Cerro Vacio is one of several volcanic necks located about 30 miles southwest of Cabezon and about 25 miles north of the keres speaking tribe of Laguna Pueblo on the eastern side of Mesa Chivato. With a lot of the remnants of the original volcano surrounding the hard rock summit, the peak has scree slopes that can be walked up to within a 150 feet of the top. The Jemez Mountains, the San Pedro Mountains, the Sandia Mountains, the Manzano Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos, Ladron Peak, Mount Taylor, and all the peaks between Cabezon and Cerro Vacio can be seen from the summit. The easiest route consists of some scrambling and some 4th class climbing up the summit cap. The elevation gain is anywhere between 600-1,100 feet depending on where you start the ascent. Since it is so far out of the way from anything, this peak has nearly zero human traffic.
Take Interstate 25 west from Albuquerque to the Laguna exit (Exit 114). Go straight past a gas station on the left, beyond the village of Laguna (on the left), through a hill the road cuts through, and turn right onto State Road 279 where a sign directs you to the towns of Paguate, Bibo, and Seboyeta. Drive past Paguate and Bibo. Just before Seboyeta where the town’s title sign stands, take a right towards a sandstone pinnacle and a volcanic neck (Cerro Negro). The paved road will turn into a wide dirt road called Indian Reservation Road 52 (no sign) before you get close to the landmarks. Follow the dirt road around Mesa del Lobo and through a pass between Chivato Mesa and Mesita de la Madera.
Short, Easy Route
Continue down into the valley and take a right at a sign that reading Bar-T or T-Bar. After driving over several ridges through juniper and pinon trees, the road turns to the right on the shoulder of the peak.
Long, Arroyo Route
Drive to the bottom of the first valley where the Cerro Vacio and Cerrito Negro are first visible. Take a right on to a faint dirt road that appears to travel down the valley. Drive several hundred feet and park on the edge of the arroyo. It is not recommended to park in the arroyo because cloudbursts up on Chivato Mesa can send torrents of water down the arroyo and swamp your vehicle and you if you are not cautious.
The peak is on private land. A conversation with one of the landowners showed that they didn’t care about climbers as long as they were not poaching elk or deer in the area.
When to Climb
The peak is climbable at all times during the year. The best periods are between March and May and also between August and November. The summer months can cook the mountain to unbearably hot temperatures and ice thawing in the afternoon during the winter can give way to rockfalls. Due to the dust, dry air, altitude, and intense sun that drain you of water, it is important to pack plenty of it (a couple of liters is good). It's best to leave early in the morning to beat the heat.
Laguna Pueblo and Grants are the nearest towns large enough to have their weather monitored.
Laguna Pueblo Weather
It is not recommended to set up camp on private land near this peak. None of the routes up the peak take longer than a few hours and definitely no longer than a day, so there should be no problems.
The nearest camping is a year-round primitive camping site that is managed by the BLM on NM 117 east of El Malpais Conservation Area about 20 minutes west of Laguna. Check-in with the BLM Ranger Station on NM 117 closer to I-40 (505-280-2918).
Currently, the Cabezon Wilderness Study Area, which is run by the BLM, protects the land around Cabezon Peak to an ambiguous extent. Yet, the land surrounding the other volcanic necks in the region remains unprotected.
“The BLM is directed to preserve the wilderness values of the Cabezon Wilderness Study Area (WSA) for the long term. This involves protecting the area’s special features and natural qualities, including outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation. Preserving wilderness values is a difficult task that requires a commitment from you as well as the BLM. The challenge for land managers lies in making sure the use of the other resources and activities within the WSA is compatible with its wilderness resource. The challenge for you is to use the area in harmony with the wilderness environment.
You do not need a permit to climb Cabezon Peak. However, permits are required for most uses other than primitive recreation, including mineral exploration, grazing, outfitting/guiding, commercial filming, and scientific research.”
Cabezon Peak Pamphlet by the BLM
This method the BLM uses is insufficient for the protection of these great landmarks in the New Mexican landscape. The door stays open for those who would seek profits at the expense of others’ enjoyment. The desert environment is fragile by nature and takes many years to recover from harsh treatment. Already, heavy grazing by cattle has reduced many portions to near badland-like conditions, which exposes the land to erosion. Another detrimental effect from local ranchers is the use of cyanide on coyotes, which makes its way into the food chain, eventually affecting most fauna including birds of prey. Closed gates on public roads also restrict access to these public lands.
An experiment designed to measure the effects of grazing on vegetation is being planned at the moment and will produce results within the next five years. In the mean time, an effort must be made to create more protections in the Rio Puerco Valley and open up the public lands for more uses than just cattlegrazing.
Some solutions are managing the cattle grazing in a way that would reduce the harmful effects on the vegetation. If the frequency that a certain portion of land is grazed is reduced and rotation of cattle herds through these areas is organized more properly, such effects could be reduced.
Another is making the region a national monument or enveloping the whole valley under the blanket of the wilderness study area. There are many other ways to improve the management of this land. Your ideas and contributions are essential for progress to be made.
Public opinion is a great vehicle to get this moving and the links below are to help with that.
New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman
New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici
New Mexico BLM Feedback Page
New Mexico Congressman Tom Udall
New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson