SHORT HIKES AT GREAT PLACES
Updated: Mar 1
For many people hiking is about the sport, the exercise and endurance, the feeling of accomplishment earned through physical challenge. For others exercise in moderation is part of the appeal but hiking is more about the aesthetic emotions experienced in places of extraordinary beauty. The short hikes described below are conducive to this latter purpose, which in a cluster also includes enjoyment of solitude, separation from the noise of everyday life, engagement in situ and in silence with wildlife and with artifacts of past cultures, and the rewards of simply being there.
LA VISTA VERDE TRAIL
In the space of a mile and a quarter this trail offers petroglyphs, frequent sightings of bighorn sheep, spring flowers, and sensational views of the Rio Grande gorge. The drive along the river to the trailhead is also exceptional.
The best petroglyphs are located about two-thirds into the hike. Look for a cross (it resembles a plus sign, and someone wrote “hi” beneath it)—etched into rock just to the right of the trail. The petroglyphs are across from the rock with the cross, at about a forty-five-degree angle to the left, well above head height. On some mornings the bighorns can be seen grazing near the trail but usually they are in the rocks above the valley. The trail is flat, with the exception of a brief incline on return to the parking area. A few side trails lead to gorge views en route, if you don’t want to walk the entire distance.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 2.5 miles, out and back, easy.
DIRECTIONS: The entrance to Route 570 in Pilar is across from and slightly to the north of the Rio Grande Gorge visitor center on Route 68. The trailhead is about seven miles from this intersection, on the right across from mile marker 11, about a half-mile past the Taos Junction Bridge. After the bridge Route 570 becomes Route 567. The road is paved until the bridge and thereafter the unpaved surface is hard but bumpy. The precipitous Route 567 continues to Carson and then on to Route 285.
SAN LORENZO CANYON
San Lorenzo is a beautiful, winding sandstone canyon with hoodoos, arches, slickenside, and cottonwoods against the backdrop of cliff face. There are several side canyons, especially on the right (north) side as you enter, and one slot canyon near the entry is particularly rewarding. To find the side canyons look for footprints and tire tracks veering off the main trail. Likewise on the north side, near the top of a cliff face, is a cave known as Lemitar Shelter, which was a prehistoric dwelling. You can still see the carbon deposits on the ceiling. San Lorenzo also has colorful volcanic rock fragments, on the ground and in veins embedded in the sandstone.
On arrival you can park at the entry and walk in along the canyon floor, park at pull-offs (some shaded) inside the canyon, or drive about a mile to the canyon’s end, park, and then backtrack on foot to explore.
The canyon ends in a box, with a circular turning area enclosed by rock walls. You can climb over these boulders to an upper canyon but that area is less scenic.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 2 miles, out and back, easy.
Access to San Lorenzo Canyon is by good unpaved roads, with some washboard along the way. The final two miles are partially in an arroyo, to be avoided when wet and when rain is forecast. BLM recommends a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle; I found the road to be flat and hard.
Heading northbound on I-25: Take exit 156 (Lemitar), turn left at the stop sign, go under the interstate, and turn right onto the frontage road. There is a San Lorenzo Canyon sign at this turn. Continue approximately 4.5 miles to the end of the paved road. Turn left onto the unpaved road; there is another canyon sign at this turn. Drive 2.1 miles to the next canyon sign, turn right, and continue approximately 2.3 miles to the canyon.
Heading southbound on I-25: Take exit 163 (San Acacia), turn left at the stop sign, and continue over the interstate. Turn right on the east frontage road, just past the entrance to I-25 north. Continue approximately 2.2 miles to the second road (County Road 94) that tunnels under I-25. Turn right, and just after the underpass veer right onto an unpaved road. Continue approximately two miles, turn right at the San Lorenzo Canyon sign, and drive approximately 2.3 miles to the canyon.
San Juan County
Crow Canyon is one of many Navajo sites known collectively as the Dinétah Pueblitos. They date between 1680 and 1780 and are in the area of Aztec, Bloomfield, and Navajo Lake, east of Farmington. The Dinétah Pueblitos were built at a time when first Spanish and then Ute attacks were frequent, and consequently the sites are remote and the architecture is defensive. Crow Canyon is included here for its interesting petroglyphs. The ruin is excluded due to difficult access. The petroglyphs at Crow Canyon are the most extensive in the Dinétah and sometimes are intermixed with ancestral puebloan images. The images include abstract designs, animals, warriors, corn plants, supernatural beings, bows and arrows, horse riders, and mysterious symbols including two that look like fours, hence the name of one of the panels.
Most of the Dinétah has been brutalized by oil and gas production, and as you are driving on service roads among trucks in an industrial landscape it’s hard to imagine that petroglyphs are nearby. The immediate vicinity of the Crow Canyon site has been preserved, however, and once you arrive the oil-and-gas landscape is mostly out of mind.
Roundtrip distance and rating: Main panel: .6 mile, out and back, easy. 44 panel: 1.6 mile, out and back, easy.
From Route 64 head south on Route 4450, shortly after Blanco. Cross Largo Wash on the Five Mile Bridge, bear left, and continue for about 18.6 miles. A sign then indicates a left turn to head east on a dirt road that leads to another wash crossing, this one without a bridge. Cross the wash, after getting out of your vehicle to inspect it for wetness and softness and deep ruts, and then turn left at the T. Shortly after you will reach a Y intersection, where signs direct you to the main panel (by turning left) and the 44 Panel (by turning right). En route to the 44 Panel you will see the Big Warrior Panel in the distance. These petroglyphs are the reward for the difficult driving.
SIMON CANYON RUIN
San Juan County
Simon Canyon is another of the Dinétah Pueblitos. The ruin is included here for its characteristic defensive architecture and its easily accessed trailhead. It is a one-room dwelling that was built atop a boulder around 1750. The ruin overlooks a side canyon of the San Juan River and its door opening has a long view over the cottonwoods beyond. The structure may have once had a second story. The boulder has steps and handholds carved into its upper end, and a notched-log ladder was likely used for access and then pulled up to impede intrusion. The site was stabilized by BLM in 1975.
The trail to the ruin begins on a steep road that leads to a nightmarish gas-pumping pad. Beyond that point the trail is flat and beautiful, with buff and rust boulder cliffs on one side and the canyon on the other.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1.6 mile, out and back, moderate.
Heading east on Route 173, turn left shortly before the town of Navajo Dam onto Route 4280 (another sign at the turn indicates the adjacent 4279) and continue about three miles to the parking area and trailhead beside the San Juan River.
CORRALES BOSQUE PRESERVE
The Corrales Bosque Preserve is a length of riparian habitat and cottonwood forest (“bosque” means forest in Spanish) along the Rio Grande. The preserve is situated between the river and the levee and runs from Corrales to the Alameda bridge in Albuquerque. The best entrance is on Romero Street, which leads to a small parking area in a residential neighborhood.
You can walk for miles on the narrow roadway at the top of the levee, or on smaller, sandy trails to the left and right below. These smaller trails wind through cottonwoods close to the river and afford great views of the Rio Grande and the Sandia Mountains. The levee is above the brush and trees and is a comfortable setting for a stroll.
Roundtrip distance and rating: At your discretion, out and back, easy.
Romero Street is off Corrales Road at the north end of the village, about five miles north of Alameda Boulevard (Route 528). Speed limits in Corrales are strictly enforced.
Doña Ana County
You drive through foothills estates to an easy-to-locate trailhead with a parking lot. The in-bound hike is a steady moderate incline, with a bench for resting, and consequently the return is an effortless stroll through eerily beautiful Organ Mountains landscape. The well-defined gravel trail leads to a lush, magical box canyon with a waterfall and its sounds backdropped by Ansel Adams rock. The visual beauty is redoubled by this acoustic contribution, almost a soundtrack, for a synesthetic experience. This is a popular trail; choose off-hours if you hope to have it to yourself. At this same trailhead you can hike the Bar Canyon loop; if you are going just to Soledad Canyon ignore the Bar Canyon turnoffs and hike the trail as an out-and-back.
