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Tent Rocks

Northern New Mexico

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May 11th, 2001

3.0 miles
850 vertical feet
Total Time: 3:27

Rating: 8/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

Jean and I got ready in the parking lot as a group of picnickers took advantage of the lone picnic bench. As we were getting ready, another group of hikers returned from the top. We chatted a bit. They told us that at one point they took the wrong route, and that on the way back they realized that the correct route is denoted by ribbons hung from trees.


It was a warm day, and we could hear thunder in the distance, in the direction of some dark rain clouds. However, the clouds didn't look menacing like some other storms we've been through. And they were pretty far off. But of course we'd try to be careful, especially hiking through the slot canyon.

We went up the sandy trail, shortly taking the right fork. The left fork completes a loop; we'd take that on the way back. Above us to our left rose the mountains with tent-rock like formations. The rock was formed by massive volcanoes depositing pumice and ash about 6.8 million years ago.

Apparently northern New Mexico holds quite an attraction for film makers. Lonesome Dove, Young Guns II, and Silverado are among the films with scenes shot at Tent Rocks. Right now, it was just us, and an occasional group of hikers we'd pass. We walked past mostly low bushes on our way to the other end of the loop. A sign pointed us left toward a cave, but we kept going straight, into the cool canyon.

Jean in a wide section of the canyon

The trail apparently follows a dried up creek bed, up the canyon, which gets narrower and narrower upstream. The walls are very steep, probably because they are so soft and were easily carved by the water. As we went further in, we saw more and more of the tent-rock formations. They're almost like hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, except they're wider in proportion and pointier at the top than hoodoos.

Tree next to the canyon wall

Eventually the canyon becomes a narrows, where there's just enough room for us to slither through, crawling over boulders in places. Because of the rain to the north, we tried to get through this section as quickly as possible, as it would be apt to sudden flooding. Sand blew in our faces as we walked through. Then, just as suddenly as the narrow section started, it ended. It doesn't open gradually -- it just opens up. There's a very discernible entrance and exit to the narrows section.

Slot canyon

There's something very peaceful about the canyon. We had it mostly to ourselves, so that has something to do with it. But the narrowness of the canyon also adds to the effect. The walls have lots of holes in them, inviting us to climb them, but the rocks will crumble in your hands if you try to climb.

Jean in the slot canyon

Most of the hike thus far had been mostly level, but now we began climbing a bit. We reached a spot where the trail wasn't obvious -- a wall of rock stood in our way, with options to the left and right, neither of which seemed very good. Then we remembered our conversation in the parking lot and looked for a ribbon -- and found one on the right fork. We took it, climbing up over a rocky section before continuing on the ribbon trail.

Our climb grew steeper now, but it paid off quickly in the form of amazing views behind us. We followed the ribbons until they didn't make much sense to us. There are so many use trails in the area, apparently leading to the top, and we took one of them. But we soon realized the ribbons are the right way. The use trails took us to un-hikable (climbable, but somewhat dangerous) walls of dirt. We enjoyed the views, then retraced our steps a bit to rejoin the ribbon trail. I'm convinced that few people actually follow the ribbon trail all the way to the top. While we saw several groups of hikers in the area, none of them joined us at the top, and we descended without running into them again. So they must have taken a different route.

Hiker above tent rocks

The ribbon trail led us to the top. We saw wide valleys, with mountain ranges and mesas in the distance. The storm clouds still lingered to the north. Closer at hand, tent rock formations lay below us. Snow-capped peaks anchored the eastern horizon. We hiked down the spine of the mountain to a tree perched on the edge. We sat here as birds (sparrows, perhaps) whizzed through the air and the sun beat down on us.

Jean resting at the top

View from the top

View from the top

Eventually we pulled ourselves away and started our descent. As we entered the narrows section on the return trip, we could hear thunder in the distance, coming closer, so we went through as quickly as we could. We made it safely and then continued to the trail intersection we'd passed earlier. This time we made a right turn toward the cave.

Jean descending

Jean in the slot canyon

After a short distance we reached the small cave set in the hillside. The cave sits about 6 feet above the ground, and is just tall enough for a person to stand in. While we were there, a group of hikers came by -- some parents, grandparents, and 3 or 4 kids. While Jean, one of the kids, and the grandfather climbed up, the rest of us stayed outside and it started to rain. Light at first, then a bit heavier, but it never felt threatening -- we never had thunder and lightning, and it dissipated in a few minutes.


It turns out the grandparents were from the Bay Area, and they chatted to us about the California energy crisis before we parted ways. We continued down the trail to some more tent rocks, rising up right out of the ground. Then quickly we were back at the parking lot. We ate the sandwiches we'd gotten from the Range Cafe. They were quite good, especially after a fulfilling hike.

Tent Rocks

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