Trip reports

San Lorenzo Canyon

Exploring San Lorenzo Canyon with Tucker, our loaner dog.

Our friend Teresa, whom we met camping at El Malpais National Monument in 2016, gave us a place to stay and a lot of excellent hiking advice when we returned to New Mexico in April 2017. The weather was variable, so we had to be flexible about when and where to go. With a sunny day forecast, she told us to go to San Lorenzo Canyon, about an hour south of Albuquerque.

“Take the Jeep,” she said. “You’ll need it to get there. And of course you have to take Tucker.” We were thrilled to bring Tucker, a handsome Australian shepherd rescue dog with a winning personality and serious smarts. The Jeep, though? Seriously? 

“Don’t worry,” Teresa said. “You can’t hurt it.” I’d never driven a Jeep before, and I’d be driving through sometimes-deep sand to get to the trailhead. Teresa gave me a lesson in using the four-wheel drive (it’s easy when you’re parked in the garage). We coaxed Tucker into the Jeep — he gave us a look that clearly said, “You’re in my car, but you’re not my mom. I suppose I’ll go to keep an eye on you.” — and headed out.

Holy smokes, driving a Jeep is so much fun. Even on the interstate heading out of town, I was having a blast. And when we found the “road” to San Lorenzo Canyon and plowed into the sandy wash, I started having a seriously good time. “This is so great!” I said to Mr. Adventure, who balanced Tucker on his lap and watched for landmarks. “I totally get why people love their Jeeps!”

Although it seemed like a long drive into the canyon, it was probably less than five miles to the trailhead. Just as we rounded the last bend, a white minivan (!) careened around the corner, driven by a cowboy-hatted couple who obviously didn’t need four-wheel drive to get where they wanted to go. I felt a little sheepish, driving this uber-rugged, go-anywhere vehicle, but I was having too much fun to really care.

Entrance to San Lorenzo Canyon trail
Entrance road to San Lorenzo Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

The road ended at a huge pile of boulders. This was clearly the start of the hiking trail, so we parked, then clambered over the rocks and down the other side. Tucker, a natural leader, kept looking back at us as if to say, “Just follow me, city slickers, and I’ll get you through this.”

San Lorenzo Canyon trail
Tucker patiently waited for us to climb over the rockfall at the trailhead. (Lauren Danner photo)
Red sand canyon floor at San Lorenzo
The canyon bottom is red sand, eroded off the canyon walls. (Lauren Danner photo)

San Lorenzo Canyon is less a trail than an exploration zone. You can walk a couple of miles on the canyon floor, following springs that nourish the Chihuahuan Desert plants and animals living here. Along the way, side canyons, caves, arches, hoodoos, and other geological curiosities invite a closer look. Warily tracking our progress, Tucker sussed out coyote scat and followed a few promising scent trails up the sides of the canyon.

A spring in San Lorenzo Canyon
Tucker leads the way along a spring in San Lorenzo Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Tucker waiting for us in San Lorenzo Canyon
Tucker resignedly looks back toward us slowpokes. Animal scents interest him more than geology. (Lauren Danner photo)

After a couple of miles, we reached another wall, blocked by a fallen tree and algae-slick rock. Teresa had told us this was a good turnaround point, so we stopped to soak it in. Suddenly a hiker materialized at the top of the wall, climbed over, and plopped down in the shade. Where did he come from?

Arizona, as it turned out. The hiker was thru-hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail, 770 miles of mountain ranges, canyons, and desert from Phoenix to Albuquerque. He had the lean, squinty look of someone who’d been on the trail for a month. He seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see him.

End of the San Lorenzo Canyon trail
The end of the trail, at least for us. We were surprised to meet a Grand Enchantment Trail thru-hiker who’d come over the wall and was heading east down the canyon and eventually to Albuquerque. (Lauren Danner photo)

Tucker was ready to head back, and we obediently followed. The northern half of San Lorenzo Canyon lies in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The Bureau of Land Management manages the other half. The boundary line runs right down the center of the canyon, and the agencies work together to manage the area. The canyon’s geological splendor is largely due to volcanic activity and erosion, revealing layers of sandstone embedded with jasper, quartz, and other minerals. The layers often tilt at crazy angles due to rift, the process of continental plates pulling apart.

Minerals embedded in sandstone are characteristic of San Lorenzo Canyon
Minerals embedded in sandstone are characteristic of San Lorenzo Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Near the entrance to San Lorenzo Canyon, evidence of rift is seen in a tilted sandstone mesa
Near the entrance to San Lorenzo Canyon, evidence of rift is seen in a tilted sandstone mesa. (Lauren Danner photo)
Tucker leads the way down the canyon
Tucker herds Mr. Adventure through the canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

We climbed over the rock face and into the Jeep. As we packed up, the thru-hiker appeared again. He declined a ride but took a proferred Kind bar, and we headed back out the lower canyon and onto paved roads. Temps in the canyon were in the 80s, but we could see storm clouds piling up as we approached Albuquerque. Tomorrow, San Lorenzo Canyon would likely be a mire of muck and flash floods. But today, spurred by sunshine and our loaner dog-slash-team leader, the canyon was a perfect playground.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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4 thoughts on “San Lorenzo Canyon

  1. Awesome post you Jeep drivin’ fool! Photos were terrific and I really felt like I was with you, Mr. A and Tucker. Beautiful scenery – and you really captured a nice spot in my favorite state- putting it on my list!

  2. What a beautiful hike! I loved my visit to New Mexico, but didn’t make it too far out of the cities. The hiking looks sublime!

    1. Thank you! On that trip, we had really unpredictable weather and ended up spending a day touring ABQ, which was great. But I find the pull of the desert irresistible, honestly. Of course, anywhere in New Mexico is probably going to be beautiful.

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