From Highway 84, it doesn't look like much of a trailhead. Just a yellow cattle guard and, a little farther up the dirt road it crosses, a gate marking the start of the hike to "Window Rock," one of the largest rock arches in the area. Hike all the way up to that massive gap in the dark, igneous rock, and it frames a view of the Sangre de Cristos.
"I grew up here and have been all over the world, but had just gone to Moab and Arches [National Park] and came back and then hiked to Window Rock soon after that—and I remember, it's that same kind of feeling," says Tana Beverwyk-Abouda, a lifelong Española resident. "It's amazing and it's right there, and we don't take advantage of it. We drive to Utah."
She first hiked to the formation four years ago with Jennifer Sublett, Santa Fe National Forest Española District's volunteer coordinator. The two were teaming up. Beverwyk-Abouda was looking for opportunities to offer an employee health initiative as the then-community health director for El Centro Family Health Clinics in Española, and Sublett was searching out lesser-known trails in need of some love. An inventory of trailheads in January 2013 had revealed some basic problems.
"They aren't marked, so you don't even know there are trailheads leading way out into this beautiful area," Sublett recounts. "And we also noticed there was ton of trash at every trailhead."
The trail to Window Rock runs up an arroyo for much of its four miles, and for decades, it was used as an impromptu dump. Sublett and Beverwyk-Abouda organized volunteers and hauled out thousands of pounds of garbage, including couches, televisions, broken plates, toothbrushes, a restaurant booth, a hairdryer, an ironing board and a blow-up doll.
Biannual hikes up the trail started as part of El Centro's employee health programming and a service-learning project for local middle- and high-schoolers and other willing volunteers. The years have seen school board members, police officers, and representatives for Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall's offices come along on the hike. Archaeologists, biologists and geologists have joined to point out geologic features and teach hikers how to spot potsherds and how to identify historic trash—anything that dates to before 1967—that should be left in place.
"We just want to create some awareness—that's why we keep this biannual hike going, just to introduce people to this area," Sublett says. "We don't have the trailhead signs up yet so they just don't know about it."
This fall's hike starts at 11 am Saturday Nov. 18, and includes plans for hikers picking up trash and installing some signs.
"What we're trying to do with the hike is create a community space that's safe and supportive and local for people to not be afraid to do what they have to do to be healthy," Beverwyk-Abouda says.
Hiking with an organized outing, she adds, assuages fears about exploring a new area that might dissuade hikers. The gate suggests to some that it's private property now, but the Forest Service installed it just to stop the illegal dumping. Some attendees aren't sure they'll make it the full distance, having never before hiked the round trip distance of eight miles in sand. That kind of trail surface means that even though it's flat, it isn't easy, and the last few hundred yards to the arch are very steep. The view of it from the arroyo, however, is still impressive.
On a larger scale, the hike is aimed to shift perceptions about the resources right in the backyard.
"Lots of the families around here go into the mountains and hike, but to think about hiking right there in our backyard was a little foreign," Beverwyk-Abouda says. "There's a need to do programming that reminds us of the beautiful place that we live in and to see it not just from a car."
Sublett says it's catching on—she's seen footprints in the sand. Bird watchers and even cyclists on fat bikes have also passed through.
"If you get a chance to go out there, you'll be amazed," Sublett says. "It's my favorite place to be in the fall, winter and spring."
Biannual Window Rock Hike
11 am-5 pm Saturday Nov. 18; followed by hot dogs and s'mores. Free.
Window Rock trailhead,
Highway 84, halfway between mile marker 200 and 201.