Wandering Around the Salt Lakes of Pinos Wells


If you’ve ever flown into Albuquerque from the east, you may have noticed the dozens of salt lakes on the east side of the mountains. Or, you may have seen some of those salt lakes while driving east of Willard, New Mexico on U.S. Highway 60. You may even have pulled off the highway there to read the historical marker and actually checked out the salt lake down below.

If you look across US Highway 60, you’ll see another salt lake.

And if you wait long enough, you’re guaranteed to see a freight train on the BNSF southern transcon line.

When Stephen Ausherman and I were working on the 3rd edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Albuquerque, we wanted to include a hike around a salt lake in the book to compliment the ruins of the nearby Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The pueblos at the Monument were still occupied when the Spanish arrived, and a good part of the pueblos’ economy was based upon gathering salt from the nearby salt lakes.

This is all that remains of the Spanish mission church at the Quarai unit of the National Monument.

This picture was taken at the Gran Quivera unit of the National Monument. Because of the abundance of limestone, all of the buildings at Gran Quivera are built out of limestone.

Unfortunately, we discovered that all of the salt lakes within 60 miles of Albuquerque were either on private land or required crossing private land to reach them. In short, the salt lakes near Albuquerque were not open to the public for hiking. There are, however, a cluster of salt lakes outside of our 60 mile limit from Albuquerque that are located on State Trust Land. You are welcome to explore these lakes if you have a State Trust Land Recreational Access Permit. (For information on obtaining a permit, please visit www.nmstatelands.org.)

Here’s a Google Earth view of the salt lakes.

Here’s a topo map view of the same area. The red dot is where you can park your car.

The salt lakes are southeast of Willard and to the east of the former community of Pinos Wells. Even better, you can reach the edge of the State Trust Land on an unpaved county road. Please keep in mind that the area around the lakes is very remote and almost 15 miles from a paved road. Once you get back to the paved road you’ll still be almost 40 miles from the nearest gas station. So, please make sure that you have plenty of gas and are comfortable with being in a remote area before exploring these lakes!

To reach the salt lakes you’ll take NM 42 southeast from Willard to Cedarvale. Except for a collapsing school, there is not much left today of Cedarvale. One hundred years ago, when there was an interruption in the normal climatic pattern to provide enough rain for farming, greater Cedarvale was a thriving pinto bean growing area. When normal climatic patterns returned, farming without deep irrigation wells became impossible and most of the farmers left the area for other opportunities.

As you can tell, it’s been quite some time since the last class was held at the Cedarvale school.

From Cedarvale, the remainder of the trip to the salt lakes will be on unpaved county roads. Very soon after passing the old Cedarvale school, you’ll pass the Cedarvale Cemetery and in a few more miles you’ll reach the location of the former stage stop and community of Pinos Wells. Like Cedarvale, there is not much left of Pinos Wells today, but there is a very impressive gate for its cemetery. From the cemetery gate you are less than five miles to where you’ll park to visit the salt lakes.

Pinos Wells from the cemetery gate.

The county road will take you to the very edge of State Trust Land. To avoid spending time on private land, you’ll want to park south of the road and keep your exploring to the south and east of where you park. The shore of the salt lake is less than a half mile away. There are some faint two-tracks and cow paths in the area that you can follow, but most of your walking will be cross country or on or along the lake.

The salt lake is maybe a half mile from where you park.

Most of your companions during your visit will be cattle from nearby ranches.

Depending upon the amount of recent rainfall, the salt lakes can be dry or have some water. The surface of the lake bed can be very soft in some places, so please be cautious if you attempt to walk across the lake. Since you’re on State Trust Land (and have a permit), feel free to roam wherever you want. Again, take all of the precautions you would take on any hike.

As you walk around the lake keep an eye out for clusters (or gardens) of gypsum crystals growing like weeds on the lake bed. I have found that the best place to find a crystal garden is on the edges of the lake’s many bays. The gypsum gardens are the result of dissolved gypsum washing into the salt lake and then crystalizing when there is a sufficient amount of dissolved gypsum in the water to support crystallization. You’ll be amazed at the density and size of the crystals growing in the gardens.

One of the many gypsum crystal gardens that you can find.

And here’s a closer look at the gypsum crystals.

These are the exact same type of gypsum crystals that grow in Lake Lucero at White Sand Dunes National Park. All of the white sand at the park started out as gypsum crystal in Lake Lucero or its predecessors. The white sand is a product of gypsum crystals breaking down into small grains of sand. And it is the supply of new white sand from Lake Lucero that keeps the white sand dunes at the park growing and moving.

As you walk along the shore of the salt lake you may notice how the gypsum crystals have broken down into glittering flakes on the beach. Those glittering flakes will eventually break down into grains of white sand. And if you look towards the east you’ll notice that many of the hills in that direction are covered with white sand or salt. Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years, people will be visiting the white sands of Pinos Wells.

Another thing to look for as you walk along the shore are the many clusters of salt. This is the same type of salt that native peoples gathered for centuries and the source of the name for today’s Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument. I am not a salt expert, so I cannot tell you if the salt is safe to eat. But I did place a very small dab of salt on my tongue for a taste, and I can tell you that it was very very salty.

One of the many many salt clusters that you’ll see on your journey.

I’m sure there are other things you can discover as you wander around. Please let me know what you discover if you get a chance to visit the salt lakes.

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