One of the best day trips out of Albuquerque takes you to one of New Mexico’s better-kept secrets. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks is a National Monument, but even though it’s earned a place amongst America’s other National Parks and Monuments, it’s easily overlooked. That’s good, and bad — bad because a lot of people will miss it, but good because you won’t — and it probably won’t be crowded, when you get there.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks is somewhat remote, even though it’s sandwiched in between New Mexico’s two biggest cities. If you’re in Albuquerque, head north on I-25; in Santa Fe, head south. The park is located off of NM-22, northwest of Cochiti Pueblo (pronounced COACH-a-tee, not co-CHEE-tee). You’ll drive about 5 miles from town on Indian Road 92, and you’ll have to pass through a guard gate and pay a small admission fee ($5 per vehicle as of 2011, or use your National Parks annual pass for free admission). While the area is managed by the BLM, it’s also governed by the Cochiti Pueblo, which can restrict access — so check with the BLM before you go.
Route 92 grows increasingly scenic as you approach the most interesting part of Kasha-Katuwe. In the photo above, notice the white mountain straight ahead, and to the right. That’s your destination.
Up close, that mountain looms over the parking and picnic area, which is at the side of the road. Beyond the parking area, the road was closed during my visit. If you are allowed to drive further, there is a scenic overlook 4 miles from the parking area.
There are two trails in this area. The 1.2 mile Cave Loop Trail begins at the parking area. Take the shorter leg of this loop (go right at the start) and walk 1/2 mile to the start of the Slot Canyon Trail — a 1-mile, one way, out-and-back trail that passes through a narrow canyon before climbing to the top of the hill.
The most interesting part of the Cave Loop Trail is on the longer leg of the trail. I’ll cover that part in a moment. For now, let’s take the Slot Canyon Trail.
Almost immediately, the Slot Canyon Trail gets interesting. It passes through a dry wash, between canyon walls that are only a few feet apart — and at times are so narrow, you’ll need to squeeze through.
The roots of this tree provide proof that you could encounter some fast-moving flood waters in this canyon, if you’re here during a storm.
As you pass through the canyon, the “tent rocks” surround you, high above you on the canyon walls. These cone-shaped formations are made of pumice, ash, and tuff, deposited by ancient volcanic eruptions. Some are capped by harder rock, that have helped protect the cones from erosion.
The canyon is a lot of fun to photograph, thanks to its swirling lines that lead you deeper into the crevasse.
This might be the most challenging part of the hike, for some people. You’ll need to climb over this boulder. It’s in the shadows and somewhat hard to see in this picture, but it’s only a couple of feet high, and you can climb over it if you use your hands.
A fallen tree stretches over the trail. I’m not sure if the pine cones ended up in there naturally, or if they’ve been placed there by hikers.
As you continue through the slot canyon, there’s one hoodoo after another…
… towering over the trail.
In just a few minutes, you’ll be looking down on these tent rocks.
There’s a good example of a capped formation, with a tiny rock balanced on the tip of the eroded column.
When you reach this collection of hoodoos, you’re at the point where the uphill climb begins. The trail quickly switchbacks from here…
… revealing a nice view of the distant landscape…
… and allowing you to look down on the cluster of hoodoos, through which you just squeezed.
The trail tops out at an excellent viewpoint, but you can hike a little further…
… out to the end of this ridge. It’s slightly downhill as you continue out to the end.
From the ridge, you’ll get to look down on dozens of these hoodoos…
… and stare out at the surrounding mountains. I think this view looks towards the east, and if I’m correct, those are the mountains above Santa Fe.
As usual, I found a spot to sit and dangle my feet over a ledge.
After enjoying the view for a while, I headed back over the high point (those clouds look menacing, don’t you think?)…
… then checked out one other viewpoint I had missed — sort-of in the “armpit” of the canyon.
The slot canyon is below, and the ridge is on the right-hand side.
After heading back down the switchbacks, I squeezed my way back through the tightest portions of the canyon.
As you can see, the walls are close enough that you could touch both sides at the same time.
Back on the Cave Loop Trail…
… I was out in the open, once again, and heading towards another impressive cliff.
There are two attractions you shouldn’t miss, on the Cave Loop Trail. One is its namesake, a cave used as a home for the area’s earliest inhabitants. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have lived in this area for 4,000 years.
As the roof of the cave suggests, many families have kept warm by a fire inside this cave, over the centuries. The cave did not form naturally — it was hollowed out by humans.
The other attraction along this part of the Cave Loop Trail is this cluster of tent rocks.
These hoodoos look more like traditional teepees.
From here, it’s a short walk back to the parking area. Once you’ve driven back to civilization, you could easily continue on up the road to Santa Fe, or up to White Rock and the Jemez Mountains Trail, or down to Albuquerque.
Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Albuquerque, through Cochiti, to Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument: