Located about 50 miles north of Albuquerque, this place is one of my favorite locations in the entire state. I’ve done the hike several times and the level of amazement and wonder at the beauty to be found there has not yet waned. The Slot Canyon Trail at the Kasha-Katuwe* Tent Rocks National Monument is an opportunity to marvel at what the passage of time can do to a landscape.
*Kasha-Katuwe means “white rocks” in Keresan, a pueblo language. The national monument is located near the Cochiti Pueblo.
The name “Tent Rocks” comes from the cone-shaped rock formations (also called hoodoos) created from a volcanic explosion over 6-7 million years ago. The monument includes several areas for hiking and sightseeing, including the Veteran’s Memorial Scenic Overlook, Shelter Cave, the Cave Loop, and the Slot Canyon Trail.
The trail is a three-mile loop that is easily done in about two and a half to three hours. It is a beginner-level hike, which is great for someone like me who isn’t a hiker but enjoys the great outdoors. Both the Cave Loop and Slot Canyon Trail begin at the same place, just off the parking lot. The Cave Loop trail circles the base of the tent rocks and is a mile loop, dotted with juniper trees and posted information about the geology and history of the area. At the half mile point of the loop, the Slot Canyon Trail breaks off to the right.
As the trail winds through the canyon, a large tree with gnarled roots big enough to hide behind acts as your portal to a sacred place. Once past the tree, the canyon walls rise up and the trail gets narrow. The modern world and all its trouble and worries disappear within this place as you wind past boulders and rocks and view trees and bushes that literally grow and survive off the sides of the canyon. The weight of time and the past pull you from your worries and cares as you begin to understand the temporariness of your place in the universe.
The first part of the Slot Canyon Trail is a gradual easy increase in elevation. Around the mid-point, the trail gets steep. You have to scramble over boulders and rocks as the path continues to rise. Railroad ties placed within the side of the mesa assist in the ascent, but it is still a steep journey. For someone afraid of heights (like me) there is always a big fear of just how temporary my place in the universe might actually become, but at Tent Rocks I always push past that, which is a sign of how wonderful this place is.
When you reach the top you’ll experience some truly beautiful views, as it seems you see the entire northern part of the state from here. After taking some time to rest and experience the beauty of the area, you’ll go back down the way you came, but you’ll be changed. And if you’re not changed, you’re not doing it right.
Tips for Your Visit
There is a $5 fee to get into the area. Check out their site to ensure they are open the day you visit.
Try to get there as early as possible (the monument opens at 7 a.m. in the spring and summer and 8 a.m. in the fall and winter). The Slot Canyon Trail is narrow in certain spots, and at the midpoint of the loop it you have to climb over some rocks and boulders as the elevation increases. If you go earlier, you don’t have to wait for other hikers, and you’ll save yourself the embarrassment of being overheard by anyone as you wail about the heights and curse openly at Little Trickster for talking you into this trip (but maybe that’s just me).
Bring your own drinking water, as there isn’t any running water at monument. Also, if hiking in the spring or summer, be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen, as there is pretty much no shade.
Be sure to bring proper footwear. While the hike is easy, it’s not flip-flop easy.
Dwelling in the Cliffs — Our daytrip to Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera
In order to keep from moving up a weight class (or two), Team EatingNewMexico decided to take Labor Day weekend off from our culinary exploits and get in some much needed hiking. We chose to brave the crowds and drive to Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful, federally protected preserve about two hours north of Albuquerque. Bandelier is famous for the cliff dwellings, village ruins, petroglyphs, kivas, and other artifacts of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who occupied the area approximately 500-900 years ago.
If you’ve been to Bandelier in the past, but it’s been a while, you should know that the rules have changed when it comes to driving and parking at the monument. Unless you’re an early bird (arriving before 9:00 a.m.) or a late-comer (arriving after 3:00 p.m.), you won’t be allowed to drive yourself to the park. Visitors arriving between 9:00 and 3:00 have to park in the town of White Rock and take the shuttle bus into Bandelier. White Rock is about 12 miles away from the park entrance, and the bus ride takes around 20-25 minutes.
