Fall is in the air.
Even though the planet is on fire – the Amazon forest endangered, up here there’s an early morning chill in the air. The
kids are back in school and you still need to make one more trip to Albuquerque for school supplies and miscelaneos forgotten stuff!
Why not make a weekend of it? Book into one of Heritage’s Old Town hotels and spend the following day taking the kids to see Cabezon Peak, the basalt monolith that’s part of the Cabezon Wilderness Study Area. We so often don’t take advantage of the incredible beauty right on our own doorstep, and really should, even as we feel the pain of other parts of paradise going up in flames! And there’s no better teacher to introduce to our kids, than Nature. And if you are visiting the area from elsewhere, this is a must see!
To reach the area from Albuquerque, take I-25 north about 17 miles to US 550 West. Travel 41 miles on US 550 and turn left on NM 279. Cabezon Peak will be visible to the west. NM 279 is a quiet road that passes through the sleepy village of San Luis, in Sandoval County. Its population was 59 as of the last census, but worth stopping to take a look at a very beautiful, classic New Mexican church, Iglesia de San Luis.
Ahead, rising from the desert, you’ll see the steep-sided, symmetrical basalt volcanic plug that formed during the eruptions of the Mount Taylor volcanic field millions of years ago and is one of the most prominent landmarks in northwestern New Mexico. Visually, it’s quite similar to the larger Devils Tower in Wyoming ( which is also a basalt volcanic plug.)
Cabezon, which translates to “big head,” is believed to have particular significance for both the local Pueblo and Navajo Indians. Numerous myths abound, but one oft told Navajo legend tells that a giant was slain on Mount Taylor, located to the west, and the giant’s severed head landed to the east, becoming Cabezon Peak. As the legend goes, the giant’s blood congealed to form the volcanic lava flows to the south.
Cabezon Peak is visible for miles in all directions, as far away as Placitas. It is the largest of several widely scattered rocky monoliths, called the Rio Puerco necks. Rising above the Rio Puerco valley floor, the necks are the erosional remnants of volcanoes, some of the only ancient volcanic necks that remain in the world.
The craggy black peaks rise in sharp contrast to the desolate desert lowlands from which they emerge. Mt. Taylor looms majestically to the southwest, Mesa Prieta borders the valley to the east, and the Jemez Mountains are visible to the north. This starkly beautiful landscape is unique to New Mexico. At an elevation of 7,786 ft, Cabezon Peak towers more than 1,100 ft above its base, and 2,000 ft above the Rio Puerco nearby.
The northern segment of the Rio Puerco valley extends from the Mt. Taylor volcanic field eastward about 10-20 miles. With an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, Cabezon Peak is the largest of over 50 dramatic volcanic formations that dot the otherwise barren and otherworldly desert shrubland of the Rio Puerco Valley.
The views from the summit of Cabezon Peak are impressive, looking out over much of northern and central New Mexico. Accordingly, the 1.9-mile hike to the top is a favorite among climbers. It is not, however, for the faint of heart. Basic mountain climbing experience and proper gear, including a helmet, are required for this technical climb along the screecovered trail and up the nearly vertical cliffs.
Clearly I’ve not done this hike but if you are a strong hiker and comfortable with scree slopes, scrambling,
and a fair a bit of climbing, there is an ”Easy Way” to summit Cabezon Peak that is non-technical (no ropes required). However, I am told that the route is not at all easy with a couple of very short sections that verge on scary. From the parking area, an obvious trail heads steeply uphill to the east.
After nearly a mile, on the southeast shoulder of the peak, large rock cairn with a ten-foot-long rock arrow pointing towards a chimney in the rock face above, directs you on a steep trail of loose dirt and basalt rock. Above the chimney, a mix of rocky trail, boulder hopping, and a few places that require finding handholds and footholds to pull yourself up will lead to the last short stretch which apparently returns to a good trail and the summit. Prepare for a round trip hiking time of 3-4 hours.
For those (like myself), who are not comfortable taking the spur trail to the summit can continue past the rock arrow on a faint trail that circumnavigates the entire peak, connecting back up with the main trail half way between the parking area and the arrow. This route involves traversing two boulderfields and crossing some sloped areas, but is much easier than the summit climb. This 2.4 mile loop takes about 2-3 hours, and majestic views in all directions from various parts of the circle are your reward.
And the kids will sleep all the way home!
Cabezon Peak is part of the Cabezon Wilderness Study Area. To reach the area from Albuquerque, take I-25 north about 17 miles to US 550 West. Travel 41 miles on US 550 and turn left on NM 279. Cabezon Peak will be visible to the west.
The pavement ends after 9 miles. Continue on 279 and bear left at the fork. In 3.8 miles, a BLM sign will indicate the easily driveable two-track to the base of Cabezon Peak. The trail to the summit begins here. No fees or permits are required. Be mindful that the dirt roads become extremely slippery and possibly impassable when it rains. There are no services.
For more information on Heritage’s Albuquerque hotels and Cabazon Peak and how to get there, please visit the sites linked below.
All images Stock Files