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The Story of New Mexico: The Penistaja Badlands

Doh! It's Homer!The Angel #3Swiss Cheese Rock

Last month, we visited the Penistaja Badlands. We were on another tour with the Story of New Mexico, a program offered by the Department of Continuing Education at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

Penistaja Mesa climbs to 7,205 feet (2,196.08 meters) above sea level. It is located approximately two hours from Albuquerque in northwestern New Mexico (in Sandoval County) west of the village of Cuba. It lies between Ceja Pelon Mesa (to the west) and Mesa de Cuba (to the east). Its badlands are often considered one of the nine San Juan Basin Badlands, but they are relatively unknown. They lie in the Nacimiento sedimentary layer, which is approximately 65 to 55 million years old (the Paleocene Period).

According to our guide, Michael Richie, the name comes from an attempt by the Spanish settlers to represent Native American words. In this case, it is believed that the name loosely translates as “a tree to lean against.” This is supposedly based on the fact that a trading post with a large tree once existed near this location. That’s his story anyway and, until someone else comes up with a competing theory, we’ll go with it.

We left Albuquerque on a cool, cloudy spring morning. We drove for almost two hours, until we reached the turn-off onto a graded, dirt road. After a few turns and much bumping, we had arrived.  During our drive, the weather had warmed somewhat, but the skies were still disappointingly cloud covered.

We set off to explore the badlands, which wind in and out around the mesas and buttes. In some places, the slopes towered hundreds of feet above us. The washes (canyons) twisted and turned in a rock-filled labyrinth. Petrified wood spilled down the slopes to cover the bottoms of the washes. In some places, we found huge petrified tree trunks, including one monster16+ foot stump seemingly still growing from the ground. As we hiked, the skies continued to change: cloudy to mostly cloudy to sunny and back again. The winds picked up later in the day and made it feel even cooler.

One of the highlights of Penistaja Mesa is the three, mysterious, stone cairns spaced about a half mile apart along a straight line across the very irregular mesa edge. There is no record of them in any known archaeological data base. Each cairn is over 8 feet tall with a four feet wide base. They are constructed in a mortar-less style similar to that of the ancient Anasazi pueblos. It has been speculated that they could be anything from markers for a pre-Colombian trade route to entertainment for bored Spanish sheep herders, who once herded their flocks over these lands. No one knows.

Six hours, 5+ miles, and 2,000+ feet of elevation change later, we returned to our vehicles tired, but satisfied. As we made the long drive back to Albuquerque, we looked forward to our next tour: a return to the Lybrook Badlands.

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