Cabezón, The Big Head

MaryAnn White glances at the huge basalt columns of Cabezón Peak while making her way up the trail.

The “Land of Enchantment” brings to mind distant mountain ranges washed in purples and pinks, and rows upon rows of mountain peaks disappearing into a sunlit sky. And there is a sense of mystery in those pastel shapes on the horizon. Let’s visit one up close.

One of the more intriguing peaks can be seen in the distance northwest of Albuquerque. It looks like a big stump in the desert, or a blocky monolith that sticks up out of the surrounding landscape like a big head — a very big head. That formation is Cabezón Peak. In fact, Cabezón means “big head.”

The peak is actually a volcanic plug or “neck.” Somehow in mid-eruption the volcanic activity stopped, the magma cooled and hardened in place inside the volcano’s main pipe. Over the course of two or three million years, the surrounding volcanic debris that made up the outer cone eroded away, leaving this head-like plug of lava standing alone, soaring 2,000 feet above the floor of the Rio Puerco valley. Its total elevation is 7,785 feet — tall enough to be seen from many parts of Albuquerque.

But there is more to this geological tale. Cabezón Peak is only the largest of a valley full of volcanic plugs with stunning fantastical shapes that are known as the Rio Puerco Necks. There are about 50 of them in the valley. Considered some of the best-preserved volcanic necks in the world, they are all part of the volcanic field from Mount Taylor, which is about 50 miles to the southwest. Besides Cabezón Peak, the most famous volcanic plug in New Mexico is the massive Shiprock in the Four Corners area.

Getting to Cabezón Peak takes about 90 minutes. Take I-25 north to Bernalillo, then U.S. Route 550 west. About 20 miles past San Ysidro turn west on NM Highway 279. Go past the community of Cabezón. Eventually there is a “Y.” Head for Cabezón Peak which is to the left. After a few miles, a Bureau of Land Management sign points to the Wilderness Study Area. Follow that road about one mile. Camping is allowed, but there is no water or services.

The views from here are jaw-dropping. Bring some drinks and a picnic lunch. Or have an energy bar and wait to eat lunch at The Range in Bernalillo. I recommend the spinach enchilada plate.

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at

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