Archives for posts with tag: desert
View to Chain of Craters from NM-117


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

01 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch (in shadow) from clifftop turnaround point


This is an easy amble along the top of a steep-sided scarp, terminating on a dramatic cliff overlooking the enormous Ventana Arch. Along the way you get a birds-eye view of the dark lava and struggling vegetation in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. The trail stays at a relatively low altitude and is unusually easy to access. This is a great way to introduce newcomers to the hiking in New Mexico. Alternatively, the trail provides a mellow means for getting out of doors and warming up those hiking muscles as the winter winds down. On this date it also served to test minumum expectations for a new pair of hiking shoes (which passed).

Driving Directions:

  • From Albuquerque get onto Interstate-40 (I-40) going west and take exit 89 near Grants, NM (about 70 miles).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn south (left if you were on the west-bound lanes of I-40) onto NM-117.
  • After 21.8 miles turn left into The Narrows Picnic Area.
  • After about 50 feet, at the end of the first curve in the road, park at the trailhead.


02 Rim view of trailhead

NM-117 and trailhead seen from ledge

The picnic area has vault toilets, picnic benches and trash recepticals. There is a small wooden sign near the trailhead announcing The Narrows Rim Trail. There are no fees. On a 4th of July weekend there was only one other vehicle in the picnic area when I arrived and it did not seem crowded on return. Parking should not be an issue. There are no usage fees.


  • Starting elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7500 feet
  • Net Elevation: 400 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS North Pasture quadrangle. This hike is shown at the very top edge of this map and a small segment is cut off. If you want to see the complete trail or would like to identify northern landmarks the you should also take along the Arrosa Ranch quadrangle.

Hike Description:

03 Lava hummocks in malpais

Lava hummocks in malpais and distant cinder cones

From the trailhead follow the trail as it clambers up a low rocky ledge and then turns north. The hardest part of your hike is now over. The trail gently ascends along the rim, yet quickly achieves a view west into the malpais (Spanish for “bad country”). This lava-covered terrain exhibits broad regions of black rock that are being slowly colonized by juniper and pines. These lava flows came from multiple eruptions, the most recent occurring only 1500 years ago. Several trails run across this tortured terrain and you have to imagine that the footing across the malpais is rough indeed.

04 cobbled trail with cairn

Cobbled trailbed with cairn

The top of this escarpment is covered with fine, light brown-sand. The lack of any coarse material suggests that it was wind deposited. There are many sandy stretches on the tread itself and you might want to put on gaiters to keep sand from filling your boots. In other places the tread has an almost cobbled appearance. Daily temperatures can swing across 50-degrees (Farenheit), and over the years these swings have carved grooves into the rock. In still other locations those deep grooves conspire to release fist-sized chunks of rock, real ankle-twisters. As the day warms that light-brown sand reflects the sunlight with surprising efficiency.

05 sChain Of Craters cinder cones and distant Escondido Mountain

Malpais view: snaking lava tube nearby, a small kipuka in mid-distance, far-distant Escondido Mt on extreme left and cinder cones dominating the horizon.

There are no real navigation problems because the trail stays within 100 feet of the escarpment face (and usually much closer). In some places the tread can be a just little difficult to find – typically where a stretch off-trail sandstone has an eye-catching, sidewalk-like appearance. There are numerous cairns in these stretches to help keep you on track.

06 Tinaja and Ponderosa

Sandy depression in the sandstone

There is only a sparse display of pinyon pine and single seed juniper, reflecting the harsh growing conditions on this dry mesa. In places along the trail there are small depressions in the sandstone called tinajas (Spanish for “jar” or “tank”). Water draining into these depressions deposits a flat bed of sand. Nearby you’ll often find small stands of Ponderosa pine. These are not large pines by high-mountain standards, but they tower over the pinyon and juniper.

07 kipuka (narrow band of forest) below horizon

Kipuka in the middle distance

As the tread rises you’ll see greater detail across the malpais. There are corridors of black rock snaking through the green scrub. These could be flood-swept channels. The long stretches of black rock that lie closest, however, look like collapsed lava tubes. You will see considerable variation in the vegetation. There are small patches of terrain that produce stands of trees that are markedly taller and denser than the surrounding scrub. These stands probably lie on mounds of older lava that were tall enough to deflect the more recent lava flows (kipukas), so their high points retain deeper accumulations of soil.

