Archives for posts with tag: Slot Canyon

Overview:

This could be the most beautiful hike in New Mexico.

High sediment loads in the San Francisco River can give the water a muddy coloration. Don’t be put off! The hike remains gorgeous.

Stay away if the weather looks stormy. Flash flooding is a real risk.

Driving Directions:

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150.
    • 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
    • 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.
  • After 62.2 miles on US-60, at a blinking yellow light in Datil, NM, turn left onto NM-12 (well signed).
FR-49 is just past this sign
  • After 61.7 miles on NM-12, past mile marker 13 and immediately after the “JTS Park 6” sign, turn right onto Forest Road 49 (gravel)
    • [there is a sign 50 feet down FR-49 (rendered illegible by gun-toting idiots) that seems to identify this road as County Road 113]
  • After 0.4 miles on FR-49, immediately past a small brown Forest Service sign saying “49”, make a hard left turn onto Forest Road 41 (unsigned).
  • After 4.4 miles on FR-41 come to the first ford of the San Francisco River. If you want to leave your car here then there is a rough turn-out on the right side of the road. In nice weather many cars can drive the remaining 1.7 miles to the official trailhead. Know the perils!

Trailhead:

RuTwo on the dirt turnout

The turn-out just before the first ford of the San Francisco River is a weed-covered dirt pad raised a few inches above the road. If you are driving a low-slung car then driving up onto the dirt pad may be awkward. A shovel could be handy if you should need to grade the lip of the rise, especially if a county bulldozer recently been through. There are no services at this trailhead.

Data:

  • high point: 6505
  • low point: 5900 
  • net elevation change: 610 feet
  • distance: 7.1 miles (one way!)

GPS signal gets badly scrambled in the confines of this deep canyon, so the data given above should be treated as rough estimates. Note that wading deep pools and clambering over boulders can make the trip more stressful than the numbers might suggest.

Hike Description:

Road walk in open valley

The first ford of the river was only 6 inches deep and roughly 15 feet wide on this date. The firm sand in the streambed showed little risk of bogging your vehicle if you choose to drive across. A scattering of river stones slightly upstream of the crossing might allow you to make the ford dry footed. This is an exceptionally pleasant road ramble. The six river crossings offer a minor challenge and the terrain is gorgeous. Deep debris fields surround the San Francisco Mountains and the river has etched into these bajadas, leaving tall walls of stony composite that peek at you over the tops of hardwood trees. There was a surprising population of runners and mountain bikers. It would be hard to find a more pleasant training ground.

Well said.

At 1.7 miles arrive at the official trailhead for Trail #762. A kiosk reminds hikers of “bear country” concerns and a second sign warns sternly of flash flooding risk. Head up the trail as it switchbacks onto the bajada top. Single-seed juniper and pinyon pine offer patches of shade. Prickly pear, columnar cacti and banana yucca threaten to poke you. Grama grass blankets the occasional meadow. Lizards and horned toads scurry from your footfall. The tread initially moves northeast; away from the river and avoiding private property bounds. At 3.4 miles from turnout the trail abruptly turns west (to your left, inbound) and traverses towards the canyon entrance. The trail goes through two gates (please close ’em!). At 4.7 miles the tread makes a sharp switchback and begins the steep drop to the river bottom.

Sign at junction with two-track

At 5.2 miles the trail reaches a junction with a two-track. Note the sign so you will know where to depart from the road on your return. Turn right and follow the two track as it leaves the sunny Sonoran and penetrates the leafy domain of the bosque.

Pipe suspended over the river

In a few hundred feet you will see a large rusty pipe (about 12 inches in diameter) fronted by a sign saying “private property”. Begin scanning to your left to find a track that drops down to the river bank and goes underneath the pipe. On the river bank the trail becomes hard to find. Go upstream, about 30 yards past the pipe, then cross to the left-hand bank (looking upstream). The trail stays on that side for less than a quarter mile, then recrosses to the right-hand bank. If you loose the trail just continue upstream.

Entering the Box

The trail departs from the river to cross a wide meadow, then rejoins where the river makes a broad bend to the north. Here the walls begin to rise and press in. Soon there is little or no bank on which to make a trail. Oh ohh. Plunge in. The river is the tread. There is no fixed turn-back point. Hike until your turn-around time arrives. If you need a destination then other reports indicate that there is a warm spring about two miles beyond my turn-back point.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point

Take your time. This is not a hike to be rushed!

Bring a great camera. My cell phone camera was not up to the task of recording this amazing trip.

Ice could make this a dangerous and unpleasant trip. Similarly, meltwater from mountain snows could introduce your party to hypothermia. Schedule the hike for the warm weather just-before or just-after New Mexico’s monsoon season.

