Searching for Arches in Northern New Mexico

The holidays are always filled with a certain amount of hustle and bustle, even if it’s welcomed hustle and bustle, and sometimes a holiday from your holiday is precisely what you need to recharge before heading into the New Year.  That mindset plus an unidentified photo on a popular travel website (that has since been removed) of a snow-covered arch somewhere in New Mexico inspired a worthwhile pit stop during my winter getaway to Durango, CO.

After doing a little internet digging, I learned that the photo was of Cox Canyon Arch in northern New Mexico near the Colorado border.  I was surprised to find out that there are actually more than 300 sandstone arches in the region surrounding the city of Aztec.  The city’s tourism website offers a wealth of information with detailed maps, photos and GPS data for individual canyons and their associated arches.  We picked 2 areas that would be easy to reach on our way to Durango – Ditch Canyon and Cox Canyon – and definitely want to go back to check out some of the other canyons in the future.

Overall the hiking was moderate with some climbing required to get close to the arches and the vehicle access was decent as many of the arches are located near oil and gas service roads (although an SUV would be ideal). I recommend downloading and getting acquainted with the maps and locations of the arches you wish to visit in advance (there is absolutely no signage or markings whatsoever when you get there), and go prepared with good hiking shoes, a fully-charged phone, snacks and plenty of water as much of the area offers little shade from the desert sun.  Here’s more details about the canyons where we hiked, plus be sure to check out the interactive map at the end of this post with markers for all of the arches in the region.  Happy (arch) hunting!

Ditch Canyon
Description: The first area we set out for was Ditch Canyon, which is located about 10 miles north of Aztec off of US 550.  This beautiful area is characterized by sandstone canyons that create an almost otherworldly landscape surrounded by piñon and juniper trees.  After spending some time walking along the ridge crest, we hiked down the back side (north) before seeing the opening of Octopus Arch on our (with the parking area behind us).  The arch spans 29 feet wide by 12 feet high and is formed by several “arms” that come together at a center point resembling the body of an octopus.  From here we hiked further down the side of the ridge (southwest) to Cedar Hills Arch.  This arch is slightly larger in size at 30 feet wide by 20 feet high, with a perfect crescent of bright blue sky peeking out between the arch and surrounding rock.  There are 2 other arches in the area that we skipped since we wanted to make sure we got to the next location with ample time before sunset.
Number of arches: 4
GPS location: 36.937148, -107.860381 (Octopus Arch)
How to get there: From Aztec, drive north on US 550 towards Durango and turn right on to County Road 2390 at the Cedar Hills Cemetery sign.  Continue as the road turns from paved (1.3 miles) to dirt (.7 miles) and turn right at the fork in the road.  The road curves upwards (1.5 miles) and will eventually lead you to a clearing with a green gas well.  Park here and walk towards the path on your left where exposed bedrock is visible.
Total time at site: 45 minutes

Cox Canyon
Description: The Cox Canyon Arch (also known as Anasazi Arch) is the most significant arch in the area spanning 42 feet wide by 35 feet high.  We took the “long way” to reach it, taking the path towards the right (east) rather than the vertical climb off the path on the left (north) of the parking area.  This required us to climb up several rocky cliffs until the arch was within sight.  After arriving at the arch, we were in awe of its perfect rainbow-like shape, unobstructed from other nearby rock formations.  There’s also a second unnamed arch in the area with a 4 foot by 4 foot opening, which I climbed up through to get to the top of the cliff adjacent to Cox Canyon arch for a spectacular 360-degree perspective of the surrounding landscape.  After viewing the arch from all angles high and low, we hiked back through rocky and sandy terrain to the parking area.
Number of arches: 2
GPS location: 36.997898, -107.909181 (Cox Canyon Arch)
How to get there: From Aztec, drive north on US 550 towards Durango and turn left on the unpaved County Road 2300 (1.3 miles). Turn right onto County Road 2310 (2.7 miles) and turn right after the Williams Aztec Compressor station.  Drive straight and take the left fork in the road when you reach the clearing at the gas well site.  Park here and walk left towards the base of the cliff.
Total time at site: 60 minutes



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