This is a short but dramatic hike that is located close to Las Cruces. The drama comes from a contorted slot canyon – the genuine article with walls spaced just a few feet apart and towering more than 50 feet above your head. For newcomers it could be a stellar introduction to the mountainous desert of southern New Mexico. That said, this is not the “competent rock” that graces some of the nation’s most famous slot canyons. Instead the walls are composed of Robledo-rubble loosely cemented together. It would be an exceedingly poor location for riding out an earthquake. As with all slot canyons, you do not want to be trapped in there if a sudden storm drenches the higher reaches. Make certain to pick a nice day and go!
Note that the trailhead is on the east side of the Rio Grande while the hike is on the west side. That is no problem when the river has been shut off, but probably impassable when the river is running full during irrigation season. Check the river conditions before setting off! After reaching the upper end of the slot you can continue ascending in a wider canyon bed and come eventually to a tall waterfall. Most people will want to turn back here. This route description, however, continues the ascent with a scramble up a steep waterway to the canyon rim and then an easy ascent to a nearby knoll.
Route to the trailhead used on this date:
- From University Avenue in Las Cruces, turn north onto Valley Drive (Valley Drive becomes NM-185)
- After 13.5 miles, turn left onto Hope Road (gravel)
- After 0.6 miles, at what appears to be a T-intersection, turn right onto a gravel road (not signed). This gravel road stays on top of the levee on the east side of the Rio Grande
- In 0.3 miles, veer left onto a flood plain road. Park on the flood plain.
This parking spot can not be recommended (see the hike description below for the kind of bush bashing that parking here entails). For this reason the map below shows a red warning sign with exclamation mark. Instead, park on the flood plain much closer to the spot where Hope Road intersects the levee road. The map marks this preferred spot with an icon of two hikers.
The trailhead is just a spot on the flood plain along side the Rio Grande. There are no amenities. You don’t want to leave your car here if it happens to be the day that the managers at Caballo Reservoir release impounded water into the river. Current release data can be found here, but it does not necessarily include any advisories about future releases. Last year (2014) water was scheduled for release in May. If anyone knows where to find release advisories, please leave a comment below. Otherwise, search the news sites before going.
- Starting elevation: 3920 feet
- Ending elevation: 4960 feet
- Net Gain: 1040 feet
- Distance: 3.2 miles
- Map: USGS Leasburg, NM quadrangle
If you are using the recommended parking site, then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up onto the far bank, and work uphill until you find a gravel road that parallels the river (about 0.1 miles from the car). Turn right (north) and follow the road until you come to a corral on the left-hand side of the road (to the west).
If you are using the same parking site that was used on this hike then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up over the bank and find yourself in a thorn bush thicket. Within the thicket (and within 20 feet of the bank) you will find a cattle trail. Turn left (south) and follow the trail until the heavily interlaced branches of the thorn trees begin to thin and junipers start appearing. As soon as you can tolerate the notion, turn your back to the river and bash your way past the brush and juniper. In 200 feet, encounter the road that parallels the river. Turn left (south) and follow the road until you come to the corral.
From the corral turn uphill towards the mouth of the canyon (which is clearly visible). The terrain is strewn with fist-sized rocks and the footing is awkward, expect to go slowly as you ascend. As you get further from the river the plant life becomes sparser and travel becomes easier. Much of the green bush is mesquite and creosote. Above you (and somewhat to the south) lies Robledo Peak. To the north is Lookout Mountain. There are innumerable lizards scurrying about the dry water courses. On this day I saw no snakes, although another party reported seeing a garter snake. Our reptilian neighbors seem to be returning from their winter get-aways.
At 0.7 miles from the trailhead enter the canyon and you will find that the temperature drops considerably. The canyon bed writhes and twists. The bed itself is paved with rocks that (presumably) have fallen from the walls above you. There are no navigation problems, although there are intriguing mini-slots that come into the main canyon from time to time. Long-time desert dwellers accustomed to big-sky views will find the skinny-sky to be a bit claustrophobic.
The slot is not terribly long. As you reach 1.2 miles from the trailhead the walls begin descending and then angling off. A much broader, arroyo-like conformation is adopted. The canyon bottom, which was free of vegetation in the slot, becomes a bit greener. Having reached 1.4 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself at the foot of a tall waterfall. This is a shady and green spot to have a bite to eat and a sip of water as you marvel at what water can do to hard rock. Many hikers will want to turn back at this point and enjoy the slot canyon on the way out.
You can ascend to the rim of the canyon in a narrow gully on the south wall of the canyon (on the left, looking uphill). This gully is just to the left of the main waterfall. It is steep in places and choked with loose rock. You will want to be comfortable with mildly exposed rock-climbing moves. As you near the rim it can be helpful to pull out of the gully to your left to gain better quality rock (although still fairly rotten). Near the rim the angle eases and animal trails appear, follow them below the rim and ascend into the upper reaches of the canyon.
In it’s upper reaches the canyon walls are gently sloped. Descend into the canyon bed and immediately climb the far wall (the north side of the waterway). The terrain is open and quickly brings you into the domain of ocotillo plants and small juniper bushes. At 1.8 miles from the car, find yourself at the top of a knoll with tremendous views to Robledo and Lookout Peaks, long views of the dry river bed below, and vistas of the Dona Ana Mountains. This is wide open terrain and very inviting for those who relish a ramble.
On this date, however, I turned back for the trailhead. Rather than down-climb back into the canyon, follow the northern rim as it weaves down the bajada. The sedimentary rocks are colorful. On this date it was a little disappointing to get “skunked” of any fossil finds. As you near the mouth of the canyon the rib you are on nose-dives and becomes divided by a small waterway. It helps to stay on the north bank (left, looking downhill) as the falloff on the north side is gentler. Find your way back down to the mouth of the canyon, descend the alluvial fan below to the corral and then cross the Rio Grand to the trailhead.
The cool part of the hike, from both wow-factor and temperature points of view, lies in the slot canyon. If your party is not comfortable with exposed scrambling then turn them back at the waterfall.
Consider bringing a climber’s helmet into the slot canyon. The canyon bed is littered with rocks, some of which fell from the canyon rim. Getting beaned would hurt.
The upper part of the hike, above the waterfall, is completely exposed to the sun. Even the juniper trees are too stunted to provide meaningful shade. You’ll want sunscreen and other sun gear. I got through two liters of water on a fairly cool April day.
Apparently the slot canyon serves as a grasshopper graveyard in the autumn. The reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News comments on the abundance of large insects on a November hike. On this date there were some flies, but nothing especially notable.
If you love slot canyons, then Southern New Mexico Explorer has a second post in which a number of alternative slots in the region are named. Doug Scott has provided an even more extensive list of canyons (both slot and box canyons) across New Mexico.
Joeseph j7uy5 has a flickr photo stream (including GPS tracks) of an exploration of this part of the Robledos.
George Ray has posted a video that captures a considerable fraction of hiking in the slot canyon.
UPDATE: The LC Sun-News is reporting that this year the river will begin flowing some time in late May, 2015. Keep an eye on that river!