Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mortandad Canyon

For more photographs from this area, see my photo gallery from this hike.
Cavate and petroglyphs in Mortandad Canyon

Mortandad Canyon starts inside one of the main technical areas of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) at an elevation of about 7,420 feet in the western part of the Pajarito Plateau. It heads approximately east on LANL property, petering out a couple of miles west of the boundary between LANL and San Ildefonso Pueblo. I hike a couple of miles down this canyon occasionally at lunch time since I work in the TA-3 area of LANL. These little lunchtime hikes do not reach the sites discussed here, however, as they are on the opposite end of the canyon (the eastern terminus of the canyon, essentially). The canyon drains onto Pueblo property, and into the Rio Grande basin generally, and is therefore subject to sampling of wildlife and water on a regular basis by LANL, looking for contamination from LANL legacy operations.

As near as I can tell, the word "mortandad" is a Spanish word that translates to great mortality implying a number of victims. I don't know how the canyon got its interesting name. However, the canyon contains a number of very interesting cavates with petroglyphs in them from ancient inhabitants of this area. Because this land lies within the LANL boundary, and is completely fenced off, these caves are protected (more so than the Red Dot trail petroglyphs, which are open to the general public year round). Occasionally, the laboratory opens the fence allowing controlled access to Mortandad Canyon area over a weekend. The lab stations employees at the sites to watch over them (and to give informative talks about them), and the public can hike to the sites and examine what is there.

In May, 2007, the laboratory did just that -- opened the area for public access for a brief period of time. Despite being here for more than 20 years, this was the first time I entered this area, which is only minutes from my house. The hike is sort and easy. There is a very small climb at the beginning, but the canyon at this end is broad and shallow. I did not have a GPS with me, but I would estimate the round trip distance of the hike to be about 2 miles.

Mortandad Canyon, looking east.

Another view of the Canyon, with a bark beetle destroyed pine tree on the left.

There are a number of cavates in the canyon, some with petroglyphs, some without.

View of the canyon from inside a cavate (this one contained no petroglyphs).

The cavates containing petroglyphs, and accessible on foot, are protected by a large steel cage bolted to the rock and locked. The five images below are shot through that cage with a flash (there is a large enough hole in the cage to insert a camera, so the cage itself does not appear).

As you can see, the petroglyphs here are quite stunning, with lots of detail that has been preserved extremely well. Being inside a cavate, they are not exposed to the harsh sun and other element and are also inside the perimeter of LANL which offers protection from humans.

The cavate and petroglyph in the image below (and at the top of this blog entry) is not protected by a cage because it is impossible to reach on foot. I took this image with a 70-200mm zoom lens.

In addition to the ancient artifacts, the canyon has a number of interesting rock formations as well.

Natural Arch

Interesting formations

Mortandad canyon is a very interesting little jewel in my backyard.


Mrs. Bird said...

Oh how I lamented the closure of this area :( When I was growing up in Los Alamos it was open to the public all the time...Were you able to hike to the pueblo on top of the mesa above the cavates? It's impressive! There are even small sections of walls still intact and a very large spiral petroglyph next to the spring at the top of the trail. There are also some very interesting petroglyphs on the cliff face just below the rim if you know where to look for them. Do you know when they will open it again? I would make the trip up there for that.

Once when I was young they opened the ruins at the bottom of Pajarito Road for guided tours. If you ever catch wind of them doing that again you should definitely join! It was a wonderful experience and I was only about nine.

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to have visited this site 6-10 times over the years but now it seems to be closed all the time. Early one spring we found a bear cub in the farthest cave. According to Hewett's "Pajarito Plateau and its Ancient People"('38, revised '53)this is called Sandia Village. There is a trail connecting it with T'sankawi.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Los Alamos. My scout troop (Troop 193) camped there every year. We camped in the caves in the mesa wall, sometimes using hand holds carved in the rocks to reach caves higher up. The older scouts got first dibs on the caves. Some of the caves had connecting rooms where you could stow your gear. The caves often had shelves and small cubbies carved in the rock where you could place candles like those used in Farolitos. We used a more open cave at ground level for our camp fires. That cave was blackened from smoke from fires made through the centuries. It was one of my favorite outings and a great place to explore.