08 Mt Taylor across a sea of lava

Hazy Mt Taylor in the far distance

At about 3.5 miles trail crosses a tinaja underlain by strikingly dark rock. The sands of this small depression are littered with small dark stones, some of which have pocked surfaces suggestive of volcanic scoria. Just beyond there is a stand of five or six notably large Ponderosa. Pass through this grove and views open north to Mt Taylor. Arriving at the northern-most extremity for this segment of the escarpment the trail turns east. In just a few hundred feet the tread terminates at a high overlook that gives you wonderful views of Ventana Arch. Kick back, watch the hawks soar above the arch (tracking visitors who scare up the rabbits) and plot your return along the approach route.


10 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch in the midway sun.

This would be a terrific spot for introducing young hikers to moderate length hiking. They would need to carry sufficient water and be very clear that cliffs are not playthings. The attractions include hawks soaring overhead, horned toads on the ground, and innumerable tracks in the sand to interpret.

The morning of June 2nd was surprisingly cold. Don’t let the daytime temperatures mislead you, a bivouac at 7500 feet could be a very chilly experience. That said, the light brown sands do reflect a lot of sunshine. You’ll want sunscreen under your nose and across the backs of your knees.

There isn’t any water along this trail. I took three liters and that may have been a little over the top. Unless the day is extremely hot two liters would be fine for most people.


A widely quoted trail handout from the Bureau of Land Management can be found here (PDF).

Julie White, writing for the website OnlyInYourState, has an enthusiastic writeup of this trail and good photographs illustrating the dramatic aspects of this hike.

NewMexicoNomad posts some great photos of the area and has an interesting introduction to the geology. Most of it focuses on the dramatic volcanic flows of the Malpais, much of that quite recent by geology standards.

01 Cabezon Peak

Basaltic columns on south face of Cabezon Peak


The trail – the only trail – on Cabezon Peak is a scramble on a massive volcanic plug out in the desert. The plug is one of scores of volcano relics that dot the terrain in the vast Mt Taylor volcanic field, with vistas so broad and exotic that the notion of aliens feeling at home here seems almost reasonable.  Go when the weather is great, go when the day is cool, go when there is time to soak up the views.

This route is one of the most exposed scrambles that has so far appeared in this blog – in places a fall would be costly or fatal. On a per-mile basis it is certainly strenuous. It is usually evaluated as a class 3 route, meaning that most people will not feel the need to be roped in. Acrophobes will not be at all happy here. Very young hikers should not be brought here. On this date a boy scout troop was on the route with experienced leaders. The 11 and 12 year olds seemed to be doing fine.

Driving Directions:

  • Informational sign on BLM 1114 at turn for trailhead road

    Take exit 242 on Interstate-25 (just north of Albuquerque) and go west on US-550. Cabezon Peak comes into view from US-550 a few miles before you turn off for NM-279

  • After 41.6 miles, just past a sign for San Luis, Cabezon and Torreon, take a left onto NM-279 going west. There are a couple things to note about this road:
    • At 8.5 miles the paved road takes an abrupt turn right. Keep going straight ahead onto a gravel road. You’ll come across several signs warning that bad weather can render the dirt road impassable. Judging from the huge ruts in the road, this is entirely believable.
    • At 11.7 miles the road reaches a small rise and swings to your right. Make note as you go by since there is a fork here that is otherwise easy to miss. On return you do not want to go straight, but instead take the more prominent left-hand fork.
  • After 12.3 miles come to a fork and go left onto BLM 1114. I didn’t see a sign, but this will be obvious as the right-fork would take you away from the huge volcanic plug on your left.  Here are some landmarks for this road.
    • At about 0.9 miles past the fork the road pitches over an embankment and descends to the Rio Puerco bottom where it crosses on a bridge. It then winds along the bottom eventually coming out on a steep rise.
    • At 1.9 miles past the fork come to a second fork and, again, go left. As before, this will be obvious since this fork keeps you closest to the mountain.
  • After 2.9 miles, at a minor crest, turn left onto a dirt road. There is a park interpretive sign at the junction. The sign is in the shape of a trapezoid with its shorter base on the bottom. It is nearly illegible. Apparently it has been out in the desert sun for a long time.  You can still make out the words Cabezon Peak if you look closely. The road is not named, but let’s call it Cabezon Trailhead Road.
  • After 1.0 mile, at the end of Cabezon Trailhead Road, come to the trailhead. NOTE: This road is not maintained. If you have a high clearance vehicle you should have no problem here. A family sedan, however, is another matter entirely.  The Camry crawled the length of this road and, later, crawled back out. If the roadbed is even slightly muddy then consider walking the mile to the trailhead.


