Geology of the Jemez Area, Chapter 13: The Holocene

The previous chapter may be found here.

In this chapter, we emerge from deep time into the Holocene, the age of historic Man.
  1. Humans settle the Jemez
    1. Paleoindians
    2. Archaic and Ancestral Puebloans
      1. Petroglyphs
      2. Obsidian
    3. The arrival of the Spanish
    4. The modern era
      1. Cattle ranching
      2. Logging
      3. Mining
      4. Los Alamos
      5. Geothermal prospecting
  2. The Jemez Today
    1. The Valles Caldera National Preserve
    2. Bandelier National Monument
    3. Kashe-Katuwe National Monument
    4. Santa Fe National Forest
      1. Forest Road 289 (Dome Road)
      2. Forest Road 36
      3. State Road 290/Forest Road 10
      4. Forest Road 266
      5. State Road 485/Forest Road 376
      6. State Road 126
      7. Forest Road 100
      8. Forest Road 144 (Thirtyone Mile Road)
    5. Hazards
      1. Lightning
      2. Flash flooding
      3. Water and sunshine
      4. Critters
      5. Volcanic Activity
  3. Geological History Animations
  4. Comments

Humans settle the Jemez

Road to
          Kiatsukwa ruins
Old road to Kiatsukwa Ruins

We do not know exactly when the first humans settled in the Jemez area. Humans, Homo sapiens, are a relatively young species; the genus Homo is thought to have emerged perhaps 2.8 million years ago, close to the start of the Quaternary, and Homo sapiens is perhaps 200,000 years old. The first humans to cross over the Bering Straits into North America arrived somewhere between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago. The oldest human artifacts in New Mexico, discovered at Clovis, are around 13,500 years old, or near the start of the Holocene.

Paleoindians

The oldest archaeological sites in the Jemez date back about 11,000 years and consist of obsidian quarry sites and isolated structures called field houses. These reflect a culture that was still largely a hunter-gatherer culture that characteristically hunted big game. At this time, there was a significant population of megafauna, or large mammals, such as mammoths, musk oxen, mastodons, camels, and their predators: lions and saber-tooth tigers. The megafauna abruptly disappeared around 10,900 B.C. for reasons still not agreed among archaeologists, though overhunting by Paleoindians is widely thought to have played an important role.

Among the last of the Paleoindians was the Cody culture, which hunted along the major rivers of New Mexico around 7500 B.C. Climate change drove the Cody out of the area within two millennia.

Archaic and Ancestral Puebloans

The Archaic people arrived on the Rio Grande around 5500 BC and were the first agricultural culture of New Mexico. The earliest flint tool found in the Cerro Pedernal region is characteristic of the Bajada Phase, 4800 to 3200 B.C. Maize (Indian corn) appeared around 2100 B.C. and was the major crop by 500 A.D. Beans and squash may have arrived around 1000 B.C., while cotton became a crop around 400 A.D. These were farmed using dry land farming methods that relied on rainfall, which is more abundant at higher elevations.

Thus, by 1150 CE, the first permanent communities began to be established in the Jemez, by what are now known as the Ancestral Puebloans. (The older term "Anasazi" is considered pejorative by the modern Pueblo peoples and its use is deprecated.)  These settlers likely included the principal ancestors of the Keresian peoples, who now live in the southern Jemez pueblos of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Zia, and Santa Ana, as well as the more distant pueblos of Acoma and Laguna. The remains of their settlements are found throughout the periphery of the Jemez and are particularly well known at Bandelier and Puye Cliffs. No large settlements are found within the Valles caldera itself, which can become very cold in the winter due to its topography forming a natural trap for cold air. In addition to making large permanent settlements, the Ancestral Puebloans produced pottery, of a type archaeologists describe as Red Mesa black-on-white.

Red Mesa black-on-white pottery
Red Mesa black-on-white storage jar. Wikimedia Commons

Although some of the Ancestral Puebloans adopted ak-chin farming, which utilizes runoff to water fields, the only culture of this period to adopt true irrigation was the Chacoan, which flourished between 1020 and 1125 A.D. in the region northwest of the Jemez. The Chacoan civilization constructed sophisticated irrigation systems and build large masonry cities, but the civilization abruptly collapsed around 1130 A.D. Possible causes include drought or civil war; infant mortality appears to have been nearly twice as great in the outlying areas as in the central cities, pointing to increasing social stratification. Regardless of the actual cause, the collapse of the Chacoan civilization seems to have left the ancestral Puebloans with a deep distrust of attempts to control nature.

The migration of the survivors of the disaster to higher elevations also produced conflict, and may account for the tendency of pueblos in the Jemez to be located atop more easily defended mesas than in the more fertile valleys. This period, from about 1130 AD to 1325 AD, is known as the Coalition period and is characterized by the appearance of new patterns of pottery. The Chacoans may have been the principal ancestors of the Tewa or Tano peoples, who today live in the Rio Grande Valley north of Santa Fe at the pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, and Tesuque.

Map of prehistoric Jemez ruins

Map of multiple dwelling Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Jemez

The oldest settlements on the Pajarito Plateau date back to about the 13th century and were relatively small and located mostly at altitudes below 6800' (2000m). Each settlement had ten to twelve rooms arranged in two rows, usually laid out north to south. Only two or three rooms had fire pits, and the others may have been for storage. Perhaps two or three families occupied each settlement. The construction was tuff blocks at the bottom of the walls, often giving way to packed adobe towards the top, Scores of such ruins are found on the larger mesas, but archaeologists believe only a few were occupied at any given time.

Archaeologists refer to the period from about 1325 AD to 1600 AD as the Classical Period. The population began gathering into larger settlements the 15th century, and by the end of that century there were a number of much larger population centers. One of these is Kiatsukwa Pueblo ruins, located near 35 44.000N 106 36.971W. This is easily accessible from Forest Road 10, but if you choose to visit, be extremely respectful of the area, disturb nothing, and take no samples (even of natural rocks.) The ruins are strictly protected under the Antiquities Act.

Note the many large branches laid deliberately along the road to the ruins. This was likely done to control erosion along the road and allow vegetation to grow back, but the branches also discourage casual visitors to the ruins.

