Climbing Cabezon

Cabezon Peak

On clear days, looking west from the summit of my backyard cliffs, I can just make out what looks like a giant haystack on the horizon. If I were to hike due west from my house, across the Rio Grande Valley, over the Jemez Mountains and into the Rio Puerco Valley, in about 100 miles, I would find myself at the foot of this massive mound of rock.

The Stackmaster & Cabezon

The Stackmaster & Cabezon

Cabezon Peak is an eroded volcanic neck, all that remains of a now extinct volcano. Millions of years ago, hot molten basalt shot up through the central pipe of this volcano, but instead of erupting, it solidified inside the mountain. Over millions of years, erosion removed the surrounding layers of rock, leaving behind a vertical spire of columnar basalt. Shiprock in northwest New Mexico and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming are both famous examples of volcanic necks.

Northside of Cabezon

East Side of Cabezon

Rising more than 2,000 vertical feet from the surrounding landscape, Cabezon is the largest of more than 50 volcanic necks in the Rio Puerco Valley, a region known as the Mount Taylor volcanic complex. Cabezon means “big head” in Spanish. The name is believed to be derived from Navajo legends about a giant slain on nearby Mount Taylor, whose head rolled down into the Rio Puerco Valley and became Cabezon Peak.

Overlooking the Rio Puerco Volcanic Field

Overlooking the Rio Puerco Volcanic Field

The closer you get to Cabezon, the more impenetrable it looks: sheer walls of vertical basalt columns are surrounded by an exhaustingly steep talus slope. But there is a chimney to the top: a scalable passage hidden somewhere in the rock face. Several years ago I tried and failed to find the path. I was hiking solo that day and every route I spied looked far too dangerous to attempt without a spotter.

The Way Up

The Way Up

Cabezon is considered a Class 3 climb, with two short Class 4 sections. The Yosemite Decimal System defines the five climbing classes as such:

  • Class 1: Walking with a low chance of injury.
  • Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands. Little potential danger is encountered.
  • Class 3: Scrambling with increased exposure. A rope can be carried but is usually not required. Falls are not always fatal.
  • Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
  • Class 5: Technical free climbing involving rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death.
Heading up the chimney

Heading up the chimney, just below the class 4 crux

We didn’t use a rope or harnesses and made it all the way up to the summit! The dogs made it about half way up before they were stopped by the first Class 4 section, below the beginning of the chimney. My dogs are experienced rock climbers and I let them decide what they’re comfortable doing. I left water and my jacket at the base of that tricky section and told them I’d be right back. They stayed there like good, loyal dogs, until we got back down. Never, ever, ever tie up your dog in coyote country!
Where we left the dogs

Where we left the dogs

Heading into the cleft that leads to the summit

Heading into the cleft that leads to the summit

Rod photographing the photographer

Rod photographing the photographer just below the summit

Summit Spiral

Summit Spiral!

Summit Register Sketch

Summit Register Sketch

More Summit Register Art

More Summit Register Art

The King of Cabezon!

The King of Cabezon!

Cabezon D.O.G.

Cabezon D.O.G.

At the trailhead. Please! No money! How often do you see that? The best things in life are free.

At the trailhead. Please! No money! How often do you see that? The best things in life are free.

Click here for more pictures of our climb up Cabezon and visit for detailed  route instructions. It’s a beautiful day here in New Mexico and I’m off for another hike!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in Big Sky, Montana. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Road tripping! and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Climbing Cabezon

  1. Scarlett says:

    Congrats to you on conquering Cabezon.
    My sons climbed Devils Tower twice.

  2. bohoclub says:

    Reblogged this on White Lies and commented:

  3. writeejit says:

    Bet that was a thrill! More power to you for making it up those stretches of #3 & 4! I think my heart would have been somewhere in my hiking boots.

  4. lifelifedeathdeath says:


  5. pmdello says:

    You have so much fun!

  6. Fossillady says:

    Cool climb and interesting geology about the dried up volcano! PS . . I like the lion

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