ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s been a major tourism draw for New Mexico for decades. But it’s been closed off since the COVID-19 shut-down three years ago. So when will the public be allowed to see the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument again in person?

KRQE Investigates learned more about why the closure has lasted so long, and what the public can expect moving forward. Anyone who’s seen them up close walks away from the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks with memories and pictures of the stratified bands; remarkable images unique to this spot in New Mexico.

“A lot of my work was studying volcanic eruption processes and the types of rocks that were created by those eruptions,” explained Dr. Gary Smith, a University of New Mexico professor who’s been studying the area since the 1980s. “I started with an interest in volcanoes, and that drove a lot of my career.”

Smith has taken students from UNM to the Tent Rocks site since the 1980s when few people knew of its existence. “We were interested in trying to do a better job of understanding a poorly known, but very intense period of volcanic activity in the southern Jemez mountains between about 6 and 7 million years ago,” said Smith.

  • Tent Rocks in 1992. Courtesy of Gary Smith.
  • Tent Rocks in 1992. Courtesy of Gary Smith.
  • Tent Rocks in 2015. Courtesy of Gary Smith.
  • Tent Rocks in 2015. Courtesy of Gary Smith.
  • Tent Rocks in 2015. Courtesy of Gary Smith.

A site etched out of volcanic ash near the Cochiti Pueblo millions of years ago, the towering formations called “hoo-doos” serve as a spiritual wonder to the Pueblo people and a scientific wonder to those who study it.

“I was just astounded at the beauty of the hillsides, regardless of their geologic origin,” Smith recalled. Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks were proclaimed a national monument in 2001 by President Bill Clinton. It was part of a preservation effort Smith contributed to.

And for the last two decades, it’s been a centerpiece of the state’s tourism advertising. “For all those people at home, you definitely want to come see this,” a New Mexico True host said in an advertisement for the National Monument back in 2014.

Dr. Gary Smith with UNM students at Tent Rocks in 1992.

Advertisements for Tent Rocks showcased images and videos showing hikers in the slot canyons. “These are things in New Mexico that people can just do on a day trip,” a New Mexico True advertisement stated.

But that hasn’t been the case for the past three years. The National Monument was closed to the public in the 2020 pandemic shutdown and it remains closed today. Why? KRQE News 13 went digging for answers.

For months, emails and phone calls requesting interviews with the state’s Tourism Department, the Bureau of Land Management, the Secretary of the Interior’s Office, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez, and Senator Martin Heinrich were answered with replies such as, “We will not be providing a comment or participating in this story at this time.”

Cochiti Pueblo leaders also declined to comment. The BLM updated the statement on its website on April 28, during the weeks of KRQE’s requests for information. Finally, the BLM agreed to chat via Zoom.

“BLM has been meeting regularly with the Pueblo,” said Jamie Garcia, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM. “We have been in discussions about what reopening looks like.”

A ‘Double-Edged’ Sword

Garcia said they’re addressing long-standing issues including over-visitation, staffing needs, and resource protection, alongside Pueblo de Cochiti. “We’ve had such high recreation use and we want to make sure that we are taking a step back and really looking at that big picture item there, and seeing how we can move forward in a more sustainable and responsible way,” Garcia told KRQE News 13.

The Cochiti Pueblo remains closed citing Covid-19 restrictions, blocking road access to the national monument which sits on BLM land. As part of the presidential proclamation, the site is managed by the BLM in “close cooperation and partnership” with the Pueblo.

“I suspect that the designation of the National Monument was a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Smith. “On one hand, it provides resources and legal protections for preservation. But once someone sees a national monument on a map, it’s close to Interstate 25, it’s close to the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho-Santa Fe metropolitan areas — then that just becomes a magnet to draw more people,” Smith explained.

Dr. Gary Smith, UNM Professor

Data published in a government-issued 2020 science plan shows visitation levels each year since the monument designation. In 2000, Tent Rocks recorded 14,674 visitors.

In 2001, that jumped to 25,000 annual visitors with the presidential proclamation. And since then, visitation has soared to more than 100,000 people a year before the covid shutdown.

(Tent Rocks Visitations by Fiscal Year )

“But even before the pandemic, I recall seeing activity discussions between the BLM and Cochiti trying to think about how to handle the large crowds, that it was having a detrimental impact on the landscape that they were joint stewards to preserve,” explained Smith.

During Spring Break 2018, KRQE News 13 reported on the massive line of cars waiting to enter Tent Rocks National Monument. Visitors were waiting 90 minutes just to park their vehicles.

“In the past few weeks, they’ve been over-capacity,” said Danita Burns during that Spring Break surge in 2018. “People from Australia, people that are coming in from Japan. It’s quite the destination now,” she said.

According to the pre-2020 data report, “Current visitation is nearly three times the original planned capacity,” which was designed to hold about 50,000 visitors annually. That’s been a concern for those working at the site.

Dr. Gary Smith with UNM students at Tent Rocks in 1992.

Timed ticketing, fee increases

So, will visits to the monument move to timed ticketing? Garcia says an online reservation system along with a fee increase has been proposed.

“We have not implemented anything yet, but it is something we would like to do, make sure that we can keep up with growing costs of supplies and demand,” Garcia told KRQE News 13.

Meanwhile, locals are still seeing advertisements for Tent Rocks, and still waiting for the monument to reopen. “Oh, I’ll look forward to going back again, for sure,” said Smith.

Dr. Smith said his colleagues and friends have been messaging him, asking for updates about the monument. “Do you think Tent Rocks will open this spring? How long can they keep it closed? You know, so it’s – everyone wants to know,” Smith said.

The Bureau of Land Management says it will update plans for Tent Rocks on its website, but they have yet to provide a timeline on when the national monument will reopen. Part of that depends on when the pueblo decides to open its gates to the public once again.