New Mexico is a state rich with natural wonders, and one of its geological jewels is a strange place known as Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Located over a mile above sea level on the Pajarito Plateau about an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque, this 5610-acre Bureau of Land Management park brims with otherworldly rock shapes known as hoodoos.
Hoodoos, sometimes called tent rocks or fairy chimneys, are unique columnar structures that would be suitable terrestrial backdrops for any “Star Wars” movie sequel. In Kasha-Katuwe’s case, the show started more than six million years ago when, to the north, volcanoes in the Jemez Mountains began to rip themselves apart in extended series of eruptions that covered the region with almost a thousand feet of ash and pumice. In time, this volcanic debris compacted and hardened, and was eventually topped with a deposit of sandstone.
Over the ages, the tougher sandstone cap resisted erosion, but the softer layers of volcano rock below were slowly sculpted by the whims of wind and water, resulting in the odd, amazing cones that now colonize Kasha-Katuwe. The hoodoos, some almost 100 feet in height, curve, twist and contort their ways skyward, forming a fantastical field of earth-borne pillars that are hard to imagine but easy to admire.
There are two trails through Kasha-Katuwe, and both offer unique perspectives of the rock formations. The first, called the Canyon Trail, is a 1.5 mile cardio workout that has a total rise of over 600 feet. This is a steep, sometimes narrow, one-way trail, but it is a climb worth the effort because the end reward is a fan of elevated paths that gives various viewpoints to the hauntingly beautiful hoodoos below.
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The Cave Loop Trial is a kinder, gentler 1.7 mile stroll through the bases of the rock towers. Fairly level, this winding path is embraced by the tall, twisted stone structures that know no right angles. And although the name “Kasha-Katuwe” comes from the local Native American Keresan language for “white rocks,” this up-close walk among the hoodoos will reveal they actually have strata stripes alternating in shades of white, gray, beige and pink– time lines that are the telltale signs of extreme geological dynamics.
Keep in mind that Kasha-Katuwe National Monument is in a remote area, and it is a day-use park only with minimal services. Also, since there are no refreshment stands, be sure to bring food and (especially) water. But what Kasha-Katuwe lacks in amenities, it certainly makes up for with its hoodoo views!
What else to see
▪ Valle Caldera National Preserve (www.nps.gov/vall). Located to the northeast of Kasha-Katuwe in the Jemez Mountains, it was the site of a massive supervolcano explosion over a millions years ago. Now, the resulting 13-mile wide crater is a federal park, and an excellent way to further enjoy natural New Mexico with opportunities to fish, hike, horseback ride, camp, mountain bike and more. Because this region is the lower tip of the southern Rocky Mountains, although close to Kasha-Katuwe as the crow flies (about 12 miles), Valle Caldera is an hour and a half, winding road trip from the hoodoos.
▪ Bandelier National Monument (www.nps.gov/band). To the northwest in the Jemez Mountains, and an another winding hour and a half drive away from Kasha-Katuwe, this 33,000-acre park with more than 70 miles of hiking trails is a large ancestral Pueblo archeological site with ruins of dwellings not only on the floor of the expansive Frijoles Canyon but also carved into the cliff faces. The abodes on the canyon sides are easy to spot, but also look carefully for mysterious figures known as petroglyphs etched into the cliff walls.