Trip reports

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

I’ve been to New Mexico twice and have hiked this trail three times. What gives? Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks consistently makes lists of the state’s top trails, and rightfully so, but I went three times because the first time, we missed the best part of the national monument; the second time, I saw the best part but Mr. Adventure did not; and the third time, we went together to the best part. And yes, it’s that good.

In April 2016, we drove straight to Tent Rocks from the Albuquerque Airport in the late afternoon. Signs warned the monument closed at 6pm, so we hoofed it through the 1.2-mile loop trail.

View from the loop trail at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
View from the loop trail at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. (Lauren Danner photo)
Cave on loop trail, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Cave on loop trail, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. (Lauren Danner photo)
Tent Rocks is composed of layers of volcanic tuff and pumice
Tent Rocks is composed of layers of volcanic tuff and pumice. (Mr. Adventure photo)

The eponymous tent rocks are the result of volcanic explosions 6-7 million years ago. Pumice, tuff, and ash a thousand feet thick were deposited over time, with huge boulders suspended in the mixture. Wind, rain, and time eroded the softer materials away, and the boulders became caps atop cone-shaped formations — the tent rocks. As the tents erode, the rock caps eventually fall off and the tent wears away entirely. That’s why smaller tent rocks are higher up; they’re more exposed to erosive forces. Some of the tent rocks lower down are 90 feet tall.

The eerie shapes have attracted visitors for millennia. Archaeological surveys have recorded more than 4,000 years of human habitation, and the people of the Pueblo de Cochiti live on the surrounding lands. President Clinton established the national monument in January 2001, a few days before leaving office, recognizing the area’s significance to the Pueblo people by using Kasha-Katuwe, the Keresan words for “white cliffs,” in the monument’s name. Today, the area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Tent Rocks was our introduction to New Mexico’s sculpted landscape, big sky, and gorgeous light. Satisfied, we left the loop trail and headed to Santa Fe for Mr. Adventure’s conference, happy with our adventure. Until, that is, we talked to some locals at a reception that evening. “You missed the best part!” they exclaimed. “The slot canyon is incredible. You should really go back.” Mr. Adventure and I looked at each other, dismayed. I knew we were thinking the same thing: You mean there’s more, and it’s better?

Our schedule didn’t allow a return trip, but I was determined to see the slot canyon when we went back to New Mexico in April 2017. After several days of cold, rainy weather, it was a relief to wake to sunny skies. “I’m going to Tent Rocks,” I told Mr. Adventure, who was stuck in meetings. “I’ll take pictures.”

Mine was the third car in the parking lot. The ranger at the entrance station told me it was smart to arrive early, because the trail would fill up later in the day. I headed straight into the slot canyon, and it was so much better than I imagined.

Entrance to slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Entrance to slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. (Lauren Danner photo)
Inside the slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Inside the slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. (Lauren Danner photo)
At one point, the trail is so narrow you have to place one foot directly in front of the other
At one point, the trail is so narrow you have to place one foot directly in front of the other. (Lauren Danner photo)

I expected the trail to dead-end at the end of the slot canyon, but it doesn’t. Instead, it climbs out of the canyon and up the side of the canyon wall, eventually ending on a ridge with incredible 360-degree views of the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia Mountains, and the Rio Grande valley. Even before I reached the end of the slot canyon, I knew I’d be coming back with Mr. Adventure. He had to see this place.

Climbing up to the top of canyon wall
Climbing up to the top of canyon wall, tent rocks are everywhere. (Lauren Danner photo)
Tent rocks from the slot canyon trail
Tent rocks from the slot canyon trail. (Lauren Danner photo)
View from trail above slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
View from trail above slot canyon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. (Lauren Danner photo)
The view stretches for miles from the top of the slot canyon trail
The view stretches for miles from the top of the slot canyon trail. (Lauren Danner photo)

On the way up, I stopped to drink some water and struck up a conversation with two hikers also heading up. Call it trail magic, call it New Mexico, but I ended up hiking the rest of the way with Dave, a 40-year Albuquerque resident, and his sister Gail, visiting from Florida. Dave was sweetly gruff, bossing Gail and I as we climbed out of the slot canyon. “Be very careful right here,” he said at a particularly steep pitch. “This is the hardest part of the whole hike.” He insisted on going last, to make sure we made it okay.

New trail friends at Tent Rocks
Following Dave and Gail on the way out of the slot canyon
Following Dave and Gail on the way out of the slot canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

At the top, I decided to walk out along the ridge while Dave and Gail headed down. From the overlook, I saw car after car pulling into the parking lot, fulfilling the ranger’s prediction of afternoon crowds. Time to get back.

When I returned to Santa Fe a couple of hours later, I announced to Mr. Adventure, “We’re going back to Tent Rocks. Tomorrow.” Conference over, we drove to the trailhead from Albuquerque, where we were staying with friends, but still got there early enough to avoid the crowds.

As I anticipated, Mr. Adventure concurred: Tent Rocks was a special place. And now we can say we’ve hiked the whole thing.

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The slot canyon, take two -- this time with Mr. Adventure
The slot canyon, take two — this time with Mr. Adventure. (Lauren Danner photo)
Layers of volcanic pumice, ash, and tuff form beautiful layers at Tent Rocks
Layers of volcanic pumice, ash, and tuff form beautiful layers at Tent Rocks. (Mr. Adventure photo)
View from the top of the canyon wall
View from the top of the canyon wall. (Lauren Danner photo)
Views extend on all sides to the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia mountains and the Rio Grande
Views extend on all sides to the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia mountains and the Rio Grande. You can just see the entrance road in the center right of the photo. (Lauren Danner photo)
On the way out of the slot canyon
On the way out of the slot canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

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