AS HE WALKS ALONG A DARK BASALT mesa rimmed with piñon and juniper woodlands, Joseph Brophy Toledo, a member of the Pueblo of Jemez, browses a generous landscape. Juniper berries supply antioxidants. Cholla cactus fruit can make jelly for dessert. Yucca provides fiber for baskets and sandals. Even a poisonous plant, its green leaves left untouched by grazing animals, yields an antivenin. He stoops and picks up a black-and-white feather, strokes it, and declares, “Magpie.”
“I’m gonna use it,” says Toledo, co-founder of the Flower Hill Institute, a Native-run cultural preservation nonprofit. “That’s why it was left here for me.”
He scrambles over uneven ground, then takes a seat on a boulder facing centuries-old petroglyphs. They’re just some of the hundreds adorning the dark rock faces at La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site, outside Santa Fe. Toledo points to a turtle, a roadrunner, flute players, hunters and their prey, a serpent, a spiral, a cornstalk. The images tie into emergence ceremonies or teach a holistic view of health, even ways to ride through life’s peaks and valleys.
“I want to find these petroglyphs and just sit there and watch the sun rise and set,” he declares. Some, like a pale handprint etched on a beige block, remind him of how prayer blends belief and trust.
As we pass by some panels, Andrew Black, public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountain region, wags a finger at bullet dents, a section of rock chiseled away to steal the artwork on it, and scratches and scribbles of graffiti.
“New stuff,” he mutters.
Prickly masses of tumbleweeds heaped against the cliffs shield the ancient rock art, Toledo says, stepping in where people have not to preserve these irreplaceable etchings. On one area, purple spray paint mars some petroglyphs. After he heard the news, Black came to assess the damage and spotted the paint cans tossed under a bush. He stood there with an eye on the evidence until law enforcement officers arrived.
Black and Toledo are part of a coalition of local individuals, tribal members, organizations, and lawmakers who are advocating on behalf of an underappreciated treasure in northern New Mexico—the Caja del Rio. On a sunny morning, they hiked a piece of it with me to talk about why it deserves saving. The effort has led to city and county resolutions in support of protections, public forums and film festivals, and even conversations with New Mexico’s congressional delegates about the threats.
It’s not just about the graffiti. Illegal dumping scatters garbage across the plateau. Unlawful shooting spills out of semiformal ranges with limited safety measures and no trash pickup programs in place. Wildfires ignited twice this summer. Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) tear up a delicate high-desert landscape and wildlife habitat.
But this is a place that is crucial to wildlife and beloved by a diverse array of people. “Earth people have to work together as stewards of the land,” Toledo says. “That’s why we’re here.”
The land gives to the people, he says. But in return, they must give back.
THE SANTA FE RIVER AND RÍO GRANDE CARVED the 107,000-acre Caja del Rio. Amid its piñon and juniper woodlands, cholla cactus forests, volcanic cinder cones, and golden grasslands are traces of millennia of human presence, from Indigenous farmers to Spanish settlers to Civil War soldiers to Model T drivers. To survey the Caja, Black drives me out on the old Route 66—the highway numbers still legible in white paint on steel signs—toward the plateau’s edge at La Bajada.
Raptors skim through the sky, and we pass dens for burrowing owls or foxes. A trio of quail struts around a cholla. Coyote paw prints are freshly planted in soft ground. When this dirt road was part of the first highway system, hundreds of vehicles coiled through its hairpin turns each day.
The thoroughfare shadowed the Camino Real trade route with Mexico City, its beaten track still faintly traceable through the brush. That trail likely overlaid Native footpaths. Those, in turn, borrowed wildlife migration corridor paths, which we mostly recognize now in the flattened grasses marking where deer recently bedded down.
Visiting the area with a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, Black peeked at a map of archaeological sites. Much of the mesa lit up. But the wonders are, admittedly, unobtrusive.
“One of the things I really love about the Caja is it really epitomizes desert spirituality,” Black says. “There’s remarkable depth in plain sight.”
He brings people out to the Caja to find the beauty in the landscape around them. A minister at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, Black even organized a sunrise Easter service there. But as he prepared for the ceremony, before the sun crested the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Black heard the pop of gunshots.
“That’s got to stop,” he says.
Camel Tracks shooting range occupies a few acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which shares ownership of the Caja with the U.S. Forest Service. A confetti of shotgun shells and trash used for target practice litters the bare dirt. The BLM is establishing new recreational target ranges, a move that could increase safety measures (like backstops) and add oversight, including set hours and requirements to pick up any waste.