The Visitor’s Center and shuttle bus terminal in White Rock were well marked and very easy to find. We arrived in White Rock around 10:30 AM, and in spite of the Labor Day crowds, there was ample parking available. The Visitor’s Center had a helpful and friendly staff, and clean restrooms. There was a shuttle leaving every 20 minutes, so we had plenty of time to hit the restroom, change into our hiking boots, and liberally apply sunscreen before we jumped on the bus.
Since it was Labor Day weekend, the park was crowded and the full-sized buses filled up to “standing room only” very quickly. Upon boarding the bus, the driver informed us that there would be two stops. The first stop would be at the Frey Trailhead / Juniper Campground, which would allow visitors to make a 1.5 mile hike to the Bandelier Visitor’s Center along a well-marked trail. The second stop would be at the Visitor’s Center, for those unwilling or unable to make the hike.
When we arrived at the Frey Trailhead, we expected a mass exodus from the extremely crowded bus; however, only three people chose to make the hike: me, Zia, and Zia’s eight year-old daughter. We thought that was a little odd, but at the same time enjoyed a bit of self-righteousness at being the only ones who dared to hike in rather than be bussed in…or did everyone else know something that we didn’t???
The Frey Trail
As it turns out, leaving the bus to hike in via the Frey Trail was a great idea. The trail is well marked and provides good, even footing. The only significant terrain is over the last half-mile, as the trail descends through a series of switchbacks into the valley floor where the Visitor’s Center and old Tyuonyi (Que-WEH-nee) Pueblo ruins are located. During the descent, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley floor and the surrounding high ground. We felt very fortunate that we had this view and experience all to ourselves, as we were the sole hikers on the trail.
Bandelier Visitor’s Center
The hike in from the Frey Trailhead left us feeling a little hot and parched (we did pack along some water bottles, but we were ready for something a little colder, preferably something with bubbles poured over ice, like, preferably a Dr. Pepper). The Visitor’s Center at Bandelier offered us a short hiatus from the hot sun. There were restrooms, air conditioning, and a friendly staff on hand ready to answer our questions. We paid our park fee ($12 per car, or since we didn’t have a car, per “group of people that would fit in a car”) with a credit card, but in order to purchase a village map ($1), we needed cash. Neither of us had any cash, but the staff was happy to provide us with a “Loaner Map,” which we returned at the end of our visit.
Adjacent to the Visitor’s Center is a Gift Shop and Snack Bar. The snack bar offers an ok variety of pre- and post-hike fare. There are trail mixes, candy, chips, beverages (bottled and fountain), as well as some over-the-counter cooked foods like hot dogs! (They’re “Nathan’s” hot dogs, too. And yes, we shared one!) Even though we had packed along our own water and trail mixes for the hike, the Visitor’s Center Snack Bar was a nice respite from the heat, and it allowed us to recharge from the hike in.
Next, we set off on the Main Loop Trail, a paved 1.2-mile roundtrip route that leads to the Tyuonyi ruins, the cliff dwellings, the Long House, and eventually on to another trail, which leads to the Alcove House site.
The map we borrowed proved very useful. Each feature along the trail is marked with a wooden numbered marker, and you can open your map to the corresponding number and read a description and history of what you’re seeing. I highly recommending purchasing or borrowing a map for touring the area.
The first major site along the Main Loop Trail is the Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins. Passing through this village, it’s easy to let your mind travel back in time to the 12th and 13th century when this Ancestral Pueblo community thrived. According to the map/guidebook, these ruins were once called “Anasazi” ruins, but the name was changed to “Ancestral Pueblo” because Anasazi actually translates to “Ancient Enemy.” The Tyuonyi ruins are laid out in a circle, and once stood 2-3 stories tall. The rooms themselves are very small — each only slightly larger than a king-size bed, and were probably mostly used to store food and supplies. In the center of the circle were 3 kivas (underground pit structures used for religious ceremonies, teaching, and other community functions). One of the kivas has been excavated and maintained while the other two are only slightly visible as indentations in the ground.