Road to
          Kiatsukwa ruins
Old road to Kiatsukwa Ruins

Large boulders have also been placed at the junction with Forest Road 10 to block vehicular movement. I repeat: If you visit, take only photographs, and do not disturb the ruins in any way.

The ruins are largely unexcavated and consist of mounds of roughly shaped blocks of Bandelier Tuff. The site was occupied between 1400 and 1500 A.D. and briefly reoccupied in the early 1600s.

Kiatsukwa ruins

Kiatsukwa ruins
Kiatsukwa Ruins

The pueblo numbered about 400 persons at its peak, with some buildings having three levels. The valley here is underlain by El Cajete Pumice, which seems to have been favored by the Ancestral Puebloans for its fertility and capacity to hold water. The pumice is evident in the soil along the road.

Kiatsukwa
          exposures of El Cajete Pumice
Kiatsukwa Ruins

Another important ruin is Otowi, located in Pueblo Canyon east of Los Alamos. This ruin is easily viewed from the Clinton P. Anderson Overlook, being located directly to the north on a ridge on the canyon floor.

Otowi Ruins
Otowi Ruins. Looking north from 35 52.386N 106 14.006W

This ruin is completely unexcavated and likely to remain so, since it is on tribal lands of the descendants of the people who lived here. However, the ground has a characteristic appearance in the satellite photograph that is partially discernible at ground level.

Tsankawi is the site of another large unexcavated ruin.

Tsankawi ruins

Eastern edge of Tsankawi ruins. 35 51.705W 106 12.895W

There are a number of archaeological sites around the world that have been left deliberately unexcavated like this. In some cases, it is out of respect for the feelings of identifiable descendants of the peoples of the ruins who are leery of having their ancestors’ ancient homes poked around. But in other cases, it is because the ruins are typical of a culture that has already been much studied, and are being left unexcavated against the day when better methods of excavation are invented. In the case of Tsanwaki, I suspect both reasons apply.

I also noticed that the visible edge of the ruins on the ground are well within the area that looks visibly disturbed on satellite. I have no ready explanation.

Within the ancient walls are at least two pits that are likely unexcavated kivas.

Kiva
          ruins

Kivas at Tsankawi. 35 51.727W 106 12.930W

Kivas were the underground ceremonial spaces of the Ancestral Pueblo People. The classical kiva is a round room, roofed over, with a small pit on the north side (a sipapu) represented the doorway from which the first humans emerged from the underworld. Kivas are interpreted by some archeologists as models of the Universe, where heaven, earth and the underworld meet — as with temples in many ancient cultures.

In addition to walled villages and individual field houses, the Ancestral Pueblo People excavated caveate rooms in cliffs of the relatively soft tuff of the Bandelier Formation.

Here is a caveate room with a kind of atrium excavated along the trail to the top of Tsankawi Mesa.

Caveate room with atrium

Caveate room with atrium at Tsankawi. 35 51.673N 106 13.134W

The shape of the atrium appears to have been largely determined by natural jointing in the rock, but the faces were probably smoothed off and the row of holes then excavated to seat timbers supporting a light roof. The opening to the left is into a caveate room, which likely started as a natural cavity in the rock that was further excavated by the Ancestral Puebloans. These people came to the area in the 15th century and were speakers of the Tewa language, rather than the Keres language of the settlements in the main section of Bandelier National Monument to the southwest.

The south side of Los Alamos Mesa, north of Tsankawi, shows numerous caveate rooms.

Caveate rooms on Los Alamos Mesa

Caveate rooms on south side of Los Alamos Mesa. Looking north from 35 51.950N 106 13.560W

The caveate rooms are located right at the top of the talus slope below the vertical cliffs. They probably started as small natural cavities in the rock, but were greatly enlarged by the Ancestral Pueblo People. There are also what appear to be rows of pits suitable for inserting beams to support a light roof.

The area was probably wetter in the 15th century. There is abundant archeological evidence that the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned many settlements in what are now quite dry areas of the Southwest at about this time and moved to the valleys of the Rio Grande and its major tributaries, where their descendants live today.

The establishment of relatively large settlements did not end the use of field houses. Over one hundred field houses have been found in the Frijoles quadrangle alone, which takes in most of Banderlier National Monument and the LANL test ranges to the north.

Trails

Other traces of early humans in the Jemez include trails or steps cut into the relatively soft tuff of the Bandelier Formation. There are a pair of likely prehistoric steps in the tuff above the Clinton P. Anderson Overlook.

Kiatsukwa
          exposures of El Cajete Pumice
Prehistoric steps. Near 35.872N 106.234W

This area saw some modern traffic in the 1940s, when the old road to Los Alamos made switchbacks up the nearby mesa face. However, the new road is further away, and it it unlikely these are modern traces.

There are prehistoric trails carved deeply into the Bandelier Tuff in several locations.

Kiatsukwa
          exposures of El Cajete Pumice
Prehistoric trail on Potrillo Mesa. Near 35.795N 106.221W

This is located on Potrillo Mesa south of White Rock and is now used by the occasional modern hiker. Similar trails are prominent in the Tsankawi section of Bandelier National Monument.

Trail on Tsankawi mesa

Prehistoric trail at Tsankawi. 35 51.732N 106 13.044W

The desert varnish visible in the trail shows its antiquity. The fact that the desert varnish has not been worn away shows that most modern tourists walk on the higher ground around the trail rather that in the trail. This seems most natural.

So why, then, did the Native Pueblo Peoples even create this trail?

Petroglyphs

Among the traces left by the Ancestral Pueblo People are petroglyphs. These are markings etched into stone, found scattered throughout the southwestern United States. A large number of petroglyphs are found on the eastern escarpment of the Cerros del Rio near the village of La Cieneguilla.

La Cieneguilla petroglyphs. 35.605N 106.126W

The petroglyphs in this area are on hawaiite that has a thick weathering film, known as desert varnish. When the surface is pounded with a heavy tool, the desert varnish is removed and the lighter rock beneath exposed. Such petroglyphs can be roughly dated from the extent to which fresh desert varnish has begun to form over the petroglyphs, and this establishes that the petroglyphs were etched by Ancestral Puebloans.

I know little about petroglyph iconography. But then, so do archaeologists, who have a number of conflicting notions about their significance. For example, the spiral pattern seen in the last photograph is often interpreted as a representation of the sun, but it has also been interpreted as a representation of water or of migration.

I have seen petroglyphs throughout the Jemez area, including petroglyphs carved on Bandelier Tuff and in Mesozoic sedimentary rock. Basalt seems favored but not decisively so. Some petroglyphs are found close to ancient settlements, but I’ve also seen petroglyphs in areas far from any known settlement, including White Rock Canyon (map) and the Hagan basin (map)

Here’s one where I can at least put a name to some of the iconography.

The figure at center with the head appendages (probably representing feathers) is Kokopelli, a fertility deity shared across several native American cultures. Kokopelli may have originally represented a kind of wandering priest whose flute was a symbol that he came in peace. Kokopelli has been thoroughly commercialized in the modern American Southwest, which I find vaguely regrettable.

Petroglyphs are found at several locations along the west rim of White Rock Canyon. Some are likely ancient Native American rock art:

Native
        American rock art

and some are not.

Rock art

The petroglyph in the first photograph not only shows an authentic ancient pattern, but it also shows a thin layer of desert varnish reflecting  its antiquity. This is not present on the modern petroglyph.

The nearest known ancient ruins to these petroglyphs are at Tshirege and Navawi. Neither ruin has been excavated or is accessible to casual visitors.

Petroglyphs of a subtly different character are found northwest of Abiquiu.

Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs at Red Wash Canyon northwest of Abiquiu. 36 14.518N 106 22.877W

Obsidian

The Jemez was an important center for the ancient obsidian trade, with the obsidian being used to fashion spear heads and other tools. Obsidian from the Jemez was traded throughout the Southwest, and may have been transported as far as Ohio or Mesoamerica. Important ancient obsidian quarries have been identified at Cerro del Medio, El Rechuelos, the Rabbit Mountain debris flows, Bear Springs, and possibly Paliza Canyon.

While hiking around Cerro la Jara close to the Valles Preserve vistors' center, I came across what is likely an ancient tool fashioning site.

Obsidian

This is a location on the north side of the dome, showing a scattering of obsidian chips on the ground. As we've seen, obsidian and rhyolite form from the same kind of of lava and are often interbedded, but these are isolated chips; the bedrock here is all rhyolite, not obsidian; and these chips are freshly broken, not rounded clasts one would expect if they had eroded out of the local rock. That makes it a fair guess that is this is a toolmaking site. It is common for prehistoric quarries and tool manufacturing sites to be at separate locations. I was careful not to disturb it, beyond placing a quarter on the spot to provide scale for my photograph and then removing it.

The arrival of the Spanish

The first Spanish arrived in the New Mexico area around 1540, but for decades the area remained largely unknown to Europeans. In 1598, King Phillip II of Spain authorized Juan de Oñate to organize a new Spanish province in what is now New Mexico. Oñate crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso and established his headquarters near the confluence of the Rio Chama and Rio Grande south of Black Mesa, at the pueblo of Ohkay Oweenge. Oñate named his new capital San Juan de los Caballeros. At this time, there were about 81 major pueblos and a population of about 100,000 Puebloan people. Sixty years later, there were 31 pueblos with a population of 15,000. The catastrophic decline in population has been attributed to epidemic diseases unwittingly introduced by the Spanish, mistreatment of the Puebloans, raids by migratory tribes who had acquired horses, and drought.

The Spanish reintroduced irrigation, forgotten since the time of the Chacoans, and the acequia or community irrigation canal became the hallmark of Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. The carrying capacity of the land was not large, even with irrigation, and the Hispanics of northern New Mexico developed a culture of small communities at favorable locations that shared water rights and grazing lands for their cattle. One such community is Canones.

Canones

The northern tip of Polvadera Mesa gives a magnificent view of the Canones Creek valley.

Canones area seen from Polvadera Mesa

Canones area from northern Polvadera Mesa. 36 09.723N 106 25.816W

At left in the middle distance is Pueblo Mesa. Beyond is the sloping ground north of Cerro Pedernal, with the cliffs of Mesa Alta on the skyline. The village of Cañones lies in the valley left of center, with a glimmer of Abiquiu Reservoir in the distance. Behind and to the right of Cañones is Cañones Mesa, which merges with the El Alto Plateau at right. The canyon at the bottom right of the panorama is Polvadera Canyon.

Pueblo Mesa has the old Ancestral Pueblo People ruins of Tsi’pinouinge atop it. This appears on the panorama as a tan patch of clear ground on the right side of the first frame. I’m afraid my camera can’t do it justice. Through my binoculars, I could make out piles of stone blocks covering this area, and a low cliff running through the area that appeared to have doors and post holes excavated in it. There is also some ruined walls further south (left), where a trail comes up to the mesa top. I could not make out the shapes of buildings and kivas from this angle that are visible on satellite.

The satellite photo appears to show a single kiva far from the village. I’m not sure what to make of this, unless this was an unusually favorable site for excavation using simple tools.

The name, Tsi’pinouinge, means "village of the flaking stone", referring to the many quarries in the Pedernal Chert nearby. Cerro Pedernal is itself known as Tsi'pin ("flaking stone") or possibly Tzi'iping ("pointed mountain'). This pueblo was the largest and northernmost of all the pueblos of the Classical Period, occupied from 1200 to 1325 AD. It had up to 400 rooms, 16 kivas, and a central plaza. After it was abandoned, the area was occupied only by nomadic Utes until the arrival of the Spanish.

Cañones is a Hispanic village of about 113 persons. Its origins trace back to 1766, when Juan Pablo Martín Serrano was awarded the Polvadera Grant. Serrano was a a wealthy military veteran with a large family, and established a seasonal rancho in the canyon, raising livestock, farming the canyon bottom, and trading with the Utes. Permanent settlement seems to have begun with Juan Bautista Valdez, who bought a grant at the present location of Cañones in 1807.

