Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks are a fantastical whimsy of nature

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks formations erode from a deep bed of welded volcanic ash. Sangre de Cristo mountains line the horizon.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks formations erode from a deep bed of welded volcanic ash. Sangre de Cristo mountains line the horizon.
I’ve chosen the longest day of the year to visit Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, about 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe — a BLM-managed national monument on the lands of the Cochiti Pueblo.

The sun burns the land as only a nuclear furnace can. 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.

Kasha-Ketuwe is Keresan, the language of the Cochiti, for white cliffs. An appropriate name, as the land is comprised of welded volcanic ash a couple hundred feet in depth. It was spewed out of volcanoes that erupted seven million years ago. The tent rocks are part of the Jemez Mountains volcanic field, where — intersecting with the Rio Grande rift — there’s a zone of crustal weakness.

At least 20 volcanoes supplied the ash layers, either directly as ash falls and pyroclastic flows or material reworked by water and wind. What gives the tent rocks their distinctive shape is a harder top layer of rock. Water cut down through the layers, creating a broad arroyo. Then, as the cliff faces eroded, the hard cap rock altered the erosion of the deposits forming the hoodoos.

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.”

After hiking up a sloping juniper-dotted bajada, I enter the canyon. It’s wide here — maybe a hundred feet across. The sides of the canyon slope away and are several hundred feet apart at their crest.

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.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks2Up close, I can see layers comprised of fine particles. These must be from ash falls, as my geology book describes. Other layers have the appearance of waves and swirls, apparently sculpted by water. Then there are layers full of rock chunks, like raisins in oatmeal. The geology text says these result from poorly sorted pyroclastic flows, ash that can move downhill from the volcano throat faster than the speed of sound.

A few Ponderosa pines tell their story of persistence. As seedlings, they took root and grew. But as the trees got taller, the land around them eroded. Some now have root systems that make them look as if they’re on stilts or part of a mangrove forest. Eventually, erosion undermines the root and the tree topples and dies.

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.

The trail is steep and strenuous, like climbing a stairway built for giants. It’s a scramble at times but mixed with easier switchbacks. I take every opportunity to catch my breath, especially when I find a shrub in the embankment above has cast its shadow for me to use.

From the summit, I can view the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the north. There are still patches of snow on the peaks. It last snowed in Santa Fe in May. Closer is Cochiti reservoir, a slash of blue in the graygreen landscape. South toward Albuquerque is rolling grassland. It’s too soon for monsoon rains, so the grass is brown and, I expect, brittle. We’ve all seen turkey vultures and hawks in flight. I think, this is what they must see soaring above us.

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.

To visit Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, take New Mexico Route 22 from Exit 259 of I-25. Just before entering the pueblo, there is a sign directing you to the national monument. It’s probably best to wait until fall — lower temperatures and less chance of lightning strikes and downpours that turn the slot canyon into a raging stream.