Otowi Peak is a small volcanic cone which sits atop Buckman Mesa, a small plateau of basalt and pyroclastic rock beside the Rio Grande west of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Though its elevation of 6,547 feet may seem paltry set between the 11,000-foot summits of the Jemez range and the 12-ers of the Sangre de Cristos, this is a surprisingly beautiful summit which ought not to be overlooked. Buckman Mesa's walls mark the south end of the Espanola Valley where the Rio Grande enters White Rock Canyon, and the views into the river gorge with the cliffs of the Pajarito Plateau and the peaks of the Jemez above are spectacular. Given its proximity to Santa Fe, this summit sees very little traffic. When the high country is cold and snowbound, when your flatland guests need a short but beautiful hike at moderate elevation, when you just need a change of scenery from the Pecos Wilderness and the Santa Fe Ski Basin, Otowi Peak and Buckman Mesa are an excellent place to spend half a day. It is also a hike with potential for a swim at the end, a great rarity in the Santa Fe area.
Buckman Mesa cliffs.
Though the mesa top and peak are pretty untrammeled and appear to be in decent ecological shape, the same cannot be said the trailhead area. The end of Buckman Road where it meets the river is not an area much used by environmentally conscious hikers or yuppies. It's a popular place to ride ATVs and dirt bikes, and there's a shooting range around, so gunfire may be heard, though I have never felt myself to be in any danger. You will also see regrettable amounts of trash by the riverbank, some from picnickers on site, much surely washed down from Espanola. Though unfortunate, don't let these issues deter you from hiking the area; conditions improve dramatically away from the road.
From the Veterans' Memorial Highway 599, accessible either from I-25 south of Santa Fe or from Hwy. 285 just north of town, exit onto Camino La Tierra (NOT the La Tierra trailheads!) and head west through the Las Campanas subdivision. After approximately miles, take a left off pavement onto OLD Buckman Road. Follow this dirt road about ten miles, passing by the entrance to Diablo Canyon. Just before you reach the Rio Grande, turn right onto the small BLM road signed 26X. Drive a couple hundred yards through the tamarisk and mud puddles and find a place to park. In very muddy conditions, passenger cars may want to park on the main road to avoid 26X. This would not be a good spot to leave a car full of valuables.
In dry conditions, any passenger car can drive Buckman Road without trouble. Snow or rain could be problematic. There is flash flood potential along the road in summer monsoon season.
Basalt and tuff.
Two major geologic events shaped the New Mexico landscape visible from Otowi Peak. Approximately 30 million years ago, movements in the earth's mantle caused the crust in this region to begin spreading apart, creating the Rio Grande Rift. The Rift is an enormous north-south tear in the earth's crust stretching from as far north as Leadville, Colorado all the way through New Mexico into Old Mexico. Movement of the rift caused the elevation of numerous block-fault mountain ranges on its eastern edge, including Colorado's Mosquito Range, New Mexico's Sandia and Manzano Ranges, and of course the 225-mile Sangre de Cristo Range, whose southernmost peaks form the dramatic eastern horizon visible from Otowi Peak. The rift is also responsible for large valleys such as the San Luis Valley in Colorado and the Espanola Valley immediately north of Buckman Mesa. These depressions are filled with sediment eroded from the Sangres as the mountains lifted up; near Otowi Peak, this formation is known as the Santa Fe Group.
Beginning approximately 13 million years ago, a group of volcanoes became active in this region of New Mexico, and began building up the Jemez Mountains. These volcanoes are part of the Jemez Lineament, a line of young volcanoes bursting from a weakness in the earth's crust. The Jemez Lineament runs from east-central Arizona across the Rio Grande Rift to north-eastern New Mexico, and includes Mount Taylor, the Jemez Range and Capulin Volcano, as well as Otowi Peak. Otowi itself is a cinder cone and a member of the Cerros del Rio group of volcanoes, which were active approximately 2.5 million years ago. These volcanoes form the Caja del Rio Plateau, a knot of low peaks covered in pinon and juniper located southwest of Santa Fe on the east side of the river. The basalts erupted here lie on top of the Santa Fe Group. White Rock Canyon was cut through the Cerros del Rio basalt in the last 2.4 million years, eroding in the process a splendid cross-section of the cinder cone and giving Buckman Mesa its striking profile. Nearby Diablo Canyon is also formed primarily of these basalts.
