There are destinations that have a certain Oz-like quality about them, where you’re suddenly struck with the sensation of entering another world. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is just such a place. Fortunately, you don’t have to venture somewhere over the rainbow to get to this enchanting New Mexico landscape. Located just 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe and 55 miles northeast of Albuquerque, Tent Rocks is easily accessible from Interstate 25, with plenty of signs to guide you along your way.
Tent Rocks Geology and History
When you arrive at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks you immediately see how it got its name. Just above the verdant variety of the valley floor, with its ponderosas, pinyon-junipers, and manzanitas, you see legions of cone-shaped rock formations among beige, pink and white-colored cliffs. The name Kasha-Katuwe, meaning “white cliffs,” comes from the traditional Keresan language of the Cochiti Pueblo inhabitants who live nearby.
The volcanically formed sentinels of Tent Rocks, composed of pumice, ash, and tuff deposits, range from just a few feet tall to nearly 100 feet in height. Strolling among some of these geologic giants leaves you feeling a bit like the diminutive Munchkins of Oz.
Many of these towering spires have the appearance of a massive golf ball perched on a tee. This interesting visual effect is achieved by hard boulder caps precariously attached to the tops of softer tapering hoodoos. If Tiger Woods were Paul Bunyan-sized, Tent Rocks would be the ideal driving range.
This entire wonderland was carved out over eons by the erosive power of wind, along with enough water to melt the Wicked Witch of the West a million times over. It really is a fascinating place and one that merits a good walk around.
Hiking at Tent Rocks
If you’re ready to hit the trail, be sure to leave the ruby slippers in the trunk and opt for a more rugged form of footwear, like hiking boots or trekking shoes. From the parking lot, the trail is very easy to follow and is well marked. You basically have two options for your hike.
Option No. 1: Canyon Trail
If you’re up for a challenge and some rewarding views, this is the path for you. The 3-mile round trip (out and back) on the Canyon Trail first takes you along a sandy path through a mixture of evergreens and desert landscape. The finely balanced boulders towering high above the trail are an intimidating but awe-inspiring sight. About a half-mile into your journey, you’ll begin to experience the amazing contrast of light and shadow that is unique to slot canyons. Wandering through this narrow, contoured arroyo is a spectacular treat. Along the rock-strewn corridor, you’ll have the chance to marvel at the exposed root system of a mighty ponderosa pine.
Once you emerge from the slender gorge, prepare for a climb that would make the Tin Man’s heart beat out of his chest...if he only had one. The 630 feet of elevation gain to the top of the mesa may cause you to click your heels three times and long for home but hang in there. Once you reach the apex of the path, you will be treated to a visual feast that includes the Tent Rocks below as well as the Rio Grande Valley and the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez and Sandia Mountains. Once you’ve caught your breath and snapped all the photos you care to take, you can descend the trail and enjoy the journey in reverse on your way back to the parking lot.
Option No. 2: Cave Loop Trail
If the steep ascent and dizzying heights of the Canyon Trail cause your courage to waver like the Cowardly Lion, fear not. The Cave Loop Trail (1.2 miles long) will still provide you with an excellent opportunity to explore Tent Rocks. From the parking lot, you follow the same trail toward the slot canyon for the first half-mile. Then at the junction, turn left, and you’ll be on your way along the fairly level ground to the cave for which this trail is named. Before you arrive at this ancient dwelling, you should notice both the cholla and prickly pear variety of cactus. Cholla is a tall, “stick-man”-looking cactus with neon pink blooms followed by yellow fruit. Prickly pear is a smaller, ground-level cactus with lots of pads and purple fruit.
Once at the cave, you might wonder why it is so high off the ground. Apparently ancestral Native Americans preferred caves that were above ground level because they stayed dry during storms, were more difficult for animals to enter and provided a view of the surrounding territory in case of enemy attack. The small size of the cave opening is because ancestral Native American adults were shorter than they are today. If you climb up to the opening you’ll see smoke stains on the ceiling, a sure-fire indicator that the cave was indeed used by these ancestral peoples. After your cave visit, complete the loop by descending the trail back down to the parking lot.
Wildlife at Tent Rocks National Monument
Unlike the Land of Oz, you will not be accosted by a gang of flying monkeys at Tent Rocks. But you might encounter other more friendly forms of wildlife during your exploration. Depending on the season, you might see a variety of birds, including red-tailed hawks, violet-green swallows or a golden eagle. Chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels are fairly common, and even larger animals such as elk, deer and wild turkey can occasionally be glimpsed in the area.
Hours and Fees
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is open Nov. 1 to March 10 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. From March 11 to Oct. 31, you can visit from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
If you have a Golden Eagle Pass there is no charge to enter the Tent Rocks area. Otherwise, there is a fee. Check the website for the current charge.