01 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch (in shadow) from clifftop turnaround point

Overview:

This is an easy amble along the top of a steep-sided scarp, terminating on a dramatic cliff overlooking the enormous Ventana Arch. Along the way you get a birds-eye view of the dark lava and struggling vegetation in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. The trail stays at a relatively low altitude and is unusually easy to access. This is a great way to introduce newcomers to the hiking in New Mexico. Alternatively, the trail provides a mellow means for getting out of doors and warming up those hiking muscles as the winter winds down. On this date it also served to test minumum expectations for a new pair of hiking shoes (which passed).

Driving Directions:

  • From Albuquerque get onto Interstate-40 (I-40) going west and take exit 89 near Grants, NM (about 70 miles).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn south (left if you were on the west-bound lanes of I-40) onto NM-117.
  • After 21.8 miles turn left into The Narrows Picnic Area.
  • After about 50 feet, at the end of the first curve in the road, park at the trailhead.

Trailhead:

02 Rim view of trailhead

NM-117 and trailhead seen from ledge

The picnic area has vault toilets, picnic benches and trash recepticals. There is a small wooden sign near the trailhead announcing The Narrows Rim Trail. There are no fees. On a 4th of July weekend there was only one other vehicle in the picnic area when I arrived and it did not seem crowded on return. Parking should not be an issue. There are no usage fees.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7500 feet
  • Net Elevation: 400 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS North Pasture quadrangle. This hike is shown at the very top edge of this map and a small segment is cut off. If you want to see the complete trail or would like to identify northern landmarks the you should also take along the Arrosa Ranch quadrangle.

Hike Description:

03 Lava hummocks in malpais

Lava hummocks in malpais and distant cinder cones

From the trailhead follow the trail as it clambers up a low rocky ledge and then turns north. The hardest part of your hike is now over. The trail gently ascends along the rim, yet quickly achieves a view west into the malpais (Spanish for “bad country”). This lava-covered terrain exhibits broad regions of black rock that are being slowly colonized by juniper and pines. These lava flows came from multiple eruptions, the most recent occurring only 1500 years ago. Several trails run across this tortured terrain and you have to imagine that the footing across the malpais is rough indeed.

04 cobbled trail with cairn

Cobbled trailbed with cairn

The top of this escarpment is covered with fine, light brown-sand. The lack of any coarse material suggests that it was wind deposited. There are many sandy stretches on the tread itself and you might want to put on gaiters to keep sand from filling your boots. In other places the tread has an almost cobbled appearance. Daily temperatures can swing across 50-degrees (Farenheit), and over the years these swings have carved grooves into the rock. In still other locations those deep grooves conspire to release fist-sized chunks of rock, real ankle-twisters. As the day warms that light-brown sand reflects the sunlight with surprising efficiency.

05 sChain Of Craters cinder cones and distant Escondido Mountain

Malpais view: snaking lava tube nearby, a small kipuka in mid-distance, far-distant Escondido Mt on extreme left and cinder cones dominating the horizon.

There are no real navigation problems because the trail stays within 100 feet of the escarpment face (and usually much closer). In some places the tread can be a just little difficult to find – typically where a stretch off-trail sandstone has an eye-catching, sidewalk-like appearance. There are numerous cairns in these stretches to help keep you on track.

06 Tinaja and Ponderosa

Sandy depression in the sandstone

There is only a sparse display of pinyon pine and single seed juniper, reflecting the harsh growing conditions on this dry mesa. In places along the trail there are small depressions in the sandstone called tinajas (Spanish for “jar” or “tank”). Water draining into these depressions deposits a flat bed of sand. Nearby you’ll often find small stands of Ponderosa pine. These are not large pines by high-mountain standards, but they tower over the pinyon and juniper.

07 kipuka (narrow band of forest) below horizon

Kipuka in the middle distance

As the tread rises you’ll see greater detail across the malpais. There are corridors of black rock snaking through the green scrub. These could be flood-swept channels. The long stretches of black rock that lie closest, however, look like collapsed lava tubes. You will see considerable variation in the vegetation. There are small patches of terrain that produce stands of trees that are markedly taller and denser than the surrounding scrub. These stands probably lie on mounds of older lava that were tall enough to deflect the more recent lava flows (kipukas), so their high points retain deeper accumulations of soil.

08 Mt Taylor across a sea of lava

Hazy Mt Taylor in the far distance

At about 3.5 miles trail crosses a tinaja underlain by strikingly dark rock. The sands of this small depression are littered with small dark stones, some of which have pocked surfaces suggestive of volcanic scoria. Just beyond there is a stand of five or six notably large Ponderosa. Pass through this grove and views open north to Mt Taylor. Arriving at the northern-most extremity for this segment of the escarpment the trail turns east. In just a few hundred feet the tread terminates at a high overlook that gives you wonderful views of Ventana Arch. Kick back, watch the hawks soar above the arch (tracking visitors who scare up the rabbits) and plot your return along the approach route.

Recommendations:

10 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch in the midway sun.

This would be a terrific spot for introducing young hikers to moderate length hiking. They would need to carry sufficient water and be very clear that cliffs are not playthings. The attractions include hawks soaring overhead, horned toads on the ground, and innumerable tracks in the sand to interpret.

The morning of June 2nd was surprisingly cold. Don’t let the daytime temperatures mislead you, a bivouac at 7500 feet could be a very chilly experience. That said, the light brown sands do reflect a lot of sunshine. You’ll want sunscreen under your nose and across the backs of your knees.

There isn’t any water along this trail. I took three liters and that may have been a little over the top. Unless the day is extremely hot two liters would be fine for most people.

Links:

A widely quoted trail handout from the Bureau of Land Management can be found here (PDF).

Julie White, writing for the website OnlyInYourState, has an enthusiastic writeup of this trail and good photographs illustrating the dramatic aspects of this hike.

NewMexicoNomad posts some great photos of the area and has an interesting introduction to the geology. Most of it focuses on the dramatic volcanic flows of the Malpais, much of that quite recent by geology standards.

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