There is a trailhead sign and a sturdy, raised, metal platform containing a sign-in sheet. Otherwise there are no trailside services. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.


  • Starting Elevation: 6480 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7785 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1305 feet
  • Distance: 1.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cabezon Peak quadrangle


Trailhead sign and view to the peak

From the trailhead, look east at the soaring basaltic wall that is Cabezon Peak. At its base is a steep-sided debris field making a “skirt” around the plug. A little to the south you will see a small hillock that the debris field extends towards, but does not bury. Between the hillock and the peak is a small draw. As the trail leaves the trailhead it will be rising on the debris field skirt, ascending along the draw in the direction of the saddle between the peak and the hillock.

View of peak, southern hillock and the draw between them

The initial part of the trail is fairly mellow. The tread is strewn with rock, so it pays to watch your footing. You are, unquestionably, deep into desert terrain. Prickly pear lunges into into the tread at its lowest level and cane cholla does its best to occupy the upper reaches. Tough juniper trees do show up here and there, but there is no protection from the sun. This would be a very hot trek in mid-summer.

The top of a rock fin peeks out from behind the main volcanic plug

Instead of heading to the saddle the trail increases the angle of attack across the debris skirt. It rises much higher than the saddle until it reaches the rib that extends down to the saddle. Here it turns almost directly uphill. Gravel underfoot makes contact with the tread wonderfully uncertain until, at about 0.8 miles, the tread pulls onto a flat spot, drops into a broad declivity dense with junipers and then rises yet a few feet more. As you reach this area you will begin to see a tall fin of rock peeking out from behind the main plug. The gully between the main plug and that fin is your approach to the summit.

Rock arrow screened in the grasses below the talus trail

The trail contours just below the talus field at the foot of the plug. Dropping slightly, trail comes to broad shelf populated with cairns. On your right will be a large arrow constructed of rocks with the arrow pointing uphill. You may have to look closely as the grasses can obscure it. (Which is odd, since this arrow is visible in satellite photos). If you examine the talus uphill from the arrow you will see a faint, boot-beaten track ascending toward the fin. Following it is hard work as steeply piled talus tends to roll under your boot.

View of the crux move in the gully behind the rock fin

The tread soon pulls between two tall rocky knobs and hits a cul-de-sac. The upper end provides the first of your climbing exercises on solid, whitish rock. Flex your fingers and go to work. Above this first exercise is a stretch of steep boot-beaten path and then, voila!, you are in the gully between fin and plug. The problem immediately in front of you is the crux. This might be a good time to check your party and make certain that all are ready, willing and able to ascend and descend the next 10 or 12 vertical feet. All OK? Have fun.

The juniper snag (just jutting above the horizon) that appears above the gully

It isn’t exactly mellow above the crux, even though the angle eases. There is quite a bit of toe-and finger work to pull you up to a shelf high on the southeast side of the plug. From there look ahead for an old snag of a juniper, about 100 feet distant. Follow the tread towards this tree but you don’t want to go below it. About 20 feet before the snag look for an ascent on large, rounded lumps of pillow basalt. It is steep, but it will get you up to the level of the snag and the continuance of the trail.

Rounded boulders leading to the uppermost wall

Here the tread rises and falls less than 100 feet before turning uphill on rounded boulders for another pitch of finger and toe work. Cross beneath a thriving juniper and come to what appears to be a fork. Above you is a climbable route going up on an steep wall. To your right is an array of flattish rocks that might be more trail to the north. Alas, the latter is just feint. You will want to ascend the steep wall. The holds are a bit sparse on the lowest eight feet and, for some scramblers, may be just as challenging as the crux move below. Above, however the rock takes on a gnarled aspect with many welcome protrusions.

Windbreak on the summit of Cabezon

At the top of this pitch come to steep grass-and-cactus terrain. Follow it to the summit where you will find an elaborate windbreak. In the windbreak is a metal box containing the summit log. All about you, for many many miles, lies desert, the escarpments above the Rio Puerco, and innumerable smaller volcanic necks. To the north east lie the Naciamento Mountains (source the river), and the Jemez Mountains. To the southeast lies Mount Taylor. The high ridge to the distant west may be the Chuksa Mountains.


