Hiking and Exploring in the Upper Rio Puerco Basin


The National Park-worthy landscapes of the Upper Rio Puerco basin are just inside the 60-mile radius limit from Albuquerque and are where Hikes 35, 36, 37, and 39 of the 3rd edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Albuquerque are located. The drive to Guadalupe Outlier (Hike 37) rivals California Highway 1 in being one of the most stunning drives in the country!

With most of the Upper Rio Puerco being public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), hiking and exploration options are much greater than the four hikes described in the book. The four hikes are meant to introduce you to this fantastic area.

Since none of the roads are paved and are sometimes very rough and with the area being extremely remote, you may want to try out the hikes described in the book before venturing out on your own. Several years ago a friend of mine and I went on a weekend bike camping trip through the basin and went twenty-four hours without seeing another vehicle or person. So please make sure that you are properly prepared.

To reach the Upper Rio Puerco basin, you’ll head out from the Albuquerque area on U.S. Highway 550. When you reach the turnoff for the small settlement of San Luis, turn left. The pavement will end in 8.5 miles. Turn right onto the paved road at the end of pavement to reach Hike 36 (Continental Divide Trail – CDT: Deadman Peaks).

You’ll pass some great landscapes while on this hike!

And you’ll have great views of Cabezon off in the distance while on the trail.

If you continue ahead on the unpaved road, the turnoff for Hike 35 (Cabezon Peak) will be in 3.8 miles.

Here’s the trailhead to Cabezon.

The hike in the book goes up to the pedestal and the circumnavigates Cabezon.

The views from the pedestal of Cabezon are amazing!

Continuing on beyond the turnoff for Hike 35, you’ll reach the turnoff for Hike 39 (La Leña WSA: Empedrado Ridge – CDT) at 5.2 miles from the end of pavement.

Most of the hike through the Wilderness Study Area is off trail and passes through incredible sandstone formations.

And, as with most hikes in the Rio Puerco, Cabezon will pop into view sometime during the hike.

If you go further on the unpaved road, you’ll reach the turnoff for Hike 37 (Guadalupe Outlier) in 13 miles from the end of pavement. This is the drive that rivals California Highway 1.

The scenery on this drive is nonstop.

Cerro Santa Clara is on the left, Cabezon is in the middle, and Cerro Guadalupe is on the right.

The United States Postal Service chose this same view to celebrate the Centennial of New Mexico’s statehood!

You’ll also have plenty of sandstone formations to compliment the volcanic formations.

You’ll even pass through the remains of the former settlement of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe Outlier is on top of a mesa overlooking the Rio Puerco. It is the easternmost of the Chaco Canyon (Ancestral Puebloan) outlier communities. Take a close look at the details in the stonework of the walls. Like any archaeological site, please leave everything as you found it.

How about this for a front door view from your home.

If you keep going ahead, you’ll still have awesome scenery, but you’ll have to drive very slowly with all the twists, dips, and turns in the road. In several miles, you’ll reach the ruins of Azabache Station. It’s an old homestead on BLM land that may have served as a watering stop in stagecoach and horse wagon days. If you do check out the ruins, please make sure that you leave everything as you found it.

One the many twists and turns you’ll encounter on your way to Azabache.

And you’ll still have plenty of volcanic formations along the way.

Azabache Station

While walking around Azabache, check out the collapse shed covering the spring. It has coal seam tucked into the sandstone. A nearby spring is named Coal Spring.

If you find yourself wanting to explore more of the basin after checking out the hikes in the book, you might want to start with a “New Mexico – Chaco Mesa” BLM Surface Management Status map. You can buy one from the BLM, the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA), and other outlets. The map uses color coding to identify public land open to exploring.

Something to keep in mind if you’re exploring new ground is that road maps for the backcountry are not necessarily accurate and not all roads are usable. You may want to check out a couple of blog posts that I wrote several years ago: “Leaving the Pavement” and “Dirt Roads.” Because you don’t know what you’ll run into when exploring new ground, you might want to take a shovel with you – just in case! But if you stay within your comfort level and leave everything as you found it, you could make some incredible discoveries.

No matter how and where you explore the Upper Rio Puerco basin, you will come back amazed and realize how lucky we to have our wonderful public lands!


  1. Beautiful country. What is the best time of year to visit?

  2. Great photos!

  3. Thanks for the post on the Rio Puerco area with the lovely photographs. My husband and I are trying to work through all the hikes in your book since they make for fine outings during Covid times. We haven’t tackled the Rio Puerco hikes yet so I appreciate the nudge. I never thought of putting a shovel in our Subaru outback before we head out. Good idea!
    Hope to see you one of these days. 🙂

  4. Beautiful David. Many thanks.

  5. Inspirational. I want to explore here.

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