Even though there were a lot of visitors while we were there, the trail system throughout the valley is large enough to keep the crowd thinned out. The only place we were near other sightseers was at the cliff dwellings themselves, where there was usually a short queue waiting to ascend one of the ladders and explore the inside of the dwellings.
The cliffs in this area (the Pajarito Plateau) are actually hardened volcanic ash (called “tuff”) deposited over a million years ago during a massive volcanic explosion in the nearby mountains. Over time, wind and rain eroded the softer areas of the tuff, creating holes and caverns. The Pueblo people used hand tools to carve out the holes for their dwellings. These are called cavates (CAVE-eights). In some cases, small mud brick structures were built in front of the cavate openings to expand the dwelling.
From the outside, we could see many of the centuries-old petroglyphs carved into walls. In the photo above, you can see a cave wall painting that was uncovered during excavation of one of the dwellings. The painting looked like a zig-zag pattern in red and brown hues. On the broad wall of the cliff, we spotted faces, turkeys, suns, and other various petroglyphs. The horizontal rows of smaller holes show where floors & ceilings were located.
Beyond Long House is a fork in the road. You can either turn left and go back to the Visitor’s Center or turn right and walk about 1/2 mile to the Alcove House. The Alcove House is a large, open cave (aka an alcove!) in the cliff about 140 feet above the valley floor. The trail to Alcove House wanders along the Frijoles Creek basin. It’s well shaded by the trees and offers a nice break from the hot sun alongside the cliff dwellings. To enter the alcove, you ascend a series of narrow stairs carved into the cliff and four well-worn (but plenty sturdy) wooden ladders. While this is nowhere near as scary as it sounds, people with a fear of heights could experience some anxiety about the climb and the descent. However, the view from the alcove is worth the climb.
Overall, we spent about three hours in the valley. After we felt like we’d seen all there was to see (without setting off on a whole new hike), we walked about a mile back to the Visitor’s Center and had another run on the Snack Bar. Here, we decided to hop a bus back to White Rock rather than hike (UP) the Frey Trail back out. We wanted to save some daylight for our next stop…the Valles Caldera!
NOTE: There are many other things to see at Bandelier — other ruins, dwellings, and cave paintings — plus many other long and short trails. See their website for a full list of trails and things to see. Bandelier National Monument – More Info
About 30 minutes west of White Rock along Highway 4 is one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen in New Mexico, the Valle Grande of the Valles Calder, a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains. (http://www.vallescaldera.gov/) The caldera was formed over a million years ago when the magma chamber of a volcano collapses in on itself after eruption, forming a bowl-shaped (or cauldron, “caldera” shaped) indention. There are areas within the caldera where magma is less than five miles below your feet.
Sadly, since this was a day trip and we still had to drive back to Albuquerque, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the caldera. We did venture into the Valle Grande by car and we stopped by the visitor’s center to check it out. According to their website, the Valles Caldera offers an array of activities throughout the year, to include horseback riding, fly fishing, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing, just to name a few. I’m sure we will be visiting here again in the future.
…or lack thereof. Like I said in the beginning, this was never meant to be an eating adventure. While we entertained some great ideas about stopping for dinner in Santa Fe on the way home, in the end, the wishes of the 8-yr-old won out, and we found ourselves enjoying some chili-cheese tots at the Los Alamos Sonic. Not our best “Eating New Mexico” moment, but hey, truth be told, those things are damn good.
“So there’s no trail?” I ask, scratching at my legs. The waist-high grass is blowing in a sporadic breeze, making me itch. I swat at a tiny winged insect buzzing around my right ear. Then another, or maybe the same one. They’re tenacious, these bugs. I look up at our goal: Sandia Peak, 10,400 feet seemingly straight up from where I stand at the bottom of a ski slope. The thick green grass between us and our goal feels teeming with snakes. I look down. I can’t see my feet.
Too bad the ski lifts aren’t working. I could just take one of those up.
“Well, there’s a trail, somewhere,” Roadrunner admits. “But last time I just charged straight up the grassy part. The ski slope part.”
