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Thursday, April 27, 2000

  • Highlights: Mesas, unusual rock formations, Indian and Spanish ruins, petrified wood, petroglyphs, fossils all located in a variety of canyons, rimrock areas and deep arroyos.
  • Location: Northwest of Albuquerque, south of U.S. 550 (old N.M. 44). Turn on the San Luis-Cabezon road about 17 miles northwest of San Ysidro. Proceed south about 10 miles to the end of the pavement. Just about any road to the right or left will lead to a good place to hike.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on how many mesa or volcanic plugs you want to climb. There are no trails, so bushwhacking is required. No drinking water is available, although there are dirt tanks where the water will need to be filtered or treated.
  • Round-trip distance: About 150 miles from Albuquerque, depending on which WSA is hiked. You can hike up to 15 miles in a day depending on where you want to go.
  • Cautions: The dirt roads are usually in good condition, but after snow or rain they can be slick. There are no designated trails so you must find your own way. The WSAs are not large, and roads are usually reasonably close by. Hikers should avoid private land and buildings. Skill with map and compass is helpful, as is a GPS. Take extra water, even in the winter. Dress in layers, as it can be cold in the morning.
  • Best seasons: Fall, winter and spring.
  • Maps: Bureau of Land Management Surface Land Status Chaco Mesa, Los Alamos and Albuquerque. USGS 7.5 quad topographic maps, including Arroyo Empedrado, San Luis, Mesa Cortado, Cerro Parido, Guadalupe and Cabezon Peak. Maps and brochures are available at the BLM Offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
  • Printable map

  • Boca del Oso

    We had been climbing and descending mesas all morning. We passed grotesque rock formations, colorful layers of strata with petrified wood falling out of the cliffs and one place embedded with what appeared to be bones from a dinosaur although we couldn't find where it came from. Suddenly we were standing next to a Navajo hogan ruin with a sweat lodge nearby, and on a cliff edge near the hogan ruin was a small structure that looked like it once might have been a religious shrine.
        We were hiking the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area northwest of Albuquerque in the Rio Puerco valley.
        When New Mexicans think of wilderness, they usually picture the Pecos or Gila Wilderness areas: thousands of acres of mountains, timber, high meadows and trout streams in national forests. But there are other wilderness areas in New Mexico that, while not as pristine as the high country, offer some of the best day hiking in the state.
        Twenty-three Wilderness Study Areas, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, are located around the Land of Enchantment, and they encompass more than 487,000 acres. Some are easily accessible, others are in remote regions of the state reached by rough and sometimes unusable roads. Many have little or no water. Yet they all have a unique character and special attributes such as ancient ruins, petrified wood, fossils and stunning rock formations. Few Wilderness Study Areas have established trails.
        Wilderness Study Areas were established as a result of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which directed the Bureau of Land Management to determine those areas worthy of wilderness designation. Two of the studied areas, the Bisti and De-na-zin areas in northwest New Mexico, which total 26,400 acres, were designated wilderness by Congress in 1984. In 1987 Congress designated the Cebolla and West Malpais study areas south of Grants to be wilderness with a total of 101,700 acres. All of the WSAs are open to hiking without restriction. These lands contain cattle, stock tanks, windmills and are connected by roads that often divide the designated WSAs.
        It takes an act of Congress to establish a wilderness, and there is no active movement to change the status of the current WSAs to wilderness, either in New Mexico or the other western states where the studies were made. While not a formal wilderness, the BLM is gradually reducing the vehicular use of the areas by blocking old roads. There are few established trail on the WSAs and so exploring and bushwhacking are the order of the day. The only designated trail through many of the areas will be the Continental Divide Trail which is now being developed in various parts of New Mexico.
        The closest WSAs to Albuquerque and Santa Fe are in the Rio Puerco Valley between Albuquerque and Cuba south of Highway 44. One area is called the Boca del Oso complex and includes the San Luis, La Lena, Empedrado, Cerro Quate, Cabezon, Ingnacio Chavez, Chamisa and Blanco Breaks WSAs. The 66,400-acre area ranges from 5,600 to 7,500 altitude and is reached by turning south on the San Luis road about 17 miles west of San Isidro on Highway 44. The roads are surprisingly well maintained and can usually be traveled by sedans, except when it has rained or snowed. Just about any road that turns off the main road will lead you to a hiking area.
        We recently hiked the Empedrado WSA that is reached by taking the second road to the right, about five miles from where the pavement ends at a cattle guard. We drove west another five miles past several ranches until we crossed Empedrado Arroyo, stopping just past a closed gate. We headed roughly northwest toward the mesas and made a big loop, crossing several mesas, and deep gullies (which can be a problem) before returning to the car.
        Climbing the mesas isn't difficult, but it can be a challenge to locate a good access and a different way down. Same goes for crossing deep arroyos in the area which have cliffs up to 40 feet high. You will have to walk up to a half-mile in many areas just to locate a place where you can get into the arroyo.
        Finding a place to climb out can be an equal challenge. Use of a 7.5 quad USGS map helps. A GPS is handy because it will give you the distance you have hiked and will help you find your car.
        These areas may look barren, but there are deer and a good selection of birds and small animals. Their tracks crisscross the sandy benches and canyon bottoms. Up any canyon may be found Anazazi, Navajo or more recent Spanish ruins even abandoned homesteads. Be careful when exploring ruins where rats and mice have nested. Hantavirus has been detected in the area.
        The most dramatic features of the WSAs are the varied rock formations ranging from volcanic plugs such as Cabezon and Cerro Quate to hoodoos that seem to defy gravity. There are also arroyos filled with petrified wood, some of which still show burned ends. A number of fossils have been found in the area, including several major finds. Exploring is easy just start hiking around or over a mesa.
        Maps and brochures are available at the Bureau of Land Management office, 435 Montano NE in Albuquerque, and at the BLM state office in Santa Fe. Maps of the area in the 1:100,000 scale include the BLM Albuquerque, Los Alamos and Chaco Mesa Surface Management Status.
        A Navajo hogan ruin is visited by hikers to the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area. The ruin is probably from the late 1800s when the Navajos abandoned the area wshen they returned to their reservation after being help prisoner at Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River.
        Sweat Lodge remains are often found near hogan ruins. Many of the Indian ruins are located far from a water source. All of the Wilderness Study Areas in the Rio Puerco Valley have ancient ruins.
        This Anazazi Store house was located under a rock bluff. The only way to find places like this is to spend a day exploring around the mesas in the Rio Pureco Valley. Finding ruins, petrified wood, and colorful mineral specimens are all part of the adventure in the Wilderness Study Areas of the Rio Puerco Valley.
        Colorful rock formations called hoodoos can be found in all Wilderness Study Areas in the Rio Puerco Valley. The eroding formation have revealed colorful mineral specimens, petrified wood and fossils. There are no established trails in the Wilderness Study Areas, so exploring is a continuing challenge.
        Scrambling up and down mesas is part of the challenge in hiking the Wilderness Study Areas of the Rio Puerco Valley. A topographic map is helpful in locating potential access routes to the mesa tops and an alternate route down.

  • David G. Jackson