Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Navigate / search

Tent Rocks: A Moonscape in New Mexico

Archeaological digs have revealed that the Tent Rocks area was continuously inhabited for a period of 4,000 years. During the 1300-1400s, there were several large pueblos in the area. In the Keresan language of the nearby Cochiti Pueblo people, the Tent Rocks are called Kasha-Katuwe or “white cliffs.” Visitors have described the landscape as “moon like,” “have an Oz feeling,” or even “smurfesque.” Iʼll add “meringue topping” to the list.

Tent Rocks
This surreal setting has quite the powerful past. Itʼs located on the southeast edge of the Jemez volcanic field, which has been active for fifteen million years, at the point where the Rio Grande rift collides with the Jemez lineament (fault). Add in both the Valles and Toledo calderas (land that collapsed following an eruption), and you get a unique geological mash-up.

Tent Rocks
The tuff (volcanic ash) from the eruptions, which occurred 6-7 million years ago, can be up to 1,000 feet thick. The color of the older tuff ranges from white to orangish tan, while the younger layers are cream and gray. The erosive power of wind and water have turned these layers into well… tent rocks. Any tents Iʼve erected have been messy and sprawling, so the formations remind me more of stone teepees.

Tent Rocks
Water also carved slot canyons — a photographerʼs dream landscape of contrasting light and shadow. For aspiring geologists, “Apache Tears,” pieces of glass-like brown and black obsidian, are scattered across the valley floor. (Please donʼt collect them).

Tent Rocks
This seemingly harsh environment offers an unexpected abundance of plants.

  • You can find cholla, the spiky thin cactus which can be found in 35 varieties in the Southwest.
  • Prickly pear is another cactus which has culinary value. Try a “prickly pear” Margarita while youʼre in the Southwest (this lurid pink drink is on the menu at Thunderbird Bar and Grill, located on Santa Feʼs Plaza).
  • Gooseberry bushes can be found — just know what youʼre eating before you pop it in your mouth.
  • Manzanita is a bushy plant with red bark and green leaves. It was valued by the native tribes for its medicinal properties.
  • There are several varieties of evergreen tree including juniper (which smells amazing when tossed on a campfire) and Ponderosa pine which can grow up to 235 foot tall — though the climate in New Mexico stunts its growth. Thereʼs also the Pinon pine, which produces a great little nut. You can find roasted pinons all over New Mexico in season. Try them in coffee.

Tent Rocks
Pine trees

Things To Know:

  • Tent Rocks is between Santa Fe and Albuquerque off I-25. Turn off at Hwy 22 and follow the road towards the Cochiti Pueblo. Itʼs readily marked and the road is paved so thereʼs no need for a 4×4.
  • There are two trails. The lower valley trail (Cave Loop Trail) is an easy 1.2 miles hike. However, the three-mile (round trip) upper mesa trail (Canyon Trail) is more strenuous. It gains 630 foot in elevation. Hiking shoes are recommended for either trail. The trail is part of the National Recreation Trail program.
  • There are bathroom and picnic facilities.
  • Dogs and bikes are banned.
  • The nearest place to get gas or a few groceries is at the Cochiti Pueblo. Note that, within the Pueblo, recorded imagery — including photography, sketches and painting — is forbidden.
  • The land surrounding the monument is privately owned.
  • You can visit any time of the year. Be aware of flash flooding within the slot canyons, particularly in the summer months.
  • The monument, though operated by the Bureau of Land Management, can be closed by the Cochiti Pueblo Tribal Council.

Tent Rocks

Small cave at the end of the trail

Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.



How beautiful! ‘Moonscape’ and ‘meringue topping’ are both good descriptions. I’ll add “Seuss-ish.”
Juliann recently posted..Durty Nelly’sMy Profile

Lance | Trips By Lance

I so badly wanted to visit when we were in New Mexico last week, but the federal government shutdown ruined that. Your post makes me determined to visit the next time we’re in the region.
Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..New Mexico ReflectionsMy Profile

The Duo

New Mexico is stunning… both in landscape and the dramatic skies. We hope that you can enjoy them the next time you visit. Thanks for stopping by.

Leave a comment


email (not published)


CommentLuv badge