Both gun casings and trash sprawl across the plateau. Bottles, cans, and even a few mattresses litter sections of roadside. The Caja del Rio Coalition hosts cleanups only to see garbage piling up again the next day. (It would help, too, if the Caja didn’t share its name with the town dump, Black says.)
More resources and staff could come through national conservation area or national monument status. That would ease worries about more hard-rock mines and massive transmission lines. Tribes that have sacred and cultural sites like the prominent high point of Tetilla Peak on the plateau could secure co-management status and enshrine access for ceremonies and activities like plant collecting.
CARMICHAEL DOMINGUEZ, A COALITION MEMBER and former Santa Fe city councillor, admits he grew up hearing about the Caja as a party spot. “I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “I think other people could learn a lot.”
Now he hopes the Caja can provide people on Santa Fe’s southside with greater access to the outdoors. It’s also a place where different cultures can find common ground, their various routes all leading to the same end: that this place needs protecting. That applies to traditional Hispano ranchers wanting to graze cattle, Native people with cultural ties and natural resources to source, and now, outdoor recreationists coming to hike, bike, ride horses, and rock climb.
Often, that latter camp looks to the northern end of the Caja del Rio, with its soaring canyon walls. A sandy hike leads toward rock-climbing routes while hikers, bikers, and horseback riders roam for miles through mazelike canyons, up to scattered high points, and along the ribbon of green the Río Grande creates. That verdant band serves as a beacon for migratory birds. In spring and fall, warbling often drifts down from overhead as sandhill cranes fly by. The mosaic of habitats from cliff faces to grassy uplands supports an abundance of birds—Bendire’s thrashers, golden eagles, southwestern willow flycatchers, summer tanagers, and yellow warblers among them—and some are vanishingly rare.
“You could get a pretty significant bird list, if you’re serious about it,” says Cathy Wise, who oversees community-based projects in New Mexico and Arizona for Audubon Southwest. Fast access from the city boosts its importance for birders. “It’s like the perfect day-hike distance,” she adds. “You can go out for a couple hours and still have a nice lunch in town.”
But could a place with hundreds of sensitive sites, many barely visible, withstand the popularity a national monument creates? It’s about each person’s actions, Black says: A dozen kids hiking don’t have nearly the impact of an OHV driver he spotted doing doughnuts in the Río, releasing engine oil into a drinking-water supply.
More eyes on the ground and a visitor center instead of sparse signage might also curb the bad behavior. If more people loved it, they might fight for it, but that work happens “at the speed of trust,” he says, and trust takes time.
At another corner of the Caja, he walks to the edge of the Santa Fe River canyon. Water rushes below through willows and cottonwoods. More petroglyphs decorate the rock at the cliff’s edge. One memorializes a contemplative perch, the bottom half of a person pecked onto the rock, their seat on the flat surface and legs and feet wrapped onto the vertical face. Jumbles of boulders slant 700 feet downhill to an old ranch. A white painted cross, an homage to World War II veterans, overlooks the orchard and field.
“You stand in this place, and you listen to this wind, you look at this beauty, and that’s what reminds you, you have a sacred duty,” Black says. “That’s what keeps you working on the hard stuff.”
Get out and better appreciate the Caja del Rio.
Explore. Pedal or motor the old Route 66, now Santa Fe County Road 56C, eight miles to La Bajada Overlook from near La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site on Paseo Real, with an optional five-mile loop out to the Santa Fe River Overlook. Hike or bike (fat tires will be helpful for sandy sections) Diablo Canyon Arroyo. From a trailhead on Old Buckman Road, it's three miles through the sheer canyon walls to the Río Grande. Despite its name, dogs (and horses) are welcome to ascend about 300 feet to a plateau summit on the Dead Dog Trail, also off Old Buckman Road. The same trailhead accesses Forest Road 24/El Camino Real for those interested in traveling the legendary trade route.
Eat. Swing by Arroyo Vino for a gourmet meal on the way back from trails at the north end of the Caja. From the southern end, a quick detour allows for a pour from dozens of taps at Santa Fe Brewing Company headquarters, where you can dig into tacos, tortas, or chimichangas from Fusion Tacos.
Stay. Immerse yourself in the Caja del Rio at the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area campground. Developed sites include fire rings and views of the massive canyon walls. Settle in to soak in ancient springs, and the oasis of deep trees they create, at Ojo Santa Fe, with seasonal indulgences on the menu at Blue Heron Restaurant.
Learn. For travelers on the Camino Real trade route from Mexico City, El Rancho de las Golondrinas was the last stop before Santa Fe. Visit the living history museum near the Caja to see Hispano heritage come alive. Educational group tours of the Caja are available on request from the Caja del Rio Coalition.