Monitor the forecast for Luna, NM (upstream) for storms in this area. If you drive over the fords to the trailhead, then even a gently rising stream might prevent you from driving out. A stash of extra food, dry clothing and a good book might make the wait more pleasant.

Soaked boots can get heavy. This hike calls for fast-drying (not “water proof”) shoes. Your electronics need to be protected. Ziplock bags can keep your GPS and phone functioning. On this date I was able to stay (mostly) dry, but only after rolling up the legs of my shorts as high as they could go. Others have reported swimming in order to cross the deeper pools.

I was very happy to have a water filter with me on this hike.

Links:

I’m not certain why the river is so deeply brown. It is possible that char from wildfires is being washed down the stream. Back in 2011 the enormous Wallow wildfire burned the headwaters of the river (south and west of Alpine, AZ), but that seems like a long time ago. We’ve had an active monsoon, so runoff from the rains may contribute as well.

The USDA/Forest Service site has general information and safety alerts. In New Mexico summers it is always useful to check for wildfire warnings.

Doug Scott’s site (a go-to destination for slot canyon hikes) has great maps and some warnings about the seasons to avoid for this hike. One of the maps shows an alternative route that keeps you east of the river until you reach Devil’s canyon (a tributary feeding into the San Francisco River above the Frisco Box). You could return down the river and make a loop out of it.

Sadly, I saw no fish larger than inch-long fry. The restocking efforts might have suffered a setback from the large amounts of suspended sediment. Hopefully the drought is about over, allowing matters to improve.

Overview:

Robbed Peak from knoll

Robledo Peak from knoll

This is a short but dramatic hike that is located close to Las Cruces. The drama comes from a contorted slot canyon – the genuine article with walls spaced just a few feet apart and towering more than 50 feet above your head. For newcomers it could be a stellar introduction to the mountainous desert of southern New Mexico. That said, this is not the “competent rock” that graces some of the nation’s most famous slot canyons. Instead the walls are composed of Robledo-rubble loosely cemented together. It would be an exceedingly poor location for riding out an earthquake. As with all slot canyons, you do not want to be trapped in there if a sudden storm drenches the higher reaches. Make certain to pick a nice day and go!

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Note that the trailhead is on the east side of the Rio Grande while the hike is on the west side. That is no problem when the river has been shut off, but probably impassable when the river is running full during irrigation season. Check the river conditions before setting off! After reaching the upper end of the slot you can continue ascending in a wider canyon bed and come eventually to a tall waterfall. Most people will want to turn back here. This route description, however, continues the ascent with a scramble up a steep waterway to the canyon rim and then an easy ascent to a nearby knoll.

Driving Directions:

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Route to the trailhead used on this date:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, turn north onto Valley Drive (Valley Drive becomes NM-185)
  • After 13.5 miles, turn left onto Hope Road (gravel)
  • After 0.6 miles, at what appears to be a T-intersection, turn right onto a gravel road (not signed). This gravel road stays on top of the levee on the east side of the Rio Grande
  • In 0.3 miles, veer left onto a flood plain road. Park on the flood plain.

This parking spot can not be recommended (see the hike description below for the kind of bush bashing that parking here entails). For this reason the map below shows a red warning sign with exclamation mark. Instead, park on the flood plain much closer to the spot where Hope Road intersects the levee road. The map marks this preferred spot with an icon of two hikers.

Edit: a comment was posted from the RV-Dreams.com site and that link describes an attempt at this hike that failed because there was water in the Rio Grande (gasp). Looking at Google Maps, there is an possible alternative, although it is one that I haven’t explored.  Here are the directions as provided by Google:

  • On Valley Drive/NM-185, going north, turn west (left) onto Shalem Colony Road (possibly signed as County Road D052).
  • After 1.2 miles, past the bridge over the Rio Grand, turn north (right) on County Road D013
  • After 5.5 miles find a corral on the rising land to the west (on your left). Find a place to park your car and walk back to the corral. 
  • NOTE: this approach will remove the need to cross the Rio Grande and deal with riverside thorn thickets. You can skip over the first two paragraphs in the hike description, but check out the photo of the corral so you’ll recognize it as you drive by. 

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The trailhead is just a spot on the flood plain along side the Rio Grande. There are no amenities. You don’t want to leave your car here if it happens to be the day that the managers at Caballo Reservoir release impounded water into the river. Current release data can be found here, but it does not necessarily include any advisories about future releases. Last year (2014) water was scheduled for release in May. If anyone knows where to find release advisories, please leave a comment below. Otherwise, search the news sites before going.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 3920 feet
  • Ending elevation: 4960 feet
  • Net Gain: 1040 feet
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Map: USGS Leasburg, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

If you are using the recommended parking site, then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up onto the far bank, and work uphill until you find a gravel road that parallels the river (about 0.1 miles from the car). Turn right (north) and follow the road until you come to a corral on the left-hand side of the road (to the west).