Roundtrip distance and rating: Approximately 3 miles, out and back, moderate.
Directions: From Exit 1 on Interstate 25, take University Avenue/Dripping Springs Road east for about 4.5 miles, then turn right (south) on Soledad Canyon Road, following the same when it turns left and leads to the parking area.
Santa Fe County
A well-defined trail leads from the parking area to the canyon floor—a wash—that is mostly hard but sandy. The spectacular segment is in the canyon itself, with cliffs that seem to be cascading, like a waterfall of stone. The distance designation below refers to this segment. After the canyon you can continue walking over two miles to the trail’s end (beyond the fence) at the Rio Grande. There are also side trails leading out of the wash. The canyon is popular with rock climbers as well as hikers.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1.2 mile, out and back, easy.
From Veterans Memorial Highway (Route 599), also known as the Relief Route, take the Camino La Tierra exit, turn right, and continue about four miles to a right turn on Old Buckman Road. There is a sign at this intersection for El Camino Real and Diablo Canyon. The road is dirt, open range, well signed for the canyon, and mostly washboard-rough, like perpetual rumble strips. The ride is smoother if you keep your passenger-side wheels near the edge of the road. This same route was the original Camino Real, a trade and migrant route which ran from Mexican City to the pueblo at Ohkay Owingeh. Mile markers en route show your position on the Camino. At Diablo Canyon the sign reads: Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico, 19 miles / Mexico City, Mexico, 1448 miles.
Los Alamos County
This trail is outstanding for many reasons—views, ruins, a few petroglyphs—but mostly for the footpaths worn into silvery-white soft rock known as volcanic tuff. The tuff was formed after ash erupted from Jemez volcanos and the paths were made by ancestral Pueblos traveling back and forth to their village. You walk in the ruts of these same trails to the mesa top, and after crossing the mesa and passing the mostly buried ruins of Tsankawi pueblo you return in a loop to the parking area.
Much of the inward hike is uphill; thereafter the trail is more or less flat or downhill. There are three relatively short ladders on the hike; one, with a detour around it, is optional.
Tsankawi is a satellite of Bandelier National Monument and a purchased Bandelier entrance pass or an annual or senior pass are required for the visit. Tsankawi will be closed for renovations until late October, 2023.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1.5 mile, loop, moderate.
From Pojoaque take Route 502 west about thirteen miles to Route 4. Heading south on Route 4, Tsankawi is on the left just after the intersection with Route 502 and just before the first light at East Jemez Road. There is a long parking lot (generally with cars) at the trailhead.
LAS VEGAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
San Miguel County
Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System and includes 8,672 acres of grassland, cropland, marshes, canyons, ponds, and streams that provide habitat for migratory birds. The refuge website itemizes species that frequent the site and the seasons during which they are seen.
From the parking area you cross plains with distant views of Hermit’s Peak and low flowing mountains and follow the rim of a canyon to stone homestead ruins. The trail then descends into a lush box-canyon oasis irrigated by a spring-fed creek. This site is the highlight of the trail and could well serve as the destination, or you could continue on a short loop that climbs out of the canyon into pinon-juniper landscape, with some good canyon views near the beginning. If you take this loop it returns you to the canyon where you first entered it—there is a seat-like boulder there—and you return by following the trail out of the canyon. The ascent (about 250 feet) is not too strenuous. On the return you follow the previous canyon rim back toward the homestead ruins. If the trail is indistinct look for cairns to guide you.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1.75 miles, out and back, easy.
DIRECTIONS Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge is located about six miles southeast of Las Vegas. From I-25, take exit 345 and follow Route 104 for about a mile and a half. Turn right onto Route 281 for about four miles; signs indicate the route. If you are going straight to the trailhead without a stop at the visitor center, make a right from Route 281 onto the gravel Route C22C and then a right into the parking area. If you are beginning in Las Vegas, take Grand Avenue to E. University Avenue, which as you head east and cross I-25 becomes Route 104.
