The Story of New Mexico: The San Jose Badlands

The MadonnaThe MadonnaSan Jose Vista #15

A couple of weekends ago, we hiked the San Jose Badlands. The occasion was our seventh tour with the Story of New Mexico, a program offered by the Department of Continuing Education at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

The San Jose Badlands are located approximately two hours from Albuquerque in northwestern New Mexico (in Rio Arriba County) north of Cuba. One of the nine San Juan Basin Badlands, they lie in the youngest of the San Juan Basin’s 18 sedimentary layers. Approximately 54 million years old, the area is composed of softer siltstone and shale. Hoodoos are less numerous than in other San Juan Basin Badlands, however, the erosion patterns and color palette of the layered sedimentary rock provides plenty of visual interest.

We left Albuquerque on a cool, sunny, winter morning and drove for almost an hour-and-a-half, until we reached Cuba and turned north. After another 20 minutes of driving, we turned onto a rutted dirt road and drove another 15 minutes to a parking area near a natural gas well. Although we had beautiful skies and moderate temperatures, the forecast was for increasing clouds and high winds. We could see high cirrus clouds streaming into the area and the breeze was already noticeable.

From the parking area, we could see beautifully colored ridges and formations north and west of us. We scrambled over a steep, high ridge and the true scope of the San Jose Badlands was revealed to us. We hiked for hours along the base of the towering mountains and ridges, weaving in and out of the eroded face. Each turn revealed new vistas. Although our path was over relatively level ground, it was strewn with jagged fist-sized chunks of lava, which made it necessary to constantly watch our footing. After a couple of hours we broke for lunch in a small sheltered canyon.

We continued our hike until we reached a vantage point where we could look out over the valley to the Continental Divide in the distance. After a few more hours, the weather had changed for the worse. The winds had increased and the skies were almost totally socked in by featureless gray clouds. It was time to return to our vehicle.

Rather than reverse the winding path that had brought us to our current position, we decided to take a more-or-less straight line path back to the parking area. We hiked up and down through rough terrain covered in sage, chamisa, and pinon trees. Viewed from above our path would look like a drunkard’s walk: ahead a few steps and turn to right or left; ahead a few more steps and make another turn; repeat. Our route crossed innumerable streams and many low (i.e., wet) spots. Some could be jumped; some we could go around; others had to be forded. Our boots got heavier and heavier as they became caked with mud. Finally, we reached the parking area. We had learned a very important lesson: Due to bushwhacking, our straight-line path was anything but and undoubtedly saved very little distance or time compared to our original route. Nevertheless, it was a great hike!

We have now visited five of the nine San Juan Badlands. The San Jose Badlands were probably the most colorful one to date. We hope to visit the remaining four badlands later this year.

We have posted a gallery of photos from the tour: The San Jose Badlands. Enjoy!

This entry was posted in The Story of New Mexico.

One Comment

  1. Eric Parker April 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    I had to laugh when I read the blog and your description of your route back to the car. I learned the same thing when I was touring the state with my grandfather decades ago: a straight line almost never is.