If you are using the same parking site that was used on this hike then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up over the bank and find yourself in a thorn bush thicket. Within the thicket (and within 20 feet of the bank) you will find a cattle trail. Turn left (south) and follow the trail until the heavily interlaced branches of the thorn trees begin to thin and junipers start appearing. As soon as you can tolerate the notion, turn your back to the river and bash your way past the brush and juniper. In 200 feet, encounter the road that parallels the river. Turn left (south) and follow the road until you come to the corral.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

From the corral turn uphill towards the mouth of the canyon (which is clearly visible). The terrain is strewn with fist-sized rocks and the footing is awkward, expect to go slowly as you ascend. As you get further from the river the plant life becomes sparser and travel becomes easier. Much of the green bush is mesquite and creosote. Above you (and somewhat to the south) lies Robledo Peak. To the north is Lookout Mountain. There are innumerable lizards scurrying about the dry water courses. On this day I saw no snakes, although another party reported seeing a garter snake. Our reptilian neighbors seem to be returning from their winter get-aways.

View straight up to the sky.

View straight up to the sky.

At 0.7 miles from the trailhead enter the canyon and you will find that the temperature drops considerably. The canyon bed writhes and twists. The bed itself is paved with rocks that (presumably) have fallen from the walls above you. There are no navigation problems, although there are intriguing mini-slots that come into the main canyon from time to time. Long-time desert dwellers accustomed to big-sky views will find the skinny-sky to be a bit claustrophobic.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

The slot is not terribly long. As you reach 1.2 miles from the trailhead the walls begin descending and then angling off. A much broader, arroyo-like conformation is adopted. The canyon bottom, which was free of vegetation in the slot, becomes a bit greener. Having reached 1.4 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself at the foot of a tall waterfall. This is a shady and green spot to have a bite to eat and a sip of water as you marvel at what water can do to hard rock. Many hikers will want to turn back at this point and enjoy the slot canyon on the way out.

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon. The knoll that formed the turn-around point is in the center.

You can ascend to the rim of the canyon in a narrow gully on the south wall of the canyon (on the left, looking uphill). This gully is just to the left of the main waterfall. It is steep in places and choked with loose rock. You will want to be comfortable with mildly exposed rock-climbing moves. As you near the rim it can be helpful to pull out of the gully to your left to gain better quality rock (although still fairly rotten). Near the rim the angle eases and animal trails appear, follow them below the rim and ascend into the upper reaches of the canyon.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

In it’s upper reaches the canyon walls are gently sloped. Descend into the canyon bed and immediately climb the far wall (the north side of the waterway). The terrain is open and quickly brings you into the domain of ocotillo plants and small juniper bushes. At 1.8 miles from the car, find yourself at the top of a knoll with tremendous views to Robledo and Lookout Peaks, long views of the dry river bed below, and vistas of the Dona Ana Mountains. This is wide open terrain and very inviting for those who relish a ramble.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder - a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder – a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

On this date, however, I turned back for the trailhead. Rather than down-climb back into the canyon, follow the northern rim as it weaves down the bajada. The sedimentary rocks are colorful. On this date it was a little disappointing to get “skunked” of any fossil finds. As you near the mouth of the canyon the rib you are on nose-dives and becomes divided by a small waterway. It helps to stay on the north bank (left, looking downhill) as the falloff on the north side is gentler. Find your way back down to the mouth of the canyon, descend the alluvial fan below to the corral and then cross the Rio Grand to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

The cool part of the hike, from both wow-factor and temperature points of view, lies in the slot canyon. If your party is not comfortable with exposed scrambling then turn them back at the waterfall.

Consider bringing a climber’s helmet into the slot canyon. The canyon bed is littered with rocks, some of which fell from the canyon rim. Getting beaned would hurt.

The upper part of the hike, above the waterfall, is completely exposed to the sun. Even the juniper trees are too stunted to provide meaningful shade. You’ll want sunscreen and other sun gear. I got through two liters of water on a fairly cool April day.

Links:

Apparently the slot canyon serves as a grasshopper graveyard in the autumn. The reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News  comments on the abundance of large insects on a November hike. On this date there were some flies, but nothing especially notable.

If you love slot canyons, then Southern New Mexico Explorer has a second post in which a number of alternative slots in the region are named. Doug Scott has provided an even more extensive list of canyons (both slot and box canyons) across New Mexico.

Joeseph j7uy5 has a flickr photo stream (including GPS tracks) of an exploration of this part of the Robledos.

George Ray has posted a video that captures a considerable fraction of hiking in the slot canyon.

UPDATE: The LC Sun-News is reporting that this year the river will begin flowing some time in late May, 2015. Keep an eye on that river!