Wherever we find ourselves in the world, we typically find a place to go for a hike and enjoy the beauty of the area. This was true some 20 years ago when my then boyfriend and I were in New Mexico for a conference. On one of the free days, we headed off into the New Mexico wilderness to see what we could find. I am not sure how we found out about the tent rock hike. I would guess that either someone told us about it or we had a guide on hikes in the area. Looking back, neither of us can remember how we got to the trail head, if there was a parking lot, or even if we saw any other cars. What we do remember is the hike itself and, even more so, the freakish scene we encountered at the top.

tent rocks national monument slot canyonThe hike starts with a stroll through a dry creek bed and quickly winds upward through a slot canyon. There are places where you must scale over large boulder piles blocking the path and the slot canyon is so narrow that you must travel in single-file. While there is only one way through the canyon, I do not recall if there was a well-defined trail after we were spit out on the other side. All I can remember is that we climbed and climbed until we reached the top of the hill and could look out over the valley all the way to the mountains of Albuquerque. We continued along the ridge line until we decided it was time to turn around.

On the way back, we suddenly noticed a curious line of cantaloupe-sized rocks in a line that we had just stepped over. When we looked around a little further, we saw that the line was actually a large circle, and we had just crossed into its border. How could we have missed this on the way in? Was it there before? We definitely hadn’t seen anyone else the entire time.

Then we saw a pile of boulders in the approximate center of the circle, and our curiosity begged us to investigate. As we approached the center, we saw that the pile of boulders was surrounded by an outline of smaller rocks in the shape of a heart. Our eyes were finally drawn to the center of the pile and we both froze a little when we were able to comprehend what we were looking at. Underneath the pile of boulders was a hunk of human hair. Not a few strands that might be human… a HUNK of obviously human hair… under a pile of rocks… surrounded by a rock heart outline… ringed by an even bigger circle of boulders… on top of a hill… in the middle of nowhere!

Feeling a bit creeped out, we hurried back down, returning through the slot canyon, half expecting to run into the shrine-builder along the way. We never met another soul on that hike, but the story of what we found that day has been told countless times.

This year when Ray, now my husband of 18+ years, and I found out we would be returning to Albuquerque, we knew we wanted to return to tent rocks. Our research on the area turned up only one place that matched the description of the hike we were looking for, but a lot had changed in 20 years. The area had been established as a U.S. National Monument by President Bill Clinton in 2001, shortly before he left office and is now part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System. The new name, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, means “white cliffs” in the Pueblo language. The tent-shaped pillars, which vary in height from a few feet to over 90 feet, are formed when layers of volcanic rock and ash are eroded beneath a more solid cap rock.

The first immediate difference we noticed on this trip was having to pass through a BLM gate and pay $5 to enter the area. Five miles further down the paved road, there were well-defined parking spaces, several bathrooms, signs guiding you to the different hikes in the area, and well-marked trails. Nothing was even the tiniest bit familiar. We actually questioned if this was the same place that we visited before. We started up the trail and into the slot canyon and I commented that while the trail did not seem familiar, I did remember a square-shaped rock that we had to climb over. And, just around the next corner, the square rock sat blocking our way. We wound our way to the top, having to stop occasionally for groups going the opposite direction, but eventually we were treated with the same spectacular view stretching for miles.

The hike this year was a vastly different experience than it was 20 years ago, mainly due to number of people we encountered. The entire area has been vastly improved and is now a heavily-trafficked recreation area. If you are willing and able to share the trail with several hundred other hikers on this 1.3 mile out-and-back trek, the unique geology and spectacular views are definitely worth the time and the small entrance fee. We were happy to see that so many other people were enjoying the area, but also a little sad that, for both of us, tent rocks had lost a bit of its mystery and charm.