New Mexico: Pueblos, Badlands, and Volcanoes

After my time in the Moab area, I wanted to make my way back to the Land Of Enchantment.

I make no secret of my love for New Mexico. The blend of cultures, the delicious food, the deep history, and the exquisite outdoor areas make it a place I always seem to return. I would not be surprised if my life plans end up with me making my way back to this place on a more permanent basis.

I visited the newly renamed Canyons of the Ancients Visitors Center and Museum on my way to other points.

Escalante Pueblo at the Canyons of The Ancients Visitors Center

A fitting place to further understand the land I’ve been exploring on and off for the past few weeks.

After this visit, I hooked into New Mexico, did some shopping in Farmington and camped at a BLM dispersed site outside of town.

That evening I decided to follow the spiral closer and closer to the heart of the Ancestral Pueblo world. I’d go to Chaco!

Though I’ve been to Chaco Canyon twice, there is more I want to see. Outliers, the Great South Road, and more great houses. I could spend a lifetime in the area and not see all there is to see!

I visited Aztec National Monument and walked the grounds. Another visit to the reconstructed kiva gave hints of what these centers of religious worship seemed like in the past.

And I peered into the past a bit more directly.

And a visit to the Salmon Ruins State Park, located above the river, yielded a close look at the colorful rocks that make up this old dwelling.

I drove to Chaco. Alas, the inn was full. No sites were available. And though I am prepared to tent, the tent sites were all gone, too.

I reminded myself why I switch to backpacking this time of the year and leave the popular areas for Fall or Winter!

So it goes.

I took the ah, interesting, back roads from Chaco to the Bisti Badlands.

A place that has no set trails or even designated camping areas. Just a place to wander, meander, and take in the sites.

Two nights at the place yielded quiet (if windy and sand blown!) hiking and enjoying the surreal light on the equally surreal rocks.

At my camp later that evening, I noticed a Chacoan outlier on my map. The outlier intrigued me. I wanted to go. A few old websites confirmed my hunch on the way to get there. And I made the drive to the appropriate place that day.

As I wrote in my Instagram photo:

Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde, and other Ancestral Pueblo sites are well-known. But there are other sites. Sites no longer readily acknowledged by the NPS or the BLM. Old web pages, markings on a map, fence lines, and roads removed from any official signage are the only indications of these ancient dwellings.

I suspect there are multiple reasons for this “secrecy through obscurity.” Hunches why? Trying to preserve a site that can’t be closely monitored, cultural sensitivity as many of these outlying sites are near or even surrounded by Dine’ land, and simply not enough funds to properly maintain the site if visitation increases.

I recently found a Chacoan outlier reached by a little over a mile walking on a rough jeep road. An unlocked gate with no signage next to a private business made me question if I was going the right way. The outlier is directly in line with Pueblo Pintado and located on the Great South Road that linked communities, Great Houses, and Great Kivas on the way to Chaco itself.

I knew I had found the correct path when I saw numerous potsherds strewn all over the ground on my walk. Remnants of 800-year-old trade goods. And the outlier itself? A now lonely outpost with Chaco distant on the horizon. But still impressive. And I had it to myself.

Afterwards, I visited the scenic Casamero outlier with the distinctive “Owl Eyes Mesa” behind it. The red rocks at the old dwelling came from the mesa above.

Having the gift of time, I finally made my way to El Morro National Monument. The Pueblos are post-Chacoan. But people made El Morro a stop for at least 10,000 years. The area around El Morro is known as El Malpais (The Badlands), and is typically dry, full of volcanic debris, and the nearby National Monument shares the same name. El Morro contains the the only water source in the area up until recent times.

The famous petroglyph displays Ancestral Pueblo, Spanish (going back to 1604!), and Anglo etchings. A standard way to describe the three cultures that make up a significant portion of the New Mexico heritage, too.

That evening it snowed at 7000+ feet!

Luckily the sun came out the following morning. The hike on the mesa top beckoned.

No surprise; the dwellings and the kiva all seemed to align due south to Alto Cerro on the horizon.

I continued to enjoy the scenery on the mesa top and hiked along the bluffs.

After my morning excursion, I drove to the nearby Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave. A privately owned place, the site’s main attraction is a hike to a volcano cone and the ice cave that is many thousands of years old. The ice cave stays a constant 31F.

Arctic algae

Volcano rim

Remnants of a Pueblo site. There are examples of pottery inside the small gift shop, too.

I then hiked a trail in El Malpais proper. A path that also encompasses volcano exploration.

And I joined an old friend for a little bit.

I did some additional hiking on the Zuni-Acoma Trail (also part of the CDT) that is a trading route hundreds of years old and makes its way through the volcanic badlands.

That evening I took a sunset stroll and enjoyed some last views of prominent bluffs of the monument.

I am in the middle of a northern detour and seeing a relative I have not seen in two years. And then deeper into New Mexico again for a reunion with the hiking tribe.

All the photos

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6 years ago

Those look like some awesome adventures! I’m planning a last minute motorcycle camping/hiking trip from Fort Worth into New Mexico. Any recommendations on areas to explore south of Taos? I’ve been to White Sands, White Mountains, Gila, somewhere in the Sangre de Cristo range (Pecos Wilderness I think- would love to go back there), but could use some input on new areas to check out. I’ll probably start out up north and work my way south. We followed your recommendations for Utah back in December and had a great time!