Cañones is typical of the small Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico, which are sustained by cattle and sheep ranching and farming. Anthropologists Paul Kutsche and John R. Van Ness have contrasted the Hispanic culture south of the Jemez, which they name the Rio Abajo, from the Hispanic culture north of the Jermez, which they name the Rio Arriba. The Rio Abajo tradition is characterized by large individual land grants, social stratification (patrón and peón) and large-scale sheep herding, while the Rio Arriba tradition, of which Cañones is an example, is characterized by communal land grants, small economies, campanilismo (community spirit), and a fair degree of social equality. An important institution of communities like Cañones is the acequias, or irrigation ditch, which provides abundant irrigation to the canyon bottom: Cañones and Polvadera Creeks provides an ample 33 acre-feet per year of water.

The Spanish community grant or merced came with an obligation to improve and defend the land, or it reverted to the government. Land was divided between house plots, irrigable plots of a few acres measured by frontage on along the stream, and common land for grazing and gathering food and firewood. The former two categories could be privately owned and sold, but the common land was shared by the community, whose members held a usufruct, or use right, to the common land. This system worked reasonably well for a community engaged in subsistence farming.

The surrounding land can support about one cow per 126 acres at lower elevations, one cow to twelve acres in the best locations at middle elevations, and one cow to 48 acres at higher elevations. Sheet irrigation is used to increase the carrying capacity of pasturage in the immediate area of the village. The frost-free period runs only from around May 24 to September 26, making fruit cultivation and gardening a hit or miss proposition.

The town gained temporary fame in 1966, when the state closed the one-room school and ordered the children to attend school in Coyote, which at the time meant busing the students several miles over a very bad road. The parents refused en masse to send their children to school in Coyote, and the subsequent legal battle seems to have revolved around the issue of whether the parents were acting on legitimate concerns for their children's safety or were using the children to pressure the state into building a better road into the community. The upshot is that the parents were fined for truancy, but the village now has an acceptable paved road.

The residents of Cañones value their privacy; geologists familiar with the area and culture recommend that, if you wish to visit Tsi’pinouinge (which requires a permit from the Coyote ranger station), you should approach the area via a trail from near the point where I took this photograph rather than through Cañones. Please note that I have not hiked this trail and cannot guarantee that I have correctly identified the trailhead.

Chimayo

The Spanish culture of northern New Mexico is steeped in Catholicism, and local churches and sanctuaries are important historical landmarks. One such is El Santuario de Chimayo, which one New Mexico State Historian has described as "no doubt the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States." A small chapel was built here in 1810 by Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of the Penitentes and probably a devotee of the Christ of Esquipulas, a site in Guatemala where the clay is believed to have healing powers. The present chapel was built by 1816 and has become a pilgrimate site for Catholics during Holy Week.

Chimayo

Canones area from northern Polvadera Mesa. 36 09.723N 106 25.816W

According to legend, the sanctuary marks the site where a buried crucifix was discovered sometime in the 18th century. Accounts vary as to who found the crucifix and under what circumstances. A small room within the sanctuary (el pocito) contains a round pit containing the sand in which the crucifix was found, which is thought to have curative powers. It is traditional for Catholics seeking blessings to walk long distances to the sanctuary and take a small amount of the tierra bendita, "blessed earth."

The modern era

The Mexican War of 1847 transferred sovereignty over New Mexico to the United States. However, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave U.S. citizenship to those New Mexicans who chose not to emigrate to Mexico and bound the United States to recognize the land grants made by the Spanish viceroy or his governors that had continued through the Mexican era. Existing water law was initially left intact, and the institution of the acequia has been little disturbed since 1847 and remains in place in many of the villages of northern New Mexico to the present day.

The recognition of existing land grants in 1847 still leaves its mark on modern maps, which often show grant boundaries. Grant boundaries are often also marked by road signs. The Valles Preserve is marked as Baca Location 2 on some older maps, hearkening back to the time when the Baca family owned the land as a former land grant.

My own home in White Rock is located on the former Ramon Vigil Grant, which has an interesting and murky history. This grant was originally awarded to Pedro Sanchez in 1742, who allegedly used forged documents to petition for the grant. The White Rock area was claimed by the San Ildefonso Pueblo as grazing commons, but the pueblo could produce no documents to support their claim, and it became part of the Pedro Sanchez grant. In 1765, the Spanish governor of New Mexico declared the grant abandoned and ordered it to revert to San Ildefonso. However, in 1851, Antonio Sanchez appeared before the Alcalde (municipal magistrate) for San Ildefonso, claimed to be a descendant of Pedro Sanchez, and sold his claim to the land to Ramon Vigil. With the arrival of the U.S. Surveyor-General at the end of 1854, Vigil petitioned for a "good title" to the land, which was awarded in 1860 in spite of key documents being missing or likely forged.

Some grants remain largely intact even to the present day. This is particularly true of land grants controlled by native American pueblos, but the Merced del Pueblo de Abiquiu grant, originally awarded to a community of genízaros (Hispanicized Native Americans) around 1750, also remains intact. The grant takes in most of northern El Alto Mesa, and tourists driving in this area will find themselves restricted to roadways. But they will also find the area lovingly maintained, particularly in comparison with the nearby National Forest lands.

The AT&SF Railroad was completed to Santa Fe by 9 February 1880. The "Chili" line became the closest railway to the Jemez, connecting Santa Fe with Denver on 8 January 1887. The line ran from Santa Fe to Buckman, turning north along the Rio Grande and crossing the river at Otowi. From there the line ran to Espanola, Embudo, and points further north.

The arrival of the railroad accelerated contact between Anglos and Hispanics and native Americans, and also led to increased friction. Different legal traditions were a particular source of difficulty. Some disputes over land grant boundaries continue to the present day. But some of the thorniest disputes came over the issue of partition. With the arrival of the railroad, livestock raised in New Mexico could be shipped to distant and eager markets, and the grazing land held communally by small Hispanic villages suddenly jumped in value. Under the old customs, ownership of this land was nonpartible; that is, one could sell the right to share in the use of this land to a new owner, but the land itself could not be divided up and portions sold. American law had always viewed land as partible, and conflicts arose when Anglo purchasers thought they were purchasing exclusive use of a tract of ground and Hispanic sellers thought they were selling the right to share in the use of the land. American courts tended to side with the American purchasers, which produced lasting bitterness in the Hispanic community.