Of course you did.
“I’d rather take a trail,” I say, scanning the vicinity for some kind of marked or even unmarked bike or game trail. Somewhere where I can see my own feet and any snakes I might be about to step on. I also knew that any trail would switchback along the face of the mountain, giving me a better shot of completion than the near-90-degree (in my mind) straight-up “charge” that Roadrunner has planned.
“Ok, let’s find it.” Roadrunner sets off. Upward. Straight up the slope. In a “charging” fashion, some might say.
I follow, only hoping that he is scattering any wildlife (i.e., snakes) outward from his footsteps, rather than downward (i.e., toward me). We push on and up, through the waist-high grass, stopping now and then for me to catch my breath or just catch up. Finally, we happen upon a narrow dirt trail carved into the tall grass. About 18 inches wide, this must be the bike trail.
The bike trail cuts straight across the slope, so we can’t tell which way is headed up and which way is headed down. We randomly pick a direction, based mainly on which direction gets us to the shade quicker. Luckily, we pick the right direction and our trail starts switchbacking (switchingback?) upward, in the comfort and coolness and snakelessness of the dense pine shade.
Now and then we come back across one grassy ski slope or another and decide to plow upward across it to save some time (picture this as a shortcut between switchbacks), and all the while in the waist-high grass I’m wondering how many snakes I’m stepping on or near or over.
This goes on for a while. At some point we stop for a snack in the shade. Clementines, cashews, water.
Eventually, we come upon an area in a slope where the grass turns to rock and beyond that we can just see the shape of the mountaintop buildings emerging over the next ridge.
I make my way a few yards up the rocky area and have to stop and rest. I can’t seem to catch my breath so I stop and wait, leaning heavily on my trekking poles*. Gasping, you might say. Roadrunner comes back to make sure I’m not actually dying. “If I don’t make it,” I gasp, “feel free to eat me.”
I’ve read (and seen) ALIVE. I know how these things go.
He cheers me on, because he’s a good person. I climb another few yards, then stop to rest and catch my breath. Then one foot in front of the other. Try not to slip on the loose rocks because heaven knows if I slip, I’m slipping all the way to the bottom. This goes on for about another hour (or 10 minutes), until I finally, mercifully, exhaustifully crest the final outcropping and see the restaurant and outlook area we have been aiming at for the past 8 hours (or 2 hours).
Yay! Time to sit down, rest my lungs and legs, and have the one special treat I packed for this exact moment.
A 7 oz can of Dr. Pepper.
When I’m tired or sleepy or cranky, Dr. Pepper is my sweet elixir of life.
We sit (and I huff and puff and whine and probably swear a little bit) and drink our tiny Dr. Peppers. Just as I am starting to appreciate my accomplishment and feel pretty OK about myself, a co-ed group of young CrossFitters bounds up the steps and to the vista rail, looking out at the view, all smiles.
(I’m sure you can imagine them so I won’t describe them, but I will point out they bounded up the HARD SIDE of the hike, the front side, the La Luz trail side. Like it was nothing. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t breathing hard OR EVEN SWEATING.)
I try to keep my hatred for them inside.
After about 10 minutes sitting there, having a snack and recuperating, we get up to go look at the view, which is, some would think, why we came all the way up here in the first place. A few yards away is the top of the Tram station, and people pour forth from the little metal deathboxes -AHEM- I mean tram cars, with a regularity. For those unaware, the Sandia Peak Tram is an aerial tramway that covers almost 3 miles of rugged terrain and valleys, from the base near Albuquerque to the top of Sandia Peak (10,400 ft.). A trip on the tram takes about 15 minutes, and ends with much less huffing and puffing than the way we did it. But if you have issues with heights or claustrophobia, you might want to hike up.
Everyone getting off the tram wants to eat at the restaurant atop the mountain, High Finance, but it’s not open yet. So people are milling about, killing time. (For restaurant info click HERE. For Tram info click HERE.)
