In northern New Mexico, about 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe, is a strange formation you’d be certain were tents turned into rock.
This is Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, and the tent-like formations vary from a few feet to 90 feet in height.
Volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago spewed out searing ash and tuff that built up a thousand-foot-thick bed. A final layer of hard rock formed from among the last eruptions. Over time, softer pumice and tuff eroded, creating hoodoos — as the cone-shaped structures are called. Most are topped with cap-rocks from the harder layer protecting the formation.
When the cap-rock disintegrates, the cone is exposed and begins to melt away. Kasha-Katuewe means “white cliffs” in the language of the Keresan people who live at Cochiti Pueblo. The Cochiti ranger I talked with along the trail told me his people believe the hoodoos represent ancient chiefs. “As they collapse,” he says, “the spirits of the ancient ones are released and new hoodoos are there for new chiefs.”
The white cliffs, with their fascinating formations, give visitors the chance to observe and experience the geological processes that shape our land. Unfortunately for me, I chose the longest day of the year to visit this Bureau of Land Management national monument. The welded volcanic ash cliffs absorb the heat and reflect it. The “official” temperature may be 102, but where I am it feels like the last two digits have been transposed.
I came to see these unique rock formations and have elected to traverse the slot-canyon trail. I’ll gain 630 feet in elevation over the 1.3 miles to the overlook. Returning hikers tell me it’s cooler in the shaded slot canyon, and there’s a breeze at the top. As I hike, I wonder if they’re teasing or on another planet. I feel like I’m hiking the perimeter of a ceramic kiln. The air is so dry, my sweat evaporates on contact. I just get more and more dehydrated. Fortunately, I’m a seasoned-enough trekker to have brought sufficient water.
The farther into the canyon I walk, the narrower it becomes. Water has sculpted a sinuous trail. At places, it’s so narrow, my boot barely fits on the trail bed, and I have to lift and rotate my legs, like a woman in a long, tight skirt climbing stairs. At other places, large boulders have broken loose and formed a roof under which I walk. Parts of the slot canyon turn into cascading falls in heavy rain. To continue, I have to scamper up three- to four-foot-high ledges. Mostly the canyon is wide enough to traverse comfortably.
Deep in the canyon, plants are scarce, but as I begin the climb to the overlook — most of those 630 feet are only in the last three-tenths of a mile — plant life makes its presence known. There are sumac, scrub oak, and manzanita. Indian paintbrush and chamisa dot the ground in crimson and yellow. Different species of phlox and asters add their hues.
From the summit, I can view the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the north. Below are the tent rocks, in absurd shapes only a whimsical Mother Nature could concoct. They’ll be with us for awhile. The plateau from which they emerge is wide, and it takes decades to erode them. The Cochiti ranger can tell his elders they have nothing to worry about. They’ll be plenty of tent rocks to contain the spirits of elders for generations to come.
Kasha-Katuwe is a natural wonder you won’t want to miss, although it’s probably best to wait until fall — unlike my misguided choice of days to visit. You’ll find lower temperatures and have less chance of encountering lightning strikes and downpours that turn the canyon into a raging stream.
You know! Maybe that’s why I went on the Summer Solstice.