However, much of the Hispanic community was able to adjust to American legal and political traditions, and today Hispanics hold a substantial fraction of state and local political offices. Native Americans have not fared as well, in part because they now make up less than 10% of the population, and in part because of the greater cultural gap between native Americans and Anglos compared with the cultural gap between Hispanics and Anglos.

The area north and west of the Ramon Vigil Grant was opened up for homesteading after being surveyed by the Surveyor-General. Both Hispanic and Anglo settlers established homesteads on the Pajarito Plateau.

Cattle ranching

Cattle ranching plays a significant role in the history of the Jemez area, and cattle grazing on National Forest lands remain a part of the Jemez experience. The Valles preserve is still a working cattle ranch, and historical buildings from the ranch days continue in use by Preserve staff.

Baca ranch
          headquarters

Old ranch headquarters. 35 51.877N 106 31.022W


Valles
          guest lodge, "The Octagon"

The Octagon

The building in the second photograph has an octagonal floor plan and was apparently used as a guest lodge.

Cattle grazing on most National Forest lands is by permit based on carrying capacity. The hiker will encounter cattle in most of the more fertile parts of the National Forest areas of the Jemez.

Moopaved with concrete
A mooving sight.

In my experience, most such small herds are mixed steers and cows (with calves at the right time of year.) It is well to remember that even cows can be aggressive if provoked badly enough, and that these animals represent considerable wealth to their owners. Treat them with due respect.

Logging

During the early part of the 20th century, much of the Jemez was opened to logging, which continues (on a much reduced scale) to the present day. Logging was particularly extensive in the Valles caldera in the 1960s, including in the area around Redondito.

Logging roads east of Redondito

Logging roads east of Redondito. Looking southeast from 35 54.294N 106 33.224W

The angle of the sun highlights the rows of logging roads on the peak.  Most of the old roads in the caldera are now overgrown, but they make an effective network of trails for hikers and mountain bicyclists. However, the roads shown in this photograph are off-limits, as they are in the cultural exclusion zone around Redondito and Redondo Peak, established out of respect for native American beliefs.

Logging brought with it an emphasis on fighting forest fires. It took decades to recognize that this could be counterproductive, by allowing undergrowth and forest litter to build up to the point where fire potential became explosive. Fires in such forests tend to be hot fires that reach the crowns of the trees, with devastating effect. We now have a better understanding of how fire can renew wild lands, burning out excess undergrowth and thinning tree seedlings.

Here’s what a healthy ponderosa forest is supposed to look like.

ponderosa forest

The trees are widely spaced and surrounded by grassland. This is what you get if there are frequent “cool” ground fires to cut down the number of ponderosa saplings and promote the growth of grass.

With improved understanding of the role of fire, the Forest Service regularly carries out prescribed burns of selected areas of national forest. One such burn went out of control in May 2000, becoming the devastating Cerro Grande fire which destroyed 48,000 acres (190 km) of forest and over 400 homes in Los Alamos. The decision to carry out the prescribed burn was controversial, since spring is the windy season in the Jemez and the area was bone-dry. However, the Forest Service was concerned that the Cerro Grande area was a tinderbox that could catch fire from lightning strikes at any time as an uncontrolled burn, and took the gamble of risking a preemptive controlled burn -- a gamble that was lost.

Mining

Mining has played an important role in the history of the Jemez. We have already learned about gold mining in connection with the Bland Monzonite. But mining of copper took place even earlier, and mining of pumice continues to the present day.

The mining industry distinguished between mines, quarries, and borrow pits. A borrow pit is an open pit where gravel and other unconsolidated material is removed for use in construction, while a quarry is an open pit where solid rock (rather than any ore it contains) is mined for use as dimension stone. Any excavation for extracting specific ores or other minerals is a mine.

Copper mining likely dates back to the time of the Spanish conquistadores, and copper ores were worked in the Shinarump Formation near Cuba and in Canyon del Cobre ("Copper Canyon") or in the Abo and Yeso Formations in Canon de San Diego. Of these, only the Nacimiento mine has been worked in modern times.

The mine has been worked since at least the 19th century, originally by adits (horizontal tunnels) in the copper-bearing beds. These were shut down during the First World War, due to the wartime labor shortage, and never reopened. Open-pit mining began in the 1960s and continued to 1975, when rich new copper deposits in South America began to be mined and drove the worldwide price of copper so low that the Nacimiento mine could not longer be profitably worked.

In 1984, an attempt was made to extract the ore by in-situ leaching using a solution of sulfuric acid. However, the method proved uneconomical. By then some 25,000 gallons of sulfuric acid had been pumped underground. This posed a serious environmental hazard, and in 2007 the Forest Service began remediation, flushing fresh water through the ore body to remove the acid waste and processing it in a series of treatment ponds on the site. The water returned to the watershed is apparently so cleaned up that it meets drinking water standards.

The treatment ponds begin with an anaerobic pond, filled with boulders, in which alcohol is added to feed anaerobic bacteria. The bacteria convert the sulfuric acid in the leach water to hydrogen sulfide, which precipitates out most of the metal contaminants but gives a distinct stench to the area.

Most copper mines consist of copper sulfides deposited by hydrothermal activity, with a rich cap of copper carbonate minerals (green malachite and blue azurite) formed by oxidation of the upper part of the ore body. The copper mines of the Jemez area are unusual in that the copper minerals were deposited by replacement of organic matter. The copper was leached from overlying formations by groundwater, which then percolated through the underlying sandstone. The copper replaced the organic matter in the sandstone as chalcocite, Cu2S, along with minor amounts of copper carbonates.

Shinarump copper
          mineralization

Copper mineralization at Nacimiento Mine. 35 59.583N 106 53.815W

This is a large fragment of petrified wood surrounded by malachite exposed on the east face of the Nacimiento Mine. The main ore body must have been spectacular. The green color is from malachite, while the petrified wood contains a variable amount of black chalcocite. Unfortunately, this can be hard to distinguish from the carbon of the original wood.