Author at the foot of the talus tread leading to the fin

This is a cool-weather hike. It would be brutal in summer.

In cool weather this scramble can be very popular. In addition to the Boy Scouts I passed two other parties on the route and met another party on return to the trailhead. Bring a helmet because rockfall is a big concern. The shout of “Rock!” formed most of the conversation between people ascending the crack formed by the fin.

There isn’t much sense in picking Cabezon Peak if the weather is foul. Just traversing the roads could become a memorably demanding occupation. Pick your day and make your day!

I had a pretty heavy bag and that was a mistake. It was my usual bag for solo hiking and carried about four liters of water and full-on winter gear in case of a bivouac. It made for pretty sketchy scrambling. I poured out all but a half liter for the descent and put on much of the heavy fleece. That made things much easier to handle.

Bring friends. Today’s scramble was fun but it would have been great to pick out more distant peaks with folks who really know the area.


14 Cerro Cuarte from summit

Summit view west to (left to right): Cerro Santa Clara, Cerro Chafo, the trailhead road, Rio Puerco and Cerro Cuarte. Mesa Chivato forms the left horizon.

There are lots of good resources for Cabezon Peak. These are the ones I happened across when preparing for the hike:

There is terrific photography at Mary Caperton Morton’s site, Travels With The Blonde Coyote. She rates the last pitch as a class 4 and I’m inclined to agree.

SummitPost also has a very good route description, including a much better photo of the “the old snag” which is described by them as a “gnarled tree”. Additionally, there is a photo of the ascent up the talus slope with the route helpfully drawn in.

D’Ellis Photographic Art provides numerous great photos of the Peak and the surrounding terrain. The photo of the Cabezon interpretive sign, from a time at which the sign was still legible, may be of particular interest to your vehicle’s navigator.

A short description can be found at ClimbMountains.Com that is notable for offering difficulty ratings for individual phases of the climb. It also has a photo of a scrambler looking down the last pitch. The photo is a little grainy, but of all the pictures I’ve seen this is the best for giving a clear idea of what the pitch looks like.

Cabezon Peak is on BLM land. The BLM website (with driving directions) is found here.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has a terrific geology writeup and a useful map if you want to identify the other volcanic plugs nearby.



2013-03-30 02 false summit view to Mesilla Valley

View to Mesilla Valley and Organ Mts from Robledo false summit


This scramble takes you from canyon to mesa and from mesa to mountain top.  Two features might be born in mind.  First, in his description of this hike Greg Magee (author of Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area) calls this hike “extremely strenuous”.  He is right.  Don’t be fooled by the short distance or the limited amount of altitude gained.  Second, for us newcomers there is a route finding hazard to this seemingly easy hike. Navigating across a mesa can be tricky, especially if you are trying to find the point where you had previously exited a canyon.  Quite a few canyons are born in the debris fields flanking the Robledo Mountains.  It is hard to know which one to take, and once inside a canyon your view to distant landmarks becomes extremely limited.  Dust storms or heavy rains could make it even more difficult to find your way back to the car.

Driving Directions:

  • From Las Cruces, head north on I-25 to Exit 19 for Radium Springs.
  • At the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) on New Mexico 157.
  • After 1.5 miles come to a T-intersection with New Mexico 185.  Turn right (north, bending to west)
  • After 1.8 miles you will find Faulkner Canyon Road on the left (unpaved).  Turn left (south).
  • After 0.7 miles you will encounter a gate across the road.  As usual, you will have to unchain the gate and push it aside (it is a little on the heavy side), drive through, then close and re-chain the gate.
  • After an additional 1.1 miles you will come to the trailhead.  See trailhead description below.

The Faulkner Canyon Road follows the bottom of the canyon.  It has been a desperately dry year this year, but I suspect that there are wetter times when you don’t want your car to be parked anywhere along the wash floor.  Keep an eye on the weather.  This year the chief hazard seems to be soft places in the road bed.  My low-slung Camry sedan negotiated the road, but there were nervous moments when the surface went soft beneath the tires and the steering column took on a life of it’s own.  Carry a jack!


