The Story of New Mexico: The Ceja Pelon Badlands

Cleopatra's Needle #1Mesa Top Vista #3The Two Towers #2

Last April, we hiked the Ceja Pelon Badlands on another tour sponsored by the Story of New Mexico, a program offered by the Department of Continuing Education at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

The Ceja Pelon Badlands are located approximately two-and-a-half hours from Albuquerque in northwestern New Mexico (in Sandoval County) west of Cuba. One of the nine San Juan Basin Badlands, they lie in the Nacimiento sedimentary layer, which is approximately 65 to 55 million years old (the Paleocene Period). The area is composed of sandstone alternating with siltstone and shale.  The badlands have a stair-step topology with three distinct layers: the base, the bench, and the mesa top. The layers are connected by a pair of 100-feet-high winding cliff faces. Each layer has a landscape of its own.

The base layer is a true badlands: a barren landscape with very little vegetation; mazes of ridges, narrow washes, and wide-open expanses; and quite a bit of petrified wood scattered about.  The bench layer has spectacular orange-red petrified wood with one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the southwestern United States.   Some of the largest logs are over 30 feet in length with fractured sections still in alignment. Volcanic ash from massive eruptions in the San Juan Mountains enriched the coloration and details during petrification. Upon reaching the mesa top, one can see why Ceja Pelon is so aptly named. Ceja literally means “eyebrow” but is often used to describe a mesa edge, while Pelon means “bald”. This “bald mesa edge” is twisted and fractured into all sorts of winding ramparts with lots of interesting sandstone formations. Bonsai ponderosa with exposed roots seem to grow magically out of bare rock. The mesa top has a lighter colored, more subdued petrified wood in addition to superb vistas of the high mesa desert.

We left Albuquerque on an overcast, blustery, spring morning.  We drove northwest on NM 550 towards Cuba and turned south on NM 197. A short time later, we turned onto an unmaintained, rough, but passable, dirt road. After thirty minutes or more of bumping and swaying, we had arrived. With the clouds and wind, it was definitely chilly. We donned our gear and set off to explore the badlands. Since our party was composed of experienced hikers, our guide, Michael Richie, set a fast pace, which forced us to shoot on the run.

We explored the base layer and took a break for lunch. Then, we scrambled up to the next layer, the bench. We explored the bench layer thoroughly and then scrambled up to the mesa top for more exploration. As the hours passed, the overcast began to break and we were rewarded with patches of blue sky. Our hike totaled a bit over 6 miles with a total elevation change of more than 2000 feet. It was one of our most strenuous hikes, but the spectacular views made it worthwhile.

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

This entry was posted in The Story of New Mexico.