Shortly after beginning the trail you reach an arroyo. A cairn on the left indicates the point where you descend, but as you do so locate the cairn across the arroyo indicating the point where you will hike out and continue on the trail. Thereafter the trail is sometimes faint, with an occasion cairn more or less hidden in weeds to reassure you, but there is no risk of getting lost because your vehicle is visible in the distance behind you.
Continue on the trail until you reach a large, low wooden peg—like the top of a fencepost—surrounded by rocks. At this peg the trail turns left toward the wall of boulders in the distance. You walk toward the boulders and then parallel them, until suddenly you come upon two beautiful petroglyph panels side by side. If you miss the peg you can improvise, walking with the boulders on your right until you locate the panels.
Roundtrip distance and rating: Approximately 1.5 miles, out and back, easy.
DIRECTIONS Heading south of I-40- on Route 117, pass mile marker 31 and look on the left for an unsigned road (Cebolla Canyon Road). As you turn left a sign at the entrance reads EL MALPAIS NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA. Continue on this good gravel road for three miles to a T, where you turn left to continue toward Cebolla Canyon. There is a sign at this intersection indicating the turn. Continue another 2 miles to a horseshoe parking area—it looks more like a turn-around—on the right. There is a sign across the road for the Lobo Canyon trailhead.
HIDDEN VALLEY TRAIL
VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE
Enter Valles Caldera on the main entrance road and drive about a half mile to a cable gate across a jeep trail on the left. There may still be colored banner flags to mark the site, and often there are the parked cars of other hikers. The trail begins on this unpaved road; after a minute or two you crest a small hill and have the first view of the scenic Missing Cabin, named so because it was built in 2003 for Ron Howard’s film The Missing.
At a cairn across from the cabin veer left, leaving the two-track road and taking an easy-to-follow trail through grass. There is some gentle up-and-down and one short steep incline on the return. Being in the caldera is in itself extraordinary. The trail then leads into a canyon where you can follow the east fork of the Jemez River downstream as long as you like. It is a beautiful serene setting, with green marshland and meadows beneath cliffs that seem painted with yellow and sometimes orange lichen. This is a fee area; at my last visit fees were waved.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 3.4 miles or at your discretion, out and back, easy.
Valles Caldera is on Route 4, west of Los Alamos and east of Jemez Springs. The Las Conchas trailhead and Gilman Tunnels are nearby.
LAS CONCHAS TRAIL
This lush, well-defined, heavily used trail in the Santa Fe National Forest follows the east fork of the Jemez River. The trail is above 8,000 feet and winds through alpine meadows, conifer forest, and rock formations, with periodic foot bridges to cross the river. During the warm months the meadows are intensely green and wildflowers are often abundant. After two miles the flat segment of the trail ends at a fence just beyond the intersection with the East Fork Trail; the distance and rating noted below presume return at this point. Rock faces at the beginning of the trail and at a nearby site are popular with climbers. The trail's parking area often fills, with overflow on the roadside.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 4 miles or at your discretion, out and back, easy.
The Las Conchas trailhead is on Route 4 between mile markers 36 and 37, about 19 miles from Jemez Springs in one direction and Los Alamos in the other.
GUADALUPE RIVER BOX CANYON AND GILMAN TUNNELS
Two narrow, high tunnels were cut into granite in the 1920s for the passage of logging trains through the rugged Guadalupe Box. The old railroad bed is now the highway and the tunnels were enlarged in the 1930s to accommodate trucks. Today Route 485 is a paved road that winds along the Guadalupe River through fantastically beautiful brick-red sandstone mesas and cliffs. The sandstone transitions to granite just before the tunnels.
This visit is a road walk on a gentle in-bound incline through the tunnels to the waterfall above. Shortly after the waterfall the road turns to dirt—Forest Road 376 toward Fenton Lake State Park—and you can continue walking or else backtrack to sit on the rocks near the falls.
Roundtrip distance and rating: At your discretion, out and back, easy.
The Gilman Tunnels are on NM 485 approximately 5 miles northwest of its beginning at NM 4. (This intersection is about eight miles south of Jemez Springs or 4 miles north of Jemez Pueblo.) After the turn onto Route 485 and the five-mile drive, veer into the parking area on the left, just before the gate that closes the road. Park before the gate and walk in even if the gate is open, because there is no parking thereafter near the tunnels.
BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING TRAIL
WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Doña Ana County
The first half of the park’s eight-mile scenic road (known as Dunes Drive) is paved and the second half is hard-packed gypsum. A few minutes after the pavement ends you reach Backcountry Camping Trail, on the left. The trail begins near the vault toilet. Follow orange trail markers with spade symbols into expansive views of a seemingly endless gypsum dunefield. The trail requires climbing dunes, sometimes on all fours, but the payoff is an otherworldly landscape. If you cannot locate the next trail marker while hiking—occasionally one or more are down—then turn back, because among these dunes without identifiable landmarks it is easy to get lost.
Another option is to do an out-and-back hike of a distance at your discretion. Once you escape the sand sledders you are immersed in the ambient experience of the dunes rather quickly, without hiking the entire loop. If you prefer an option with more solid footing, the Interdune Boardwalk (.4 mile) is located off Dunes Drive just before the pavement ends.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 2 miles, loop, moderate; or out and back at your discretion.
The park is off Route 70, 52 miles north of Las Cruces and 15 miles south of Alamogordo.
ANCESTRAL SITES TRAIL and SOUTH PASTURE LOOP TRAIL PECOS NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK
San Miguel County
The Ancestral Sites Trail begins behind the visitor center and leads to the ruins of Pecos Pueblo, the Spanish mission church, kivas (including a restored kiva that you can enter), and long views across the Pecos River Valley. There are interpretive signs on the trail and a printed guide is available at the visitor center.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1.25 mile, loop, easy.
Pecos National Historical Park is located 25 miles east of Santa Fe, at exit 299 of I-25. Take Route 50 to Pecos and Route 63 two miles south.
SOUTH PASTURE LOOP TRAIL
The trail begins on an old Forked Lightning Ranch road that crosses pasture. After about a mile make a left at the T, toward the cottonwoods in the distance. The turn is indicated by a green signpost with an arrow and the image of a fish. The left turn at the T is the direct route to the river; you could also opt to turn right and walk the entire loop through upper pastures for the views. After turning left and walking to the river there is a peaceful spot across from light gray bluffs, with some logs and fallen trees to sit on. This site is at the Pecos River fishing beat 3; special permits are acquired in advance from the park if you want to fish. Some distant road noise from I-25 is perceptible at the beginning of the hike but it then disappears and is replaced by breeze in the trees and river flow.
Roundtrip distance and rating: To the river the hike is at your discretion, about 2.4 miles, out and back, easy. The entire loop is 3.8 miles and moderate.
From the Pecos National Historic Park entrance turn right onto Route 63, heading south, for about three-quarters of a mile. Pull into the parking lot of the trading post on your left. (It is a large adobe building, with a sign in the lot for Saint Gertrudis Forked Lightning Ranch.) Curve around the right side of the building toward a blue gate where the road continues into pasture. You will pass a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only.” After passing the blue gate of the trading post continue about a half mile to a small green signpost with the number 3, just before a 25 mph speed-limit sign. In the distance past the sign you will see to your right a blue gate at the parking area. The trail begins beyond this blue gate. A simple trail map is available at the visitor center.
SPANISH CORRAL TRAIL
QUARAI, SALINAS PUEBLO MISSIONS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Quarai is one of the three Salinas pueblo missions—the others are Abó and Gran Quivira. The Spanish Corral trail branches off the half-mile interpretive loop trail, crosses a cottonwood grove, and winds up a small hill to piñon/juniper forest and the ruins of the old corral. There are occasional great views of the ruins from above. Afterward you can continue the interpretive loop through the ruins of La Purísima Concepción de Quarai, completed in 1632. The site has picnic tables nicely situated under cottonwoods.
Roundtrip distance and rating: 1 mile, loop, easy, plus the half-mile interpretive loop.
DIRECTIONS: From the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument visitor center in Mountainair the Quarai site is 8 miles north on NM 55 to Punta de Agua and then 1 mile west.