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Stories from our Travelers

Tent Rocks - New Mexico

Magical Canyon Near Santa Fe, New Mexico
by Melissa Cicci

[From Winter-Spring 2008]

The final leg of the drive to the Kasha-Katuwe National Monument, over a dusty, washboard access road that jars the body and the senses, seems interminable. But the reward is astonishing. Sometime around 6 to 7 million years ago, volcanic eruptions in this remote basin left 1,000-foot thick deposits of pumice, ash and tuff. Those deposits created the cone-shaped tent rock formations that today stand guard over this haunting canyon. Just 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the natural monument familiarly called “Tent Rocks” is well known to local New Mexicans, but many visitors aren’t aware of its existence.
Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the traditional language of the Cochiti Pueblo, whose tribal lands surround Tent Rocks and whose ancestors first inhabited this canyon more than 500 years ago.

On a recent winter morning, a friend and I left Santa Fe at 9a.m. eager for a day hike at Tent Rocks. The initial part of the drive from Santa Fe is on high-speed Interstate 25. At the Cochiti Pueblo exit, the journey becomes magical. I’ve made several trips to Tent Rocks, but each visit feels like the first time. There is no clue from the highway, or even as you approach the site that a natural wonder of such mystery could exist in our backyard. We arrived at the visitor parking area about an hour after our departure, jostling once again over the aforementioned access road.

We came prepared to spend a few hours in the New Mexico sun. In our daypacks we carried plenty of water, extra sunscreen, clementines, nuts, a few energy bars and our cameras. As always, I wore a hat and sunglasses to protect my face, and dressed in layers. No matter how cold the day begins in northern New Mexico, I usually end up in short sleeves.

Our hike began on the relatively easy “Cave Loop” trail. From the trailhead, the Loop climbs up a slope and meanders among topless tent rocks, alongside cliff walls and through manzanita bushes. To me, this section of the Tent Rocks experience is simply a prelude to the quiet spirituality of the “Canyon Trail.” Fortunately for us, there were very few hikers on this winter day. Although Tent Rocks is always a joy, crowds can diminish the sense of solitude and connection to the earth that happen on a quiet day (go early in the morning if you are hiking during a busier season).

The Canyon Trail is a diminutive Grand Canyon, beckoning and mysterious. As we made our way up the narrow slot canyon, the undulating walls protected us from the sun and cool wind. We spotted petroglyphs depicting serpents and other symbols, a window on to another time. Glimpses of a sparkling blue sky marked our way. As the canyon narrowed, we could stretch out our arms and touch each side. The soft sand trail under our feet anchored us.

This part of the Canyon trail doesn’t take long, and I am always tempted to stay put, close my eyes and let the quiet wash over me. But to stay here would mean missing the beauty of the ridge top above the slot canyon. After scrambling over rocks and up a narrow stone footpath, we reached the ridge top in about 15 minutes. From here, we had a clear view of the Tent Rocks, the slot canyon below, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains to the north, and Sandia Peak to the south. We were all alone. And for a moment, we felt as if we were the first people to discover this otherworldly place.

Tent Rocks is best visited during the spring and fall or on a warm, dry winter day. I’ve heard rumors that rattlesnakes are in residence during the hot summer months. Whether rumor or fact, I’ve never tested it. I’m happy to give the snakes their season and explore Tent Rocks when the days and nights are cool.


For More on Tent Rocks:
Even during winter months, the sun can be intense at Tent Rocks. Make sure to wear a high-SPF sunscreen and bring plenty of water. For detailed information on visiting Tent Rocks, please call the Rio Puerco Field Office in Albuquerque, 505.761.8700 or visit

How to Get There:
Albuquerque International Sunport (55 miles southwest of Tent Rocks) is served by all major U.S. carriers. (As of press time, there is still no word on a start date for proposed regional service in to Santa Fe Municipal Airport. Check with American and Delta Airlines.)

Where to Rest:
La Posada de Santa Fe
(upscale, full-service resort; their Staab House bar is a wonderful spot for a post-hike glass of wine or cocktail)
330 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe
Tel. 866.331.7625

Inn of the Five Graces
(upscale and exotic small inn)
150 E. DeVargas, Santa Fe
Tel. 505.992.0957

Inn on the Alameda
(pleasing, friendly 72-room inn, centrally located)
303 E. Alameda, Santa Fe
Tel. 800.289.2122

Sleeping Dog Tavern
(Santa Fe's first and only Gastropub, the Dog blends a comfortable-yet-elegant tavern atmosphere with creative treatments of traditional pub favorites and a wide selection of wine and local and international craft beers)
114 W. San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
Tel. 505.982.4335

(an appealing neighborhood trattoria serving delicious Italian, popular with locals)
322 Garfield Street, Santa Fe
Tel. 505.995.9595

Aqua Santa
(intimate, delicious dining in a small adobe; lovely wine list)
451 W. Alameda, Santa Fe
Tel. 505.982.6297

Bumblebee’s Baja Grill
(very casual local chain serving northern New Mexican. No need to dress up after a hike. Order at the counter and fresh burritos or green chile stew are delivered to your table in minutes. And on Saturday nights a local jazz combo plays, no cover)
301 Jefferson Street, Santa Fe

Tel. 505-820-BUMB

Photographs by Cynthia Sewell

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