Barrancos Blancos: Mound of mystery, symbol of New Mexico geo-diversity

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“You see those cracks?” My grandfather would exclaim every … single … time … we traveled to Española, Santa Fe or Albuquerque from Taos. “Many men have entered that mound. And they never came out.”

With no air conditioning inside our old Chevy sedan, the question was shouted over the din of rubber tires rolling on crude pavement and road wind blasting into our open car windows.

Like clockwork, the dramatic approach to the pale dirt mound meant the question was coming, so all of us kids would clamor to the appropriate side window to hear the repeated lore and gaze upon the primitive gateway.

As young children, the questions were basic and predictable: Could it really be hollow? What prevented those men from being able to leave? What’s inside this mystical mound to make explorers want to enter such a site in the first place?

Surely there must be treasure inside.

Geological wonder

The drive from Albuquerque to Taos can be interesting — in a geological sense — as different “zones” are passed and elevation is gained. A visit to the Taos Valley from any direction requires either cresting over a mountain pass or crossing over a deep canyon on a steel bridge. The most direct route from Albuquerque, however, by jumping on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, U.S. Highway 285 to Española and New Mexico State Road (SR) 68 to Taos affords road travelers a firsthand glance at Earth’s crusty subdivisions. Traversing through the riverside canyon road offers some neat sites.

If you have the privilege of extra time as you make your way to points north — or on the way back to the Albuquerque International Sunport — you may want to stop along the way to take in these “minor” natural wonders of Northern New Mexico.

Aside from the usual grand formations that practically demand a stop — such as the pullout on the crest of the “horseshoe” on the road into Taos for a breathtaking view the Río Grande Gorge, or the Camel Rock formation near Tesuque Pueblo — there are several smaller natural attractions that deserve a swivel of the head or quick stop as well.

One such roadside curiosity is a loamy monolith located near the junction of SR 68 and 75 in Río Arriba County, otherwise known as the turnoff to Dixon, which stands prominently and contrastingly against the black basalt walls of the Río Grande Gorge. Known as Barrancos Blancos, the pale sandstone tower is hard to miss with its two crooked crosses adorning the top of its jagged skyline and a lonely, little cemetery at its base.

In what looks like a melting candle, the ribbed face is indeed melting, though not from any heat source. Instead, water and wind are the culprits, causing the mini-mountain to shrink, albeit minutely, each time a significant amount of rain or snow falls in the area.

But rather than being a lone-standing “mound” as one may perceive it from the road, it is actually a cliff — a connected mini-mesa that gradually rises from the southern bank of the Río Grande; Its exposed face receding due to those erosive forces.

Considered a “young” formation by geologists, Barrancos Blancos was created when water and sediment became trapped by basalt flows from volcanic uplifts. Compressed further by enormous amounts of hydraulic pressure, these pockets of clay and sand emerged when the water receded and the coarse block remained. Given the nearby confluence of the Río Pueblo and Río Grande in this spot, the alluvial clump contains material from the upper reaches of both canyons.

Ever changing light

The way light mixes with the soil can produce a different hue at different times of the day. Thus, the color and contrast are always changing and can range from beige to white to pink to brown as the sun casts light from different angles. Light from different times of the year can also alter one’s perception of the depth of the protruding ribs and receding cracks. Sometimes snow sticks to the sides.

So, what about the lore?

As the years passed, the fantasy that surrounded the mound turned to cynicism and doubt. Eventually, those tall tales became somewhat ignored. Time became a hot commodity and getting through the canyon as fast as possible became more important.

Common sense answers to our young questions led (simply) to a more superficial appreciation for Barrancos Blancos, which translates to “white canyons” or “white ravines,” so named for its bland appearance. Passage of time has assigned new meanings upon arrival at this landmark, specifically while heading back to Taos. Heading north, a quick glance to the left to see the mound standing tall and stout signaled home was nearby.

As to the question about treasure, the answer is easy: the mound itself is the treasure.

Thus, there is no need to enter the crevasses to search for booty. A feast for the eyes lies on its outside and it’s always up for a photo or two.

In any event, the grandkids are still in for a doozy of a story.

If you stop:

As with any roadside attraction, please take heed of the traffic whizzing by. A wide pullout is available on the south side of the highway and should be utilized to grab a photo or selfie far enough from the main travel lanes.

Many of these areas are on private land, so jumping over fences to get a closer look could be considered trespassing. Travelers should also be respectful of the cemetery.

Other notable area formations:

Camel Rock: Located on Tesuque Pueblo in Santa Fe County alongside U.S. Highway 285.

Echo Amphitheater: Located 18 miles north of Abiquiú in Río Arriba County on U.S. Highway 84.

The Palisades: Located 8 miles east of Eagle Nest on State Road 64.

Unnamed sandstone drizzle: Located 3 miles south of Barranco Blancos above Embudo Station (viewed from the Río Grande gaging station pullout) on State Road 68.

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