • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
      • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
    • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
      • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
      • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
      • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 West (signed).
  • After 45.8 miles on US-60, a short distance past mile-marker 93, turn left onto NM-52 South
    • The intersection is well signed and includes a sign for “National Radio Observatory”. 
    • NM-52 is paved for 2.5 miles, to the junction with NM-166 (shown as Old Highway 60 on Google maps). Past the junction it immediately turns to gravel. The gravel road is currently in excellent condition
  • After 21.4 mile on NM-52 S, past mile marker 37, turn right onto NM-163.
    • This intersection is clearly signed and includes a sign for Beaverhead / Mogollon.
    • NM-163 is less well maintained, but still family-sedan friendly. There are patches where the roadbed has suffered during wet conditions and you will need to travel slowly.
    • after 23.9 miles you will enter the Gila National Forest (signed).
  • After 31 miles on NM-163, right across the road from mile-marker 31, pull off the road and park the car.


Trailhead (“31” on far side of road)

The trailhead is a field on the south side of NM-163. You recognize it by the mile-marker “31” sign, although check your odometer carefully in case the sign gets wiped out. Along most of its length NM-163 was very well ditched. It was a pleasant surprise to find an existing set of tracks that smoothly crossed the ditch and rose onto the field. These tracks do not look permanent, however. In other years you may need to search a bit in order to find a suitable place to pull off the road. If you drive a low-slung sedan then bring a shovel. You might need to smooth-out the departure point. There are no services at this trailhead. Nor, for that matter, is there a trail.


This map has some issues. The yellow line shows the GPS track from the car up onto the mountain. At that point my GPS turned itself off (a first). Consequently, the orange line represents a “route” that I have sketched to the best of my recollection. That ends at the blue line, where I finally turned the GPS back on and recorded a real track on the way back to the car.

  • Starting elevation: 7230 feet
  • Ending elevation: 8860 feet
  • Net elevation: 1630 feet
  • Distance: 12.3 miles
  • Magnetic declination: 9˚ E

Hike Description:

X-braced power stauntion

From the trailhead ascend directly up the canyon wall, an open, moderately-inclined grassland slope. At the canyon rim look for a set of power lines in the foreground and the green-capped summit of Pelona peak dominating the horizon. Shield volcanoes have a broad and gently-sloped profile, akin to a shield that has been left flat on the ground. Head straight towards the mountain top. As you pass under the power line make note of the power line stauntion that you pass. Looking around you will see that most stauntions have X-style bracing, including the one you are next to. But, the next stauntion to to the east does not – a beacon for returning scramblers.

Stove barrel

At first the ground presents little in the way of rocky rubble to snare a foot. Soon, however, come to a barbed wire fence demarking the Continental Divide Wilderness Study Area. There are no gates, so pass over or under or between the wires, then drop into a small and steep-sided canyon. Suddenly, rocks abound. This hike irregularly cycles between good footing and awful footing, a wearying feature. Scout the bottom of the canyon and you may find a rusty oil barrel that has been cut in half. A close-up view shows that someone once used the half-barrel as a stove. Cut directly across the canyon bottom and ascend the far wall. At the rim you will regain sight of the peak.

Landmarks: boulders at end of wash, a stony “lip” on the ridge above

It is a straight shot to that peak, the straight line drops into a few side-cuts that feed the canyon and eventually rises to a broad, dry grassland. Once past the canyon there are remarkably few local navigation clues. On ascent I made careful note of a wash with a distinctive cluster of boulders at its upper end, just below a ridge surmounted by a steep and rocky “lip”. To a plainsman this should be enough. It is obvious that I’m not a plainsman; I missed this landmark on return. A whiteout would make it very difficult to navigate. If the weather is not perfect then a compass bearing on the mountain acts as navigation assurance.

Elk hiding near lone juniper

Wildlife abounds. Raptors soar, elk roam and a surprising population of field mice scuttle through the grasses. There are tracks for deer, although they remained shyly out of sight. The elk seem especially tame, barely bothering to scatter when I walked within a quarter mile. This remote location may limit their exposure to hunters.

Snowy Mogollon Mts from eastern rib

As you approach the forest-green summit will peek down at you from between two grassy ribs. It should be possible to walk straight up the draw between these two ribs, but on this date I chose to make a loop by entering the draw and then rising up the foothill at the end of the east rib (to your right on ascent). The steep hillside was thick with rocks. This complicated the prolonged side-hilling ascent – you may want to consider an ascent directly up the wash to the summit. Scramblers who climb this hill are rewarded with great views. Look southwest into the snow covered Mogollon Mountains, south into the broad expanse of the Gila National Forest and southeast to the Black Range.

Snowy terrain over the CDT canyon, San Agustin Plains in distance

Drop from the hill and follow the main rib as it bops over a series of knobs and knolls. The terrain is open and navigation is easy. Eventually you will reach the rim of a canyon between you and the summit. Going west (left on ascent) would follow the rim to a saddle due south of Pelona summit. I recommend you take that path. On this date, however, I dropped into the canyon to meet up with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The north-facing canyon wall exhibited a thick and steep cover of snow. This is where my ankle remembered a recent insult and started plaguing me. At the bottom of the canyon is a barbed wire fence. The CDT follow the fence and is further marked by tall 4-by-4 posts. It proved easy to follow even with the snow.

The trail rises back to a saddle at the base of the summit block. At this point my GPS turned itself off and my phone battery died, adding insult to an injury (ankle). It seemed like a sign to turn back. Make loop by descending into the draw west of the ascent draw. A mellow rib makes the hiking easy. In the draw bottom there is a ranch road. Follow it south to the end of the loop but do not follow the road when it turns west. Instead, contour around the rib to the east and rejoin the ascent wash, turning south to return to the car.


This scramble offers a nice day’s outing, unusual navigation challenges and a pleasant ridge ramble. I am slightly ambivalent about recommending it because of the length of the drive. The “bang per mile” is on the low side. If you live close by, such as Socorro or Reserve, then I can gladly recommend it. If you live a tad further and feel the need to escape the grind, but are bored of your regular mountain haunts, then give Pelona Mountain a shot.

Navigation challenges were moderate on this date but they could become severe. My experience is testimony to the fallible nature of electronics. Right at the start my eTrex and my inReach GPS devices had low batteries (fortunately, I had backups). Then my eTrex turned off up high. Then, my cell phone ran out of power. That is why, in the Data section above, I give the magnetic declination for the first time on this blog. Bring a map and a compass and the skillset needed to use them.

The footing on this scramble was notably uncertain. Boots would help.


If you would prefer to hike into Pelona Mountain on the Continental Divide Trail then the BLM suggests driving just 14.5 miles on NM-163 and parking at a small pullout. If I’m reading the Guthook app correctly, then you would hike 12.5 miles (one way) to reach the summit block of Pelona Mountain. The footing would probably be better!

That’s about it. There are quite a few references to the Sierra Pelona Mountains, but those are in California! I had expected to see more from CDT through-hikers who often journal their experiences. Most of those folks, however, choose to hike the Gila River alternative rather than the official trail going over Pelona.

Peñasco Blanco


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.


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!


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.


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.


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).