2013-03-30 01 Robledo trailhead

Car at trailhead – note flat area to left of the Camry carrying a brush thicket. That thicket is the start of the trail

There isn’t much to identify the point in the road where you park your car.  The canyon that makes up the start of the hike comes in from the south (on the left as you are driving in).  Unfortunately that canyon is not immediately apparent from the road.  Instead, outwash from the canyon has created a large flat area on the left that has a high density of small trees and shrubs.  Unfortunately, the exact same description can be made of the canyon immediately north.  If you drive to a point where the road comes close to brushing against a water-carved dirt-and-rock wall on your passenger’s side, then you’ve probably just missed the parking area – back up 50 feet.  The best advice is to watch your odometer.

Although the roadbed was soft in places it looked as though the road had been recently graded.  The grader left large banks of sand on either side of the roadbed.  There was no way that my sedan was going to push over these sandbanks so I had to shovel an opening in the bank before I could get my car off the road.  Some portions of the wash are made up of loose sand and it would be easy to get a car stuck there – chekc your chosen parking spot carefully. This stretch of road was oriented in a WSW direction, so by departing to the left hand side you will be heading SSE.  Once you penetrate into the thicket of brush you should find numerous cattle trails all heading for the mouth of the canyon.  Important hint: the brush will hide your car from you on your return, so it pays to take note of high landmarks around your car!


Magee puts the hike at about 12.5 miles.  My navigation mis-steps put the total closer to 14 or 15.  The climb up to Robledo Peak ascends about 1800 feet.  The Lookout ascent adds an additional 800 feet of gain.  The only cover comes from the canyon walls.  In the middle of the day that is the same thing as no cover at all.  There was no sign of water anywhere. From the summits even the Rio Grande looked parched.


2013-03-30 05 clutter in canyon before waterfall

Rock rubble (in foreground) and the first waterfall (in background). The watefall is probably 15 feet high, but can be skirted on either side of the canyon.

Negotiate the brush south of the trail until you hit the cattle trails, and then follow the most SSE-ly of  those until canyon walls surround you.  In a half a mile, you’ll come to the first of two rock ledges that would be impressive waterfalls in the event of rain.  The first fall is about 15 feet high and steeply overhung.  Unless you are a competitive rock climber ascend either flank of the canyon until you can find a way past the falls.  After another 0.6 miles you will come to the second falls.  It is much smaller and a manageable climb for most people.  Above this waterfall you will find a hodge-podge of small drainages joining together, presumably funneled by the same rocks that make up the waterfall.  It is time to leave the topological certainty of the canyon bottom.  Ascend to your left in a westerly direction and meet the mesa at the canyon rim.  If you want to follow the canyon on your way back out, make special note of the landmarks around this exit point.  To the north is a small hillock on the mesa, which I termed The Nubbin.  It makes for one good landmark.  (Note that there is a separate gully between you and The Nubbin.  This gully includes an impressive cliff/waterfall and is probably not a good way to get back to the trailhead).

2013-03-30 10 junipers just before uppermost canyon

Juniper cluster near the third canyon confluence. The false summit shown top/right of the photo

To the southwest you will get your first clear view to both Lookout (nearer) and Robledo (further south).  Between them are a couple drainages, the second of which has a jeep track.  Go south, skirting past the debris fields from Lookout, find the jeep track, and follow it up the major drainage between Lookout and Robledo.  About a quarter mile up the road you will see an obvious jeep track coming in from your right, semi-blocked by a rusty metal pole of about 6 foot length.  Ascend the new jeep track to the end.  At the end you will get views up into three canyons.  Take the left-hand canyon.  The terrain immediately becomes steeper and there is much rock hopping and small climbing moves to make.  In a quarter mile there is a second confluence of drainages, again take the (steep) left hand route.  That only goes for a few hundred feet to the third confluence marked by three juniper trees (shade!) in the waterway.  This time, go right and follow the bed to the col that marks the head of the canyon.

2013-03-30 12 false summit view to Radium Springs

View to Radium Springs from the false summit on Robledo approach.

The map shows that I lost patience with the canyon and tried a direct ascent towards what I presumed was Robledo Peak.  What I got was a false summit cloaked with an ocotillo forest.  It was a shock to realize that my destination was still a quarter mile away and 100 feet higher.  For future reference, go all the way to the col and then make an ascending traverse up the southwest face of Robledo to get to the col on the far side of the false summit.  From there it is an easy ascent to the true summit.    It is roughly five miles from the trailhead to Robledo summit.  The views of Mesilla Valley and Las Cruces to the south and Lookout Mountain to the north are grand.  The Rio Grande, however, puts in an awfully limited appearance.  I did not see so much as a sparkle in the sunshine to suggest the presence of water.

