The Zuni-Acoma Trail

Jeri and I have done a number of School for Advanced Research (SAR) field trips so far, and they are, by our standards, delightfully decadent. Getting carted off to fascinating places, good food and accommodations, interesting people. These trips required little of us other than to show up and go with the flow. Hah! Not so this one!

The Zuni-Acoma Trail was once a rugged footpath connecting the pueblos of Acoma and Zuni 73 miles apart, used hundreds of years ago. Today most of the route is gone, but about 8 miles of it remains crossing the El Malpais lava flow, within the El Malpais National Monument. This SAR field trip was to hike this portion of the trail, one way from west to east.

Now 8 miles doesn’t sound like a great distance, and there’s not much elevation gain. So why when I Googled for information about the trail did I see all these comments about how hard this hike was? Perhaps this was going to be interesting?

The 12 participants on the death march, uh I mean field trip, met at SAR and left for El Malpais in an SUV and a small bus. Joining us paying victims were Dr. John Kantner and Janie Miller of SAR, and Mo Schoustra owner/operator extraordinaire of the bus part of our wheels. We would be joined at El Malpais by Dr. Nelia Dunbar a geochemist with New Mexico Tech. She had the thankless job of explaining the subtleties of lava to us. And we would eventually connect with Paul Yoder, a BLM ranger for a trip to some rather extraordinary petroglyphs.

Upon reaching the westerly trailhead, the weather was…ummm…sporty. There was already a high wind watch in effect for the area and we could see scattered rain cells with lightning off in the distance. Seeing as how it appeared most of the rain would pass us to the side, we started off, making sure we never raised any of our aluminum hiking poles high into the air.

Our group gearing up at the trailhead, before we realized what we had got into.

The first part of the hike was deceptive. This part of the El Malpais lava flow was rather old, which allowed for air-blown dust to fill in much of the irregular lava surface with a thin dirt topsoil (called loess…I guess I learned something after all). This actually made for a decent trail. After about an hour or so of hiking, Janie and Mo left us and turned back to the trailhead. They were going to shuttle the two vehicles over to the east side and would hike back in to meet us from that side. Shortly after they left us, the trail turned really…sporty.

The easy part of the trail. This was one of the older parts of the lava field, about 30,000 years old. This allowed for the deposition of soil and growth of some vegetation.

Yeah, wildflowers in October. The whole area smelled of flowers. There was enough soil cover here on the lava flow to support some vegetation.

Our group at the edge of a collapsed lava tube.

A buckled area of the lava which created a small, domed cave.

Instead of there being a trail, it became a “route”. The way was marked by rock cairns at various intervals. Often, upon reaching one cairn we had to stop and scout out where the next one was. In the cases where we had trouble finding it, it invariably was directly in front of us, but behind a bush. On top of the workload of route finding, we had to watch carefully where we placed each step. In addition to assorted deep cracks in the lava flow, there were all sorts of loose rocks and irregularities which could easily cause one to twist an ankle. This was most definitely boots-type terrain and not trail shoes!

The bulk of the trail is like this, very rough terrain with no obvious trail. You have to navigate by following rock cairns. Not a good place to be in the dark. Our exit is at the sandstone cliffs to the far right.

Dr. Dunbar explaining lava. My takeaway from it: “Don’t fall on it, it will hurt you”.

Occasionally we came across prehistoric sites, which Dr. Kantner explained for us (in addition to his having to blaze our route.) We saw two “Herraduras” during our hike. Herraduras (Spanish for “horseshoe”) are semicircular rock walls up to a meter high. No one is quite sure what purpose they served, but they are often found along prehistoric roads or paths. Maybe ancient rest stops?

A small herradura next to our route.

A large herradura adjacent to the trail.

Besides the Herraduras, we also saw a number of what are called “bridges”. They were locations along the route where the deep crevasses the route crossed over had been filled in with carefully placed stones. These may have served a more ceremonial purpose than a practical one, as the bridges we saw along the eastern part of the trail filled in small cracks that could be easily stepped over, while on the western portion of the route large gaps were left unfilled.

