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Ceja Pelon Badlands

From lush forest to ancient conifer burial grounds

Found in: | Outside | Hiking |




WHERE Turn west onto Highway 197 just south of Cuba and travel 9 miles to a right turn onto a well-maintained dirt road. Continue west for about 7.5 miles to another right turn onto a small dirt road. A metal tank on the north marks this turn. Head in a northerly direction for 2 miles to a barely discernable dirt turnoff to the west (or left). Drive as far as you feel comfortable on this rutted two-track, and begin walking west toward the mesa. Stay low for badlands formations or climb for petrified wood. Year round depending on weather conditions.


Pat Hester at the Albuquerque BLM Office: 505-761-8786



For the last several miles I've been picking my way through a 60-million-year-old log jam. Huge petrified tree trunks by the hundreds line the mesa edge. Preserved with exquisite detail, the grain patterns and bark textures of the trees are rendered in brilliant quartzite rainbow colors. The toppled trunks, 6 to 7 feet in diameter, have fluted bases that taper into broken trunks. Upright stumps tilt skyward and large sections of trunk rest atop eroded pedestals, forming capped hoodoos.

This ancient burial ground for fallen conifer monarchs certainly adds to the allure at the Ceja Pelon badlands. Located in the San Juan Basin 20 miles west of Cuba on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, it's one that I'm in the habit of calling the Nacimiento Badlands. Carved from the same widespread San Juan Basin geological formation, Lybrook, Mesa De Cuba, Penistaja, and the Ceja Pelon badlands show similarities to one another but also distinctive characters. The Nacimiento sedimentary layer accumulated over about a 10-million-year span during the Paleocene Period, beginning about 65 million years ago. For most of this time, the San Juan basin was a lush forested plain filled with lakes, bogs, and large meandering rivers. Now the tilted, 1,000-feet-thick sedimentary bed edges are exposed in a huge semi-circle curving across the southern two thirds of the San Juan Basin. Like the other Nacimiento badlands, Ceja Pelon has a stair-step topography. Three fairly level steps, the base, the bench, and the mesa top are connected by two 100-feet-high serpentine cliff faces extending for miles along Ceja Pelon Mesa's south-facing edge.

The greatest concentration of petrified wood is on the bench but each level offers interesting formations and hiking. The base holds barren moonscapes formed by a pastel maze of ridges, mounds, washes, and bowls. Low-grade coal seams produce rich, crumbling black and grey bands alternating with whites, olives, maroons, and purples. Large pieces of petrified wood litter the wash bottoms. It's like walking through a Georgia O'Keefe painting where the sensually rounded, raw earth itself appears strangely organic. A steep-walled canyon carves deep into the mesa guarded on the right by a dual-turreted fortress, on the left by a towering Egyptian obelisk. Even larger petrified wood chunks hint at what lies ahead.

The canyon soon narrows and pinches off into a scramble up to the bench where ahead lies an incredible collection of petrified wood, the most impressive I've seen any where in New Mexico and, in my experience, second only to Petrified Forest National Park. For such an extensive, concentrated buildup, conditions had to have been perfect, beginning with large logs, lots of them, buried in watery mud. Volcanic ash from massive eruptions in the San Juan Mountains on the north helped enrich the coloration and details during the "prettification" process. The ash provided diverse mineral hues and extra silica to faithfully encase and, in ideal situations, replace the original biological structures over the eons, molecule by molecule, with sparkling, multi-colored glass.

Some of the largest logs stretch 20 to 30 feet with broken sections still in alignment. Lying sideways, huge curved bases and root masses slowly erode at various stages of exposure. In places, the route is completely paved with shattered wood pieces. Elsewhere, other, more orderly, compositions feature large, individual chunks showcased against a backdrop of soaring, intricately eroded upper mesa walls. Brightly colored boulder slides, hoodoos, and overhanging amphitheaters complete this ornate natural exhibition hall.

After following the undulating bench edge for a few miles through the continuous petrified wood cache, I climb the last step to a much different world. Ceja Pelon Mesa is aptly named. Ceja literally means "eyebrow" but often describes a mesa edge, while Pelon means "bald." The bald mesa edge is carved and fractured into all manner of bulbous hoodoos and sharp-edged, protruding ramparts. Bonsai ponderosa clutch at bare rock with exposed root claws. The curving grain in venerable juniper trunks mirrors the sinuous, closely spaced parallel lines embossing the smoothly eroded sandstone. Away from the edge, sparse high-desert vegetation covers the flat, expansive mesa top. Free-standing hoodoos, colored by garish splashes of neon red and tangerine, form a larger-than-life sculpture park. Scattered petrified wood chunks mark the way.

All these fossil reminders from ancient ecosystems put my imagination into overdrive. Gazing south to the distant cylindrical Cabezon Butte, my mind wanders back to the primeval forests that endured here for millions of years. Then it turns the other way, to wonder what this place will be like 60 million years in the future. Either way, it's a fascinating place.

Michael Richieis a tireless explorer of New Mexico badlands. Visit

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