To get to Lookout Peak return by the approach route back to the junction of jeep roads.  On that descent I was surprised to find a climbers tread in the approach canyons, generally about 15 to 30 feet above the canyon floor on the southern wall.  The tread is spotty, but there are occasional cairns to look for.  It makes the descent far easier than rock hopping.  It is about 1.3 miles from the summit back to the metal post marking the junctions between jeep roads.

Back at the junction I turned right to follow the jeep track to Lookout Mt.  A more skillfull navigator would have noticed a road coming steeply down from the northern wall of the canyon in a small drainage.  I blithely stepped past this landmark and continued along the canyon floor for a while before realizing that I was re-ascending Robledo Peak.  Climbing to a nearby knoll I clearly saw the road for Lookout three-quarters of a mile behind me.  Stupidity is its own reward.

2013-03-30 Lookout Summit towards Robledo Peak

View of Robledo Peak (left) and false summit (immediately to right of Robledo) from Lookout Peak. You can see part of the road leading to Lookout in the center of the picture.

Getting back to the road leading towards Lookout and following it was no problem.  At one point the road turns and drops east into a drainage.  Rather than follow the road, it is far easier to leave the road and ascend north-west to gain a gentle ridge that takes you to the microwave antennas on the summit.  The road that you left rejoins you at the summit.  Including my excursions to Robledo Peak, it was 8.8 miles to from the trailhead to Lookout Peak.  Lookout gives you a fine view of Radium Springs and the San Andreas Mountains.

To return to the trailhead follow the road east along the summit ridge until the road departs sharply to the left.  Stay on the summit ridge as it gently drops and then rises to a bump in the middle of the ridge.  (Further along there is another bump that forms the eastern-most part of the ridge).  After scouting, however, I thought that the easiest way down was by a rib descending NNW from the middle bump.  This is the route that Magee also recommends.  The surface is composed of talus and loose dirt at a steep enough angle that descent is slow.

From up high on the descent it is obvious that the mesa is cut up by a large number of gullies, washes, canyons and swales.  Which of these will take you to your car is less obvious.  Fortunately, the “Nubbin” is easily identified.  But I was sufficiently unsure of my position that I thought I would stay up high on the mesa rather than risk descent into the “wrong” canyon.  The mesa is covered with cattle trails that made for fast passage through the withered grass, innumerable cacti and rare juniper.  The northernmost extension of the mesa separates into two projections, a north-pointing finger and a north-east pointing finger.  I was glad to see that descending from the north finger would be easy.  Dropping off of the north finger places you back in the correct canyon (as confirmed by the lower waterfall) and that takes you back to the flats.  Head east through a confusion of cattle trails and peer-around to find the car.


I was extremely happy to have a topo map and compass with me on this hike.   A GPS with good backup batteries would have been welcome.  I packed a gallon of water but felt that it really didn’t leave me with enough surplus.  This despite the fact that it probably didn’t get much above 85°F.  It would have been a terribly dry night if for some reason I had needed to camp on the mesa.  Note that my dawn start was very chilly and I was wearing a fleece vest for the first mile or so.  Also, it was a lonesome hike.  I didn’t see another bootprint or even any cattle on the entire trip.  People in trucks appeared along the access road to the microwave towers as I began my descent off of Lookout, so there were a few others out in this terrain.  Not many!

From Robledo Peak you get great views out toward the Cibola National Forest (containing Magdelana Peak, Valles Canyon, Broad Canyon and Pina Peak).  It is bone dry, big and empty.  But sometimes looks can be deceiving.  On the way back to Las Cruces I stopped in Radium Springs at the Rio Grande bridge.  There actually is water there.  Where the stream was 10 feet across it moved with a visible current, but in those places where it broadened across the sands to 30 feet width is seemed perfectly stagnant.  It didn’t look like enough volume to water your lawn, let alone central and south New Mexico.

Saturday August 25, 2012

Center, rim, and distant ridgeline from the NorthEast limb of Kilbourne Hole


A seven mile (11.2 km) meander around a volcano crater that is nearly flush with the desert floor.