The first of the prehistoric “bridges” we came to, crossing a deep lava crevasse.

Yet another prehistoric bridge spanning a crevasse in the lava flow.

And yet another prehistoric bridge.

As the lava flows we passed over became more newer (as recent as 3,800 years ago), the going got a lot rougher. Lots of ups and downs and irregular terrain. Surprisingly, for a group as large as ours there were only one or two stumbles and no injuries (not counting the sore feet most everyone had by the end of the day.)

Stopping to take a break, we saw Janie and Mo approaching in the distance from the other trailhead. We found they had been on the trail in to us for almost two hours, and they had been moving at a good clip. It clearly was going to take us a while to be free of this place.

Finally, around 5:30 PM, we staggered out of the wilderness to our waiting vehicles. This was the sort of hike that ends up being really good….the day after. And it was. Being able to hike the Zuni-Acoma Trail one way was quite a treat. BTW, if you hike from east to west it’s called the Acoma-Zuni Trail.

GPS tracks in red for our Zuni-Acoma hike, 8.2 miles in length. We started on the left and went to the right across all that lovely, ankle-busting black lava.

After dinner at an excellent old school steakhouse in Grants called La Ventana, we all crashed early at the Holiday Inn Express in Grants. The next morning we had to be off at 8 AM for the next part of the trip.

What? More stinkin’ petroglyphs?

The destination for Saturday morning was a hike (!!!) to a petroglyph panel near El Malpais. Now I’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs (the Rock Art Ranch trip was only a few weeks earlier) and must admit I wasn’t too excited about seeing more stinkin’ petroglyphs. I suspect others in the group had similar feelings, especially after a very hard hike the day before. Turns out I was very, very wrong about these particular petroglyphs.

We met up with Paul Yoder and followed him for many miles until reaching a nondescript turnout on the side of the road. He setup a ladder and soon we had all climbed over the barbed wire fence and were on BLM land. This particular petroglyph site has very limited public access, and Paul was our guide in.

We hiked in from the road for about an hour. Along the way we came upon several areas of ceramic sherd scatter, and what appeared to be a storage cyst or hearth. Storage cysts are usually Basketmaker era structures and thus quite old.

This appears to be possibly the remains of a storage cyst or perhaps an ancient hearth.

Finally we reached the petroglyph panels. Frankly, of all the petroglyphs I’ve seen, none looked anything like this. There were large horizontal bands spanning the entire width of an alcove. It really looked like panels. Many of the petroglyphs had deeply pecked antenna-like spirals. Lots of what I call “ant people”, anthropomorphic figures with antenna on their heads. Off to one side was a very detailed turkey petroglyph.

Jeri at the main petroglyph panel. Shadows from adjacent trees made pictures difficult.

Another view of the main petroglyph panel.

A petroglyph probably representing a wild turkey.

Somewhat in the center was a square spiral. They have found that on the day of the Solstice, a shadow from an adjacent rock cuts across the center of the spiral, reminiscent of the Chaco Canyon “Sun Dagger”.

The Solstice spiral petroglyph. On Solstice days, a shadow crosses the center of the spiral. A Chaco Sun Dagger Lite.

Detail of the petroglyphs to the right of the main panel.

Jeri at the left petroglyph panel.

The left petroglyph panel with “ant people” galore!

Aside from the very unusual style of petroglyphs present, someone in our group remarked on what wasn’t there. There weren’t the usual zig-zaggy lines or checkerboard patterns. This was very different here and well worth the hike in on our sore feet.

Just prior to leaving, we discovered on a large rock below the petroglyphs four areas of grinding. On the ground below them were still two grinding stones. Given the size of the grinding areas, it’s unlikely it was for food preparation, but perhaps for ceremonial materials or offerings.

There are 4 metate grinding grooves on this rock. It wasn’t until after I took the photo I noticed the two very deep carved areas to the right in the shade. They were big enough to put a knee in.

After all that it was time to get the hell outta Dodge and back to Santa Fe. We had covered 8 miles on the first day and 3 1/2 on the second. I, for one, am ready to return to more decadent field trips. But I’m damn glad I did this one.