Another example:

Copper
          mineralization at the Nacimiento Mine

Here is a bit of petrified wood showing copper mineralization from the tailings dump.

Petrified wood from
          Nacimiento Mine

It’s not a large fragment, but in addition to having beautifully preserved grain, you can see that there is some kind of membrane or layer cutting across the grain at intervals of a few millimeters. I am not paleobotanist enough to tell you the significance of this, alas. The fragment is also heavy, suggesting that there is considerable replacement of carbon by chalcophile.

Even the main ore body at the Nacimiento Mine was mostly quartz sandstone. Rock from the ore body was milled fine, then the gangue (waste rock) was separated from the ore to produce copper concentrate suitable to be shipped out for refining. This was done by flotation, in which the finely ground mixture of ore and gangue is placed in a tank of water through which air is bubbled. Chalcocite grains readily cling to the bubbles and are floated to the top of the tank, where they are skimmed off and dried as copper ore concentrate. Because much of the ore at the Nacimiento Mine occurs as copper carbonates, special surfactants were developed that, when added to the water in the tank, caused carbonate mineral grains to cling to the bubbles as well, allowing both ore minerals to be separated from the gangue in one operation.

Ghost Towns

The native Americans were not the only ones to leave ruined settlements in the Jemez area. Ghost towns, most often dating from around the start of the 20th century, are found scattered throughout the region.

Traces of the smaller ghost towns may be nothing more than a cluster of old deciduous trees and some old foundation stones, as at the ghost town of Waldo in the Hagan Basin south of the Jemez.

Waldo

Waldo. 35 26.865N 106 08.553W

And now you have the answer to the question that has been puzzled over by millions: Where’s Waldo?

Los Alamos

The largest city in the Jemez came into existence quite abruptly in 1943, on the site of a former boys' school on the Pajarito Plateau. Ashley Pond had purchased the old Ramon Vigil Grant and the Los Alamos Ranch and set the school in 1916, turning management over to by A.J. Connell after 1918. The school emphasized rigorous academic preparation for college, physical activity (including wearing shorts and sleeping in screened porches year-round) and strict discipline.

Fuller Lodge was part of the school complex and is now the oldest building in Los Alamos still in use.

Fuller Lodge

Fuller Lodge. 35 52.921N 106 18.161W

Across from Fuller Lodge is Ashley Pond, a small pond that has since been enlarged and developed into a large park. The pond has its own population of somewhat aggressive ducks and geese.

The school was closed during the Second World War to make way for a secret laboratory for developing the atomic bomb. The homesteaders on the Pajarito Plateau also found their land condemned by the government, and while all were entitled to some compensation, several found their entire compensation seized to pay back taxes.

After the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to ending the war, the laboratory continued research in nuclear energy, eventually becoming a permanent establishment and the major employer of town  of Los Alamos. It remains so today.

Geothermal prospecting

Because there is obviously hot rock not far below the surface here, exploratory geothermal drilling was done in the Jemez during the 1980s. The Baca #1 well was drilled near the road north of Sulfur Springs.

Baca #1
          well pad

Baca #1 well pad. 35.909N 106.612W

The geothermal potential turned out not to be great enough for profitable exploitation, but the drilling contributed significantly to our understanding of the geology of the Valles caldera.

The Jemez Today

Relief map of the Jemez
Digital relief map of the Jemez area. ©2015 Kent G. Budge

The Jemez Mountains are still largely undeveloped, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, there is a major paved highway (NM 4) through the heart of the Jemez and a loop of paved highways around the periphery of the Jemez. The mountains also have a good network of forest roads. While these are gravel roads, the most important are well-maintained and suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather.

The entire Jemez area has been extensively mapped by geologists, and most of the geologic maps are available online from the New Mexico Bureau of Mining and Mineral Resources. Geologic maps are generally based on a topographic map of the mapped area, but show locations of rock formations, faults, and other geological features.  These maps can be invaluable for the serious geology enthusiast visiting an area.

Perhaps the most useful resource for the geology tourist is the extensive sets of road logs for the Jemez area. A road log is a prescribed route with odometer mileages describing geological features along the route. These are best (and most safely!) used by a driver and co-driver. The vehicle's trip odometer is reset at the start of the route, and the driver follows the prescribed route while the co-driver watches the trip odometer and follows the road log to identify interesting geologic features. Extensive road logs have been published for the Jemez area by the New Mexico Geological Society, and some are available online.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve


Cerro La Jara seen from visitors' center
Valles Preserve visitors' center. Looking southwest from 35 51.412N 106 29.459W

The heart of the Jemez, the Valles Caldera, is almost entirely contained within the Valles Caldera National Preserve. A day pass costs you $15, and to drive in the back areas of the caldera, you will also need a back country vehicle permit. This is free with the $15 day pass but only a limited number are issued each day. The gravel roads to the north moat and along the length of the moat are kept in good condition and are suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather.

The trip to the north moat will give you a good view of the topography of the caldera, caldera rim, ring domes, and resurgent dome (Redondo Peak and Redondo Border.)

Bandelier National Monument

The southeast portion of the Jemez is contained within Bandelier National Monument. Access is exclusively by shuttle bus from the transfer station at White Rock, except during the winter months or if you have a handicapped parking permit. The transfer station has extensive parking and a modest number of inexpensive overnight trailer stations, and it ties into the main bus system of Los Alamos County, which does not charge fares. A 7-day individual pass to Bandelier is $6.

The main attractions at Bandelier are the extensive archaeological sites, but there is also some splendid geology, especially in the back country. For a short stay, I recommend the hike to Upper Falls. If you have more time, the hike from Ponderosa Campground the length of Frijoles Canyon to Upper Falls is a nice tour of many of the formations of the Pajarito Plateau.

Kashe-Katuwe National Monument

The tent rocks of Kashe-Katuwe National Monument and the Veterans Memorial Overlook into the Bearhead Peak area are not to be missed. Hours are somewhat variable; I recommend arriving early in the day. Admittance is $5 per vehicle. Be aware that there is no lodging nearer than Santa Fe.

The road to the tent rocks is a paved all-weather road, but the road from there to the overlook is a gravel road which, while suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather, is closed during inclement weather or conditions of limited visibility.

