Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Arroyo del Tajo- Quebradas Backcountry Byway

West entrance

looking back at the east entrance

 I'd been out to the  Quebradas once before while camping over at Valley of Fires. It was early March and already too hot( at least that day) for anything more than a short hike in an anonymous canyon, and few stops to take photos. I'd been wanting to get out there again since scoping a few interesting looking canyons with maps and Google Earth this summer. It turns out my friend Doug Scott already had listed the Arroyo del Tajo box/slot on his New Mexico Slot Canyons website,but he had yet to visit. He did provide a link to Southwest Backpackers little movie of a  trip to the canyon on a very cold February day a few years back. I had been trying to get Doug to come down and meet me to do this hike,but he was busy enjoying being a grandpappy on this particular weekend.
 So, off we went this past Friday(2/12/16), Seamus, Nessie and I. Coming from the south we took the San Antonio exit( #139), cruised past the famous Owl Bar and drove 11 miles east on US 380. We turned to the north on a well maintained dirt road. After about 2 miles( the first intersection), the Backcountry Byway begins and heads off to the west. This is  a well maintained dirt road and is suitable for sedans in dry weather. The road makes several near 90 degree turns, and many more bends but is generally headed north. After about 14 miles from the start of the Byway, we crossed the Arroyo del Tajo and parked at the Geologic Tour Stop 5.

 We glanced at a  few interesting looking ,deep brown, sandstone formations and then began heading west and downstream. Unfortunately, it was another unseasonably warm day and  was already 10 o'clock, so we would be walking when the winter sun was at it's maximum power, which in this shadeless dry landscape is stronger than most folks would imagine. I learned this a long time ago while hiking on a near 70 degree January day in the Sierra de las Uvas nearer to my home in Las Cruces.

 After a narrow passage through some cliffs of sedimentary rock, the Arroyo del Tajo gradually became a wide,  shallow,gravelly, mostly monotonous arroyo through low rounded hills. There were occasional junipers which were the only, and most welcome shade.Nothing about this part of the hike would prepare anyone for our destination. Coming around one more bend, I had my first sighting of the jumble of massive granitic rocks that I knew could only be the entrance to the box. I picked up the pace even more and soon we were at the eastern entrance, which is all but invisible until we were in it. There was a small puddle of green water here,which we scrambled around easily,but I had read that when it is full, it can be easily avoided with small climb on the south side( which we used on our way out).

Hidden eastern entrance

Now we were in the box. The walls of hard igneous rock soared up close to 100 feet on either side, and provided a ringing echo of our every sound. We spied a brushy, mini-slot on the north side, and high pour offs indicated by long black stains on orange hued cliffs. There were odd, hollowed out stair step dry waterfalls as well. The canyon bottom was sand and bedrock, with no vegetation whatsoever. This made sense for even as it approached the noon hour, it remained quite dark at the very floor of the slot.

All too quickly we were back out in the sun after this cool retreat.The western entrance, was not going to be manageable with dogs, so we climbed out on an easy route on the south side.
 We were now headed downstream looking for some pictographs. The canyon walls were now a sedimentary boulder conglomerate, a similar rock type that is prevalent along the Rio Grande  back in Dona Ana County where I do the majority of my desert exploring. There were some high cliffs in a big bend, and nearby on the opposite side, we found the disappearing pictographs. There were also many alcoves in rock, including a couple that were deep and dark enough to call caves, one of which Seamus seemed bent on exploring. This did not seem like a good idea at all to the human in our pack, so we  headed back upstream, after passing another unappealing pool of water with a headless jackrabbit partially submerged in it.

 Back in the cool of the box canyon, we snacked and drank and listened  to the ravens talking and flapping out in the bright sun.  On the way out I admired the geologic contact where the beds of sedimentary rock were pushed back and tilted upward when the pluton was emplaced.We took our time on the way back, stopping at almost every available juniper. There was a ruin of a small stone cabin,but it hardly seemed like a place for a homestead, so I am not sure what its purpose was.We were back at the truck before 2 PM, all in good shape and spirits.

 Note: Although this hike was only about 5 1/2  to six miles roundtrip,the  box canyon  can be reached by a much shorter hike from the southeast side by parking at a windmill and tank( which are reached by a good dirt road on the south side of the Byway) and then proceeding on some old tracks down to the Arroyo del Tajo.

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