Black Mesa,  Oklahoma & Northern New Mexico

Black Mesa, Oklahoma & Northern New Mexico

Black Mesa, Oklahoma High Point & Northern New Mexico

Black Mesa, 4,975 ft., 9 miles

November 6, 2016

Wes Chapman


Santa Fe from summit of Mt. Atalaya

Black Mesa & Northern New Mexico

We came to Santa Fe, NM, in part to hike Black Mesa, the high point of Oklahoma, but more importantly to spend a few days in northern New Mexico; a uniquely beautiful and historically rich part of the Southwest. Our team consisted of a group of 6 friends from Nashville, with whom we were making the trip. Santa Fe is an old Spanish Territorial Capital, founded in 1610, and remains the state capital of New Mexico. The town has had an artistic/revolutionary culture dating back to the Pueblo Revolt by the indigenous Pueblo Indians in 1680, which it maintains to this day. The local culture is a mix of state bureaucrats, artists, retirees and dirt bag climbers – a strange but compelling mixture.

People here still live in adobe houses – we spent the week in one. This is a slight variation or the building methods of the Pueblo Indians, and makes little use of modern building materials – roofs are flat, walls are thick mud and virtually nothing is square. HVAC, electricity and plumbing are difficult to mix with adobe brick construction. Local architecture is a paean to the style and sensibilities of a different time.


Typical Santa Fe home

First order of business, after a warm-up climb on the local Mt. Atalaya, was a high speed blast over to Oklahoma for a quick trip up Black Mesa, located in the extreme western panhandle of Oklahoma. The trip across northeastern New Mexico was very sporting in our rented Ford Focus, which proved up to the challenge of averaging 85 mph while delivering over 30 mpg on a 600 mile round trip.


First View of Black Mesa

Black Mesa Oklahoma is the Eastern edge of the Jemez volcanic complex, which trends east, northeast across Northern New Mexico. Black Mesa is formed by a volcanic, erosion resistant cap of dark basalt. It is about a three-hour drive from Santa Fe to Kenton OK (pop. 17) the closest town to the Black Mesa trailhead. Black Mesa is a large structure, the actual high point of which is in Colorado (5,715 ft.). This area was purchased by the Nature Conservancy a few years ago, and they have done a great job with facilities at the trailhead, signage, trail maintenance and rest benches every mile along the trail.


Martha at the Summit


Insouciant Success


Excellent signage on the Black Mesa Trail


Big Sky from Black Mesa Summit

 This part of Oklahoma is high desert, and it was really hot – about 95° F and blowing a dry wind about 20 mph from the southwest. The Nature Conservancy recently bought this land, and has done a really good job in marking and maintaining the trail. There were rest benches every mile, and excellent signage. I was hoping to see some snakes, coyotes or cattle rustlers; but this was a long dusty hike with no such entertainment.


Cholla Cactus on the Black Mesa Trail


Pueblo in Frijoles Canyon

Back in Santa Fe we reconstituted the team, and headed out to Bandelier National Monument to check out the ancient pueblos and perhaps grab a hike. Bandelier is named for the eponymous Swiss-American anthropologist who did most of the early study of the area. This entire area is part of the Jemez Volcanic complex which includes the Valles Caldera, the remains of a super-volcano which exploded about 1.5Ma. Part of the explosion includes stupendous amount of soft rhyolite (very light colored) volcanic ash. This ash erodes very easily, and creates the cliffs that are the homes of the Pueblos.


Rio Grande Rift


Volcanic Rocks of New Mexico

The volcanic rift geology of the region defined the lives of the indigenous peoples – providing Rio Grande River Valley and the soft volcanic ash cliff that defined their homes. The magnificent Valles Caldera holds water and feeds wildlife, as well as providing the setting for numerous films and TV shows including the recent Lone Ranger, The Gambler and Longmire.


Wall painting at Bandelier


Bill, Allen and Martha considering real estate


High Pueblo – Note the people and ladders on the cliff


Mountains forming the rim of Valles Caldera


Valles Caldera from Cerro Grande

After a morning in the Canyon, I wanted to take a quick look at the Caldera from above. The overlook is a quick 4 mile (round trip) hike up to the 10,000 ft. Cerro Grande. This area burned over in the last few years, and the area was grass covered and the views were magnificent. There is a small rhyolite dome in the middle of the caldera, hot springs and tons of wild game – this place offers a wonderful ROC (return on climb).


View from Cerro Grande summit

The rest of the week involved a bit of work down in Albuquerque, and trips to the home of Georgia O’Keeffe and to see the wild erosional geology of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a farm in Sun Prairie Wisconsin, and went on to become the mother of American modernism. She is famous for paintings of flowers, animal skulls with flowers, New York buildings and New Mexico scenery. She had homes outside Santa Fe at Ghost Ranch and in a small Pueblo named Abiquiu. These were incredibly beautiful settings, and we were all keenly interested to see the reality that inspired the art.


View from Abiquiu


O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu Gardens


Martha, Allen and Shelly selecting the best view at the Poshuouingue Pueblo near Abiquiu


Cerro Pedernal, O’Keeffe’s favorite mountain subject


Martha & Tierra Amarilla at Ghost Ranch


Chimney Rocks, Ghost Ranch

It was fun touring O’Keeffe’s home. Most striking was her commitment to a minimalist lifestyle. Her dining room table was a plywood sheet, and her roof was dried mud, and must have leaked like a sieve. She only seemed to care about her art, and the betterment of the Abiquiu community – a pretty clear and beneficial set of priorities. There is a lot of her art that I won’t pretend to understand, but I understand the person a lot better after visiting her home.

On the way back into town, we stopped at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. The tent rocks are a bit of an erosional wonder, called hoodoos, caused by local capstones of hard volcanic basalt, embedded in the same soft ash as Bandelier, but without the flood basalt capstone. The result is localized erosion by water and wind, producing some really strange and fragile spires of pale rhyolite ash. Very cool.

The process is the same as the genesis of the Matterhorn, which has a small bit of Africa as its capstone. The shapes are quite similar, although the scale is very different.


A Hoodoo


Martha in a Narrow Canyon of soft volcanic ash


Big Caps, fragile hoodoos


Ash bedding in the Canyon

(Note the fault on the right side)


Banded Hoodoos


A pine tree meeting the challenges of rapid erosion


A mini Matterhorn

New Mexico advertises itself as the Land of Enchantment – and it truly is. It is beautiful, and charming and I want to come back to ski. The food is fantastic, and the people wacky but charming. I’m a fan.


Adios, from Black Mesa & Santa Fe


Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    November 15, 2016

    Thanks for views which I have not seen before.
    Interesting as usual.


  2. Avatar
    December 01, 2016

    Lots to learn from this small bit of history of New Mexico that I now comprehend more now from this blog and having been there. Want to go back