Roadrunner leads me away from the restaurant, down a rocky slope that looks a lot like the rocky slope I just trudged UP, and then parallel to the crest, toward a secret vista point. We step around a few small boulders and toward the edge.
We sit on a boulder and take in the view.
We can see all of Albuquerque, laid out in its neat criss-cross lattice of streets at right angles, and beyond to the volcanos of the West Mesa on the horizon. Far below us, in the tops of some trees that begin even farther below, a hawk and a raven soar and flap and survey.
And the sky opens up and goes forever.
This is why we’re up here.
We need to get home so after about 10 minutes of rest, we head downward. Down is like up, but much faster and easier on the lungs. What it’s harder on are the quads and knees and toes. We charge down some of the grassy slopes, and take the switchbacks now and then to give our feet and knees a break. We make it down to where we started in about 45 minutes.
OVERALL I’d give this hike a bunch of stars on any kind of star system. It was really pretty (woods and grassy slopes in one hike) and the trail was fairly well marked in most places. Next time, I would probably start at a trail head and just stay on the trail and plan to take longer, rather than charging up the slopes to save time. I’d take away a star or two because I didn’t see any wildlife other than a squirrel, which is kind of a bummer.
*Author’s note: I completed this hike, from approximately 6,700 ft. – 10,600 ft. about 2 weeks after I moved to New Mexico from California (at sea level). I can say with certainty that I had not fully acclimatized to the altitude yet at this point. I don’t really recommend attempting this hike if you have just moved to the area after living at sea level. Get acclimatized then try it. Otherwise you will be sucking wind. Just saying.
I don’t like to run. In fact, I have always hated running. My first memories of this hatred go back to about 7th grade, when I was always near the back of the pack during PE class jogs, despising every second, having to force one foot in front of the other, fantasizing about various ways to get out of the final quarter mile.
If I fell into a hole or tripped on a giant rock right now and sprained my ankle, I wouldn’t have to endure the last 100 yards of this hell. If I passed out, someone would carry me.
This went on through high school, where I only played sports that required very little distance running — no soccer, basketball, or track for this girl. I never jogged for exercise or “fun” during my college or post-college years.
Then, a few years ago, I decided to give running a try, because everyone seemed to be doing it, and hey — it’s free. I started a Couch to 5 K program, and did OK with it. Then I just kept forcing myself to run a few times a week. My feelings went from “seething hatred” to “dread” to “mild distaste” to “hey this is almost tolerable.”
So now here I am, forcing myself out to run a couple of times a week. I just moved from sea level to 7,000 ft. so the acclimatization process is kind of painful, but I’m working through it.
And then this happens:
Now, I live in the mountains and I know there are rattlesnakes out here. This isn’t the first one I’ve seen. There are also tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, coyotes, and probably bears and mountain lions.
But here’s the thing about seeing a snake while you’re out running. You unstrap your phone from your arm and take a picture (zoomed in, of course). Then you carefully skirt the snake, giving it a wide orbit just in case it is a snake with a ‘TUDE. Then you continue on your way. And then…. no matter where you look, everything is a snake.
Tiny lizard running into the grass = snake.
That twisty swervy crack in the asphalt up ahead? BIG SNAKE.
Twigs by the side of the road = whole bunch of snakes.
Tumbleweed blowing across the road behind you? Sounds like a snake to me!
Dainty yellow butterfly alighting delicately on the blooming purple sage? DEFINITELY A SNAKE!!
You get a little jumpy, is what I’m saying. And the rest of your jog is socked in by an overwhelming paranoia that the snakes are plotting against you and surely this will be like a bad Sci-Fi movie where a jogger gets eaten by a 40-foot rattlesnake before the opening credits even start, and that jogger is you.
The last half-mile is a steady uphill slog. I can barely walk it without passing out, much less run it. So I trudge onward and upward. One foot in front of the other, cursing these stupid ideas of “running” and “exercise” and “health” and scanning the brush and road, seeing the snake in everything.
Onward. Upward. Left, right, left, right.
If a snake bit me right now, I wouldn’t have to go this last half mile. If a snake bit me right now, someone would carry me home.