The Cerro Grande Route

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Roughly 45 miles northwest of Santa Fe are the ancient ruins and deep canyons of Bandelier National Monument. Designated as a national monument in 1916, Bandelier preserves the homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological surveys show that the Ancestral Pueblos began building permanent settlements in Bandelier by 1150, but had moved to new homes along the Rio Grande by 1550.

The main portion of the park, in Frijoles Canyon, contains a number of ancestral homes and dwellings, kivas (circular, half-buried ceremonial structures), rock paintings and petroglyphs.

The last time we visited Bandelier we spent most of our time in Frijoles Canyon. This time we decided to hike the Cerro Grande Route, a trail located in the fairly isolated northwestern corner of the park. This “Route” offers a much different experience as compared to the rest of Bandelier. Instead of canyons and deserts, the trail explores the subalpine and montane forests of the Jemez Mountains.

Destination for the “Route” is the top of Cerro Grande Peak, Spanish for “Big Mountain”, which at 10,199 feet in elevation is the highest point in the park. The path alternates through open meadows, aspen groves and pine forests. Even in mid-September we still saw a wide variety of wildflowers.

Through the first sections of trail we noticed a fair amount of evidence of the Cerro Grande Fire that burned 48,000 acres in 2000. The fire started as a controlled burn by the Forest Service, but got out of control as a result of high winds and eventually destroyed 235 homes in the Los Alamos area. By no means, however, does the fading damage detract from the sublime beauty of this hike.

Be sure to look for elk, in addition to the mule deer and pikas we saw along the way.

Most of the climbing comes in the last three quarters-of-a-mile or so. The hike ends at a fairly open meadow at the summit of the peak – it would be called a bald if it were in the Southern Appalachians. From the top you can see the Valles Caldera, the Sangro de Cristo Mountains and the Sandia Mountains. Actually, the views are much better just a couple hundred feet below the summit.

Cerro Grande Peak forms part of the rim of the Valles Caldera, a twelve-mile-wide crater that formed when the earth collapsed after a catastrophic volcanic eruption took place here roughly 1.2 million years ago – very similar to how Yellowstone was created.

The prominent valley that dominates the view from the top is known as the Valle Grande. In the center of the caldera, and on the far end of the Valle Grande, is Redondo Peak, which, geologically speaking, is a volcanic resurgent dome. Although no longer active, it was formed roughly 70,000 years after the main caldera-forming eruptions occurred.

Several movies have been shot in and around the Valles Caldera, including The Gambler, Buffalo Girls, Last Stand at Saber River, The Missing and most recently, Seraphim Falls, which starred Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan.

In a couple of days I’ll be posting a report from our Tsankawi Loop hike, which is located in a separated section of Bandelier that took us up close to several cave dwellings and petroglyphs.

Trail: Cerro Grande Route
RT Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Max Elevation: 10,199 feet
TH Location: 11.6 miles past the entrance to the Visitors Center

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.

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