About 1.4 million years ago, the Jemez experienced a major volcanic explosion, followed by a second approximately 1 million years ago. These eruptions ejected more than 100 cubic miles of material and coated 1,500 square miles in volcanic ash, 1,000 feet deep in places. What remains from this event is the Valles Caldera in the heart of the Jemez Range and the many colorful cliffs of tuff on the slopes of the Pajarito Plateau. Some excellent exposures of these tuff layers are also visible on the cliffs of Buckman Mesa.
Though not particularly historic in and of itself, Otowi Peak is an excellent spot to contemplate many centuries of Northern New Mexico history, with spectacular visual aids in all directions. To the west are the dramatic and colorful finger mesas and canyons of the Pajarito Plateau, where the Ancestral Puebloans farmed and built their villages, kivas and cliff dwellings. The north half of Buckman Mesa and the lands at its base now belong to San Ildefonso Pueblo. Below runs the Rio Grande, the state's largest river and main artery of Spanish settlement, carrying water from the Colorado mountains through the farmlands of the Espanola Valley south through some of the oldest European towns in the U.S. To the east are sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristos, whose snows water New Mexico's capitol city and dozens of upland villages founded before the American Revolution.
Buckman Mesa is named after Henry Buckman, a lumberman who built a small settlement, a railroad line and a bridge across the river, all of which are gone.
Turning the thought to more recent times, one can look back westward towards Los Alamos, the birthplace of the Atomic Age. Within living memory, the Pajarito Plateau was a cliff-walled mountain fastness harboring a top secret laboratory whose mission was to harness sub-atomic physics to create a weapon vastly more powerful than any in history: a surreal thought when one stops taking it for granted. Otowi Bridge, just to the north of Buckman Mesa where Hwy. 502 crosses the river, was once the furthest Manhattan Project scientists were allowed to venture from the lab. Edith Warner, a woman living at the bridge was their main point of contact with the outside world during the war years, a story told in The House at Otowi Bridge. Today from Otowi peaks summit you may hear in the morning or evening the sounds of the daily Los Alamos-Santa Fe commute, as traffic ebbs and flows from America's wealthiest county per capita and highest concentration of PhDs.
This obscure corner of Santa Fe County also showcases the West's perennial water dilemmas. The Buckman Field is actively mined for well water by the City of Santa Fe, with eight wells drilled to 1,000 to 1,400 feet below the surface. Water levels dropped as much as 700 feet between 1973 and 2001. Furthermore, there are plans in the works for a pipeline from the Rio Grande to the growing capitol, to harness not just the unimpressive flows of the Rio, but also water from the increasingly over-allocated Colorado Basin, which will be piped over the Continental Divide by the San Juan-Chama Project.
The southern Sangre de Cristo range, looking east from the Caja del Rio Plateau
This area is best visited during the cool seasons, and is an excellent winter hike as long as the road is reasonably dry. Fall brings some attractive patches of color to the cottonwoods and tamarisk on the river bank. In the spring (usually March), you may hear the croaking of sandhill cranes as they follow the river north to the wildlife refuges in Colorado's San Luis Valley, and thence to summer breeding grounds as far away as Alaska and Siberia. In October they return southward, and I have seen them repeatedly in White Rock Canyon in both seasons.
This area could make for very hot hiking in summer. It might be doable with an early start, however, and the prospect of a swim in the Rio Grande at the finish. The river flows fast here in early summer, with small rapids, and caution is advised. Despite the peak's low elevation, lightning could be a concern during the summer monsoons, and possibly at other times.
None whatsoever to the summit. The boundary of San Ildefonso Pueblo runs just north of Otowi Peak, and this land is off limits. Please respect the Pueblo's wishes and limit you explorations to the south half of Buckman Mesa.
On the drive down to the river, you can't miss the dramatic entrance to Diablo Canyon, a deep but short gorge boasting numerous technical climbs. Even if you don't climb, it's worth your while to make the short walk through the canyon. In October 2006, Diablo Canyon was used to film scenes for 3:10 to Yuma, a western starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
White Rock Canyon
From where Buckman Road meets the river, one can hike a couple miles downstream through White Rock Canyon on a jeep track to Soda Springs. From here, a fun trail climbs up the side of the canyon onto the Caja del Rio Plateau. The Caja del Rio is a lightly-used piece of Santa Fe National Forest land with several small volcanic summits covered in pinon-juniper forest. It is popular with off-roaders, mountain bikers and equestrians, and allegedly harbors a herd of wild horses.