Tent Rocks National Monument
Heading south from Sante Fe, New Mexico, we take 16 west through the Pajarito Plateau to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. This area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management along with the Pueblo de Cochiti. Kasha-Katuwe means "white cliffs" in Keresan. If you enjoy unique landscapes, the Kasha-Katuwe is fascinating.
We use our Annual Pass for entry and park in the spacious dirt lot. Pit toilets are available along with trash cans and picnic tables. To see this park, you must hike. The tent rocks can be observed at a distance from the parking lot; however, you are missing out on the most interesting formations, which reside along the Canyon Trail.
We hiked both the Cave Loop and Canyon Trail. The Cave Loop is 1.2 miles, taking visitors along a hillside loop to a small cliff dwelling. You can still see black soot on the ceiling and walls of the enclosure. The Canyon Trail is far more interesting. It is a 1.5-mile out-and-back hike up a slot canyon.
The Canyon Trail
We climb the hillside and weave through the, at times quite narrow, slot canyon. It is early morning and the crowds have not yet arrived. The sunshine has not reached inside the canyon yet, and it is cold. As we proceed, cone-shaped rocks tower above us. Striations of orange and white mark the volcanic rock.
Like Bandelier National Monument, the rocks here are composed of tuff, spewed from a volcanic eruption over a million years ago. The ash piled high and cooled and, over time, erosion corroded the softer material from the rocks forming fascinating hoodoos. These tent rocks are often capped with a harder "boulder cap," giving the tents a hat.
As we hike along, the canyon walls narrow, so much so, that you are forced to place one foot directly in front of the other to pass. We begin to climb switchbacks gaining approximately 600 feet in elevation. The view from up here is impressive. Down below are the tent rocks. Each one unique. Each one in its particular state of erosion.
The formations are incredible. Some of the rocks are filled with holes and look like swiss cheese, others look like cement. They are composed of sandy gravel interspersed with larger, denser pebbles.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
It is noon when we hit the road again. Tent Rocks was an awesome find, and we are excited about what other amazing things we will see on this journey. Our next destination is Aztec, New Mexico, home to the Aztec Ruins National Monument. This is a misnomer. Settlers mistakenly thought that the site was built by the people of the Aztec Empire of central Mexico. In fact, these ruins predated the Aztec Empire and were built over the period from 1,000 to 1,200 CE. Now it is known that the Ancestral Puebloans were the engineers and builders of these ruins.
We arrive in Aztec located in the northwest corner of New Mexico in the late afternoon. The park's visitor center, once archeologist Earl Morris' home, has an informative museum filled with interesting artifacts and knowledge regarding the Pueblo People. I recommend giving this a thorough tour before heading outside to the Aztec West Self-Guided Trail.
This half-mile walk takes us through the ruins, which are arranged in a u-shape with a great kiva in the center. The ruins are referred to as the great house. It was once three stories tall with over 500 rooms. The great kiva is underground with a bench lining the circular room. This great kiva has been reconstructed under the guidance of Earl Morris in the 1930s.
The Great Kiva
We descend to the floor of the great kiva. Light penetrates into the gloom from the windows up above. It is cool inside and sound echoes off its walls. I try to imagine the People here sitting in this sanctuary, beating their drums. This was a place of sanctuary and community.
We pick our way slowly through the small rooms that form the u-shaped great house. Although this structure is over 900 years old, the original timbers still support the ceiling. We must duck to pass through the low doorways. It is believed that this great house was a public building used for worship and various activities.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is a fascinating historical place. It is sad to think that much of this great monument was plundered before it could be protected, but there is still wonder here. Thanks to geologist Dr. John Newberry this site was well documented in 1859 before looters got to it. The Southwest tribes still consider this site sacred.
The sun is setting on the Aztec Ruins as we drive to the nearby main street. The city of Aztec, NM has a vintage A&W. We pull in, grab a booth, and order on a telephone, which feels odd. Our floats are served in frosted mugs. It is the perfect ending to a great day of travel. What will we see tomorrow?
Heading north we drive late into the evening. We have booked a room at the White Eagle Inn in Cortez, Colorado. The motel is clean, the staff friendly, and it is affordable. Best of all though, their heater works great. After freezing through the night at Bandelier National Monument, we are ready for a warm bed and a good rest.
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Road Trip Tips:
- Make sure to bring plenty of drinking water with you. Water is unavailable at the Tent Rocks National Monument.
- Allow plenty of time for the museum and the Aztec West Trail at Aztec National Monument. Understanding the culture and people that built this site make the trail engaging.