Perhaps you have heard tell of hidden natural sandstone arches in northern New Mexico, and among them a free-standing thin ribbon of rock. Anasazi Arch rises from its mother stone in a perfect catenary curve. It is often compared with Utah’s Delicate Arch.
Visit three categorically different arches on two short hikes, easily done in a day from Durango. Both hikes are on Bureau of Land Management property.
I typically go arch hunting in New Mexico during winter months when elk and cougars roam the domain and golden eagles glide overhead. June has its pluses. Claret-cup cactus are blooming scarlet, and prickly pear have apricot and yellow blossoms on display.
Anasazi Arch The arch is located in the Cox Canyon tributary of the Animas River. The drainageway begins in La Plata County and joins the Animas at Cedar Hill, a hamlet north of Aztec.
From the trailhead, elevation 6,200 feet, Anasazi Arch is less than a quarter of a mile away, but getting there is not obvious. Walk north aiming for the pouroff at the apex of a natural amphitheater. The south wall terminates at an 80-foot, straight-standing column.
There is a pretty good social trail that penetrates the initial cliff band on the north side of the dry fall. This is the only user-friendly approach to the arch. Shallow hand and toe holds are carved into the stone that lifts you onto the first terrace. The San Jose Formation is a highly textured, granular sandstone which makes for delightfully sticky climbing.
You need to hit this same break in the cliffs both going and coming from the arch. Over the years, cairns have been transient, so make a note of your location. It is off-trail from here, but the arch remains visible to the northeast residing on the next bench.
Walking through Anasazi’s aperture is both wondrous and startling. It is a perfect arc of sky upheld by a stream of rock that tenuously rests on a broad platform, beautiful in form, perfect in function. It is classified as “isolated” because it is not attached to any rock other than its base. Most likely eroded from a fin, its span is 42 feet and its height is 35 feet. Living in companionship with the sky hole are old twisted junipers, yucca spears, aromatic sage and stimulating ephedra.
Please resist the temptation to climb the arch. It is dangerous for humans and potentially catastrophic for the vulnerable arch. If you want to continue exploring, here are two options.
Sandstone Rim at Arch LevelFrom the arch, walk east dropping slightly onto a sandstone rim. Walk as far as you like and then double back to the arch. This sets you up for an uncommon point of vantage on the ring of stone.
Scramble to Arch Overview North of the arch is another sandstone barrier. Getting up to the next terrace is great fun. This quarter-mile loop goes up through the Rabbit Hole and down the Dog Route. If you are with a canine companion, you will need to take the Dog Route up and back.
Rabbit Hole: From the arch, head a short distance northeast until you spot a cave and skylight. It is a low Class 3 move to get into the squeeze. The passage through the tunnel elevates you onto a sandstone sheet. You will naturally want to scamper all over up there. Walk west to the Arch Overview.
Dog Route: To return to the arch, walk northwest. You will encounter a shattered terrace floor – large, thick stone plates that you can leap around on. Head over to the rim to locate a stone funnel with carved hand and foot depressions. An ultra playful set of moves will get you back to arch level.
Octopus and Cedar Hills Arches The arches are located on the east side of Ditch Canyon which drains the Mesa Mountains and joins the Animas River at Cedar Hill. It is a good idea to drive 0.1 mile beyond the pullout and locate Cedar Hills Arch at skyline. Octopus Arch is steps away to the left but out of sight.
From the parking pullout, elevation 5,950 feet, the arches are just over half-a-mile distant. Cross San Juan County Road 2390, walk northeast through a sage flat and cross dry Ditch Canyon wash. Climb the big-block topped bluff north of the monster cubes.
Head north on the terrace. The arches are on the next level. Scale the soft, purple shale of the Nacimiento Formation that underlies the San Jose.
Continue north to a large outcrop. It signifies the beginning of the loop. Start to the right and thread through boulders. Do a Class 2-plus climb onto a sandstone expanse with small weathered domes and whorling petrified biscuits.
Walk west and then back south on top of the stone ridge to Octopus Arch. The top of the 29-foot span looks very much like the head of an octopus. The arch was formed by a pothole near the cliff edge that grew deeper and deeper until it wore through the wall. Please do not climb on this fragile arch. When I first visited in 2008, Octopus had a beautiful extended arm, now sadly missing.
Continue south on the upper level to Cedar Hills Arch. This is an alcove arch whose roof was eroded away. This powerful and substantial aperture will ably support the weight of people who are not afraid of exposure. The span is 30 feet and height is 20 feet.
To reach the base of the arches, walk back north. For fun, you may wander a fair distance on sandstone. Drop west and then walk south to the underside of Octopus. This ancient arch is growing ever more delicate. It is defined more by emptiness than by stone.
Anasazi and Octopus are well known and loved, while Cedar Hills is considered a bonus arch. But it is my favorite because it answers the inexplicable need some of us possess to both stand on and stand below an arc of stone. The rock highlights the sky so blue, our faraway sun casts animated shadows, and each grain of sandstone is in a state of perfection.
For photos and arch exploration, visit debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com