No rock collecting is permitted within the boundaries of the Preserve or the National Monuments. Pets, other than service animals, may also be restricted to certain areas.

If you are planning to visit a number of the national parks, preserves, and monuments in the western United States during your trip, you may find it worthwhile to get an interagency annual pass. This is $85 per individual but gets you practically unlimited access to parks, preserves, and monuments for a full year. Note that you will still need a back country permit in the Valles preserve (though there will be no fee.)

Santa Fe National Forest

Much of the Jemez surrounding the Valles preserve is under the jurisdiction of the Santa Fe National Forest. This is freely accessible in summer, though many roads are closed during the winter and early spring. Unless there are local regulations to the contrary (as in the immediate area of Soda Dam) you may collect reasonable quantities of hand specimens for personal study.

Most roads are gravel roads and these vary greatly in quality. The best are suitable for all passenger vehicles in good weather; the worst are barely suitable for an off-road vehicle with high ground clearance and a roll bar. Take care on sharp turns on steep grades; even the roll bar won't save you if you go off a vertical cliff 50 meters high, of which there are many in the area.

Note that many of the forest roads are closed to most traffic from January 1 through April 15.

Forest Road 289 (Dome Road)

This is the main road into the southeast Jemez and San Miguel Mountains. It branches off State Road Four, throws out a spur to St. Peter's Dome, and continues to the Cochiti area. The section from State Road Four to the Dome spur is a first-rate gravel road suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather. From there the road gets rougher, but is still acceptable for passenger vehicles driven with care, until you reach the former Dixon apple orchard. The road here has been washed out by repeated flash floods, and, while I've crossed this stretch once in my Hyundai Elantra, I was taking a big chance.

The spur to St. Peter's Dome is quite rocky but acceptable for passenger vehicles until about halfway up the ascent to the Dome parking area. Again, I've crossed this area in my Hyundai Elantra, but I would not recommend this to most drivers.

Forest Road 36

This road also branches off State Road Four, with a branch that connects to Forest Road 289 and another branch that enters lightly built up area near a volunteer fire station. There are several branches from here, all leading to private property. However, the road is another well-maintained gravel road suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather, and the area is scenic.

State Road 290/Forest Road 10

This is the main road through the southern Jemez, branching off State Road Four and passing though the village of Ponderosa before rejoining State Road Four.  The southern portion (SR 290) is a paved all-weather road, while the northern portion (FR 10) is well maintained and quite suitable for passenger vehicles in good weather. This is a particularly scenic drive through a heavily forested area that has not experienced recent fires.

Forest Road 266

This road branches off Forest Road 10 onto Borrego Mesa and takes you to the Bear Springs area. It is not as good a road as Forest Road 10, but is negotiable in a passenger vehicle with reasonable ground clearance (such as an XUV) in good weather. The chief hazard is taking a branch of the road by mistake and ending up in a rock garden. Familiarizing yourself with the route and employing a GPS to navigate is recommended.

State Road 485/Forest Road 376

This is the main road in the southwest Jemez, paved from its junction with State Road Four to the Guadalupe Box and an excellent gravel road from there to its junction with State Road 126. The road is suitable for almost any vehicle in good weather, including campers, and goes through some of the most scenic country in the Jemez. If you have time for only one back country drive during your visit, this is the one I'd recommend.

Note that Forest Road 376 continues north of State Road 126. This portion of the road is rocky in places and badly washed out in others, but I have driven it in my Hyundai Santa Fe.

State Road 126

This is the main road of the western Jemez. Though marked on maps as a highway, this road is only partially paved, being well-maintained gravel over its middle third.

Forest Road 100

This is the main road in the northern Jemez. It branches off State Road 96 at Youngsville and continues high into the Jemez, where it eventually joins up with Thirtyone Mile Road (Forest Road 144) via Forest Road 99. There is a spur to Encino Point and its magnificent overlooks. The road is another well-maintained gravel road, passable to campers at least to the La Grulla Plateau. The Encino Point turnoff could be awkward for large vehicles, and the road is gated a significant distance from the old fire tower. The best lookout point is directly west of the gate at the end of the long meadow.

Forest Road 144 (Thirtyone Mile Road)

This road departs from Espanola and runs into the northwest Jemez to join Forest Road 100. The road is well-maintained gravel at least as far as the foot of Gallina Mesa. From there the road becomes quite rocky as it climbs towards the rim of the Valles Caldera, but it is passable for passenger vehicles in good weather with careful driving. There are logging roads up onto the rim itself -- a magnificent view -- but these are in quite poor shape and are best driven (if at all; the hike is not far) in a four-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance.

Hazards

There are no unusual hazards in the Jemez area. Nevertheless, you can certainly get yourself killed here if you work at it hard enough.

Lightning

The Jemez experiences a summer monsoon from early July to late September that can cause torrential if brief rain from local thunderstorms, mostly in the afternoon. Lightning danger is very high. If you hear thunder, get off high ground as quickly as you safely can. If you are caught in the open, stay away from isolated trees or other natural lightning rods, and crouch low on your feet. Rubber soles provide modest protection by acting as an insulator. Don't head for stream beds, as there is danger from ...

Flash flooding

The Jemez are crossed by numerous deep and narrow canyons and arroyos (dry stream beds). A sudden cloudburst can fill these with roaring water with amazing speed. Do not hike in arroyo bottoms if there is another route; do not hike in arroyo bottoms if there is any sign of rain; and if you do insist on hiking in an arroyo bottom, be ever mindful of the fastest route to higher ground in case the need arises. 

Water and sunshine

The Jemez covers three climate zones, from the high desert of the Upper Sonoran Zone below 2100 meters (7000') through the Transitional Zone between 2100 meters and 2700 meters (9000') to the Canadian above 2700 meters. The Upper Sonoran is characterized by piñon and juniper scrub forest and arid grassland; the Transition Zone by ponderosa forest; and the Canadian Zone by mixed forest of spruce, fir, and aspen.

Taking adequate water when hiking is a must. You require a full gallon of water a day when hiking in the lower terrain in mid-summer. The altitude also makes for wicked sunburns; you are well advised to slather on sunscreen rated SPF-30 or better regardless of how well tanned you already are. Insect life is locally abundant, so bring the DEET as well.

You are well advised to bring warm clothing even in summer if you are planning to hike in the higher elevations. If you are soaked by a sudden thunderstorm while on the trail, there is risk of hypothermia.

Cell phone coverage is very limited away from the main settlements and paved roads. In an emergency, you may have a better chance of getting a connection if you are on higher ground, though there is no guarantee. You can pretty much count on no wireless service in the wild canyons of the north, west, and south Jemez.

Critters

Beware this critter.

Crotalus atrox
Crotalus atrox near the Veteran's Memorial Scenic Overlook. 35 40.138N 106 26.984W

This is the Western diamond rattlesnake, which, along with the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), is the chief poisonous serpent of the Jemez area. They are numerous and their bite is very dangerous. I encountered the one in the photograph at the overlook at Kashe-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. I've also encountered a rattlesnake next to the main loop trail at Bandelier National Monument.

Fortunately, rattlesnakes are not aggressive. They rattle because they would rather not tangle with you, and they are not looking for reasons to bite. Back away and you will be fine.

Provoke an attack, and you had better hope someone in your group has the presence of mind to bundle you in a car and get you to a hospital as quickly as possible. Don't bother mucking around with trying to suck the venom from the wound or applying a constriction band; both are dangerous wastes of time when the right course of action is to keep the victim quiet, keep the bitten limb as low as possible, and get the victim to a hospital as quickly as possible. If you can get a wireless connection, dial 911 for rescue.

The bull snake is a smaller animal that superficially resembles the Western diamond rattlesnake.

dsci0051

The bull snake is harmless, but it never hurts to be on your best manners when encountering wild animals.

The only other poisonous critters of any significance in the Jemez are insects, spiders, and scorpions. None have dangerous bites or stings, but they can be very painful.

wolf
          print

Coyote or timber wolf print in Valle Jaramillo.

The chief large predators are coyotes, bears, and cougars. Coyotes (smaller relatives of wolves) are not particularly dangerous unless infected with rabies. If a coyote acts oddly (and unprovoked aggression by a coyote is definitely odd) avoid the animal. If you get bit, you're in for a series of painful rabies vaccinations, with the added delight of a slight risk of the vaccinations failing, which means a most unpleasant death.

Bears are usually shy, rarely have rabies, and will normally attack only if cornered or if you come between them and their cubs. Do not offer food to bears under any circumstances. Do not leave food around your camp where it is accessible to bears. I once had the bad fortune to encounter a bear in the foothills of the Sierra de los Valles just as a four-wheel vehicle was approaching from the other direction; had the bear felt trapped between us, the situation could have got very ugly. Fortunately the bear had nearby brush to escape into. In the summer of 2015, another hiker was less lucky; he found himself between a bear and her cub and was badly mauled. A cross-country runner was mauled in the summer of 2016 when she inadvertently got between a mother bear and her cubs.

While bears account for a greater number of recent maulings than any other (nondomestic) species in the Jemez, cougars (mountain lions) are individually the more dangerous predator. Fortunately, they are uncommon and wary of adult humans. I encountered one at a very uncomfortably close range in the outskirts of White Rock once at twilight; I kept my flashlight facing the cougar's glowing eyes while I backed away about a hundred yards, then turned and ran like hell. It seemed to work. I am careful to keep a light on when walking in twilight now, so that any large predator will have warning that I am coming, and will likely quietly slip away.

Elk stag in the fog at Valle Grande

Elk are the largest herbivore commonly found in the Jemez. They are normally shy, but if you provoke a stag elk like the one in this photograph, he's going to get mean. While there have been no recent gorings by elk in the Jemez, it is wise to give these animals some space. You can often hear nearby elk bugling, particularly during the autumn mating season.

Recording of elk bugling.

Volcanic Activity

I suppose this one has to be included, if only to reassure the nervous reader.

Hydrothermal activity suggests that the Jemez volcanic field is still capable of activity. There is little seismic activity in the caldera, suggesting that the rocks beneath are hot enough that the brittle to ductile transition takes place at a relatively shallow depth. Seismic waves passing beneath the caldera from earthquakes nearby are attenuated in a way that shows the presence of molten rock. Careful analysis of seismic data suggests that there is a lens-shaped zone centered beneath the caldera that is 17 km (10.5 miles) across, centered at a depth of about 11 km (7 miles), and at least 8 km (5 miles) thick, composed of a sludge of partially crystallized magma. Careful measurements of the Earth's electric and magnetic field around the caldera (magnetotelluric measurements) also suggest a magma body at depth.

However, there has not been any volcanic activity in the Jemez for perhaps 50,000 years; and, while it is quite likely there will be further eruptions someday, the odds are heavily against one in our lifetime.

There would be warning signs of such an eruption. One of most reliable indications of rising magma is an increase of sulfur emissions from hot springs and fumaroles, which can begin years before the actual eruption. Later, as magma begins moving towards the surface, it fractures the rock along its path and produces a characteristic kind of earthquake called harmonic tremor. Since the Jemez is monitored by the Los Alamos Seismic Network, established in 1973, harmonic tremor would likely be detected almost at once. Finally, almost every violent volcanic eruption on record has been preceded by at least a few hours of ash eruptions that typically pose little immediate danger. Were such warning signs to appear, the sparsely-populated Jemez could be evacuated within a very short time.

Geological History Animations

The previous chapters have discussed the story of the Jemez, from the birth of Northern New Mexico 1.8 billion years ago to the deposition of alluvium in the modern stream drainages. The following animations depict this history.

The first animation shows the exposure maps you've seen throughout the preceding chapters as an animation.

Animation of exposures by age

The next animation is similar, but is cumulative in time, adding successively younger exposures.

Cumulative animation of Jemez exposures
I find these useful for visualizing the slow growth of the rock record in the Jemez over the ages.

Comments

Direct comments about this book to kgb@kgbudge.com.

Clownie the Wonder Car
Clownie the Wonder Car

Copyright © 2015 Kent G. Budge. All rights reserved.