These directions are taken from Greg Magee’s excellent guide, “Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area”.  I recommend it, but since there are a few changes since it was published in 2004 I’m presenting some updates here

  • From Las Cruces, drive south on I-25, get onto I-10 east  and take exit #155
  • At the exit ramp’s stop sign, go right (west) onto NM 227 (Vado Rd on Google Maps) for 1.8 miles (2.9 km)
  • At T-intersection, go left (south) onto NM 478 for a BRIEF 0.2 miles (0.3 km)
  • Turn right onto NM189 (west) for 1.2 miles (1.9 km).  This is a four-way intersection and I found it very easy to blow right through it on the return, so take note of it in the rear view mirror as you travel to the trailhead.
  • Turn left on NM 28 (south) for 2.0 miles (3.2 km)
  • Turn right onto W. Afton Road (CR B008, west)  for 11.5 miles (18.5 km).  The first 10.7 miles (17.4 km) are paved, taking you to the El Paso Electric gas plant.  After that, all the roads are unpaved.  You travel only about 0.8 miles on the unpaved portion of W. Afton Road.
  • Turn left onto CR B004.  Note that the road is currently signed “Douglas Munro Rd”.  The road will veer sharply to the right at 4.4 miles (7.1 km) near a ranch house.
  • About 2.2 miles after the ranch house (3.5 km) turn left onto a road that is signed CR B004 and continue south alongside the railroad tracks.
  • After 0.3 miles (0.5 km) the road will turn sharply right (towards the west) over the railroad tracks and then turn sharply left (again pointed south).  The maps and instructions say this is CR-A017.  However, a fork just past the left turn is signed as road “B-02” (which stays alongside the railroad) and “CR A019” (which angles off slightly to the right – westerly).  Follow road B-02 which stays next to the tracks.  Further on, it will be signed A017.
  • Follow “B-02″/”A017” for about 7.4 miles (11.9 km) to the junction with CR-A011
  • Looking south on “B-02″/”A017”, county road A011 heads off to the right

    Turn right onto CR-A011 (west).  Note that, currently, the road sign is missing.  The only thing left is a bent angle-iron post that held the sign.  Look for a curved steel angle iron sticking up into the air  just in front of a large dirt mound (higher than a family sedan) on the right-hand side of the road.

  • Follow CR-A011 for 8.3 miles until you get to the prominent crater rim, where CR-A011 and CR-A013 intersect.  Watch for cattle.

Drive Hazards:

Railroad spikes aren’t the only problem on desert roads.

The flat tire shown to the right was caused by a two inch long (5 cm) mesquite thorn that penetrated the sidewall of my driver’s side front tire.  Don’t drive through mesquite trees!

Railroad spikes found on “B02″/”A017”, quarter in picture is for scale

It appears that the railway boys in New Mexico have a pretty rough sense of humor.  On the road that paralleled the railroad I found the two spikes pictured at left.  Either one could have wrecked a tire or cracked open an oil pan.  It can’t be much fun to be stuck that far out in the Chihuahuan Desert.


The trailhead is a flat area where county roads CR-A013 and CR-A011 meet.  The ground was dry and firm when I visited, but it looks like it could become deep mire pretty quickly.  Trailhead coordinates:

N  31° 57.452'
W 106° 57.160'


The walk around the rim is slightly longer than 7 miles (11.9 km).  There is no significant elevation gain.


From the trailhead ascend to the top of the crater rim, about 40 feet (12 meters) above the surrounding desert.  A trail/road goes around the circumference of the crater and is easy to follow.  For most of the way the rim lies higher than the surronding terrain, but as you get to the south-west side of the crater the rim falls to desert-level.  At the north end of the crater a substantial, ravine-like opening rises to the rim.  It doesn’t seem likely that rain water washing down into the crater could be the cause of that erosion, simply because there isn’t enough surface area on the rim above the the ravine.  I’m guessing that there must be some ground water that raise up during wet (or at least, wetter) parts of the year and produces the drainage.

There were many lizards darting about and two raptors were soaring on the thermals coming off the crater walls.  The sandy road was crisscrossed with sinusoid tracks that I assume were left by snakes.

Magee cautions that the bottom of the crater is privately owned, so it is necessary to get permission before exploring the center of the volcano.

There were only two other groups at the Kilbourne Hole while I was there.  Both were engaged in rifle practice.  They were assiduous, with pretty much constant firing the entire time I was walking the trail.