Close Encounters with the Big Head | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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Devils Tower was the star of a Spielberg movie, and Shiprock is the backdrop for Chee and Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. But Cabezon Peak? What’s that?

Cabezon Peak - the Big Head

Cabezon Peak – the Big Head

A Little History
Spaniards couldn’t help noticing the big plug in north-central New Mexico as they followed the Rio Grande. Franciscan missionaries first built La Iglesia de San Jose in the late 1700s in the nearby town. Someone thought the plug looked like a big head, and named it Cabezon.

Part of the Mount Taylor volcanic field, Cabezon Peak is a volcanic plug. Plugs form when lava hardens in a magma tunnel above a larger chamber. When the softer surrounding rock erodes away, you’re left with a mound or thumb sticking up. Some plugs actually work like a bathtub stopper. They keep hot magma in the chamber underneath, preventing an eruption – unless the pressure builds up too much.

Hiking It
Today, Cabezon Peak is a challenging spring or fall hiking destination. Getting there is a bit adventurous too if you’re not used to dirt roads. US 550 leads you north towards Cuba, but look for a left at the sign for San Luis-Cabezon-Torreon. Our Bernese Mountain Dog Daisy had to be reassured as we rumbled over several cattle guards on the way in.

Daisy and Buzz at Cabezon Peak

Daisy and Buzz at Cabezon Peak

The thing just grows more impressively large as you get closer. Finally, we stopped and parked at an angle in the uneven dirt lot before the marked trailhead and register.

Scrambling down into a mini Monument Valley from Cabezon Peak

Scrambling down into a mini Monument Valley

There are three or four steep pitches in the still-walkable ascent to the base of the actual plug. Look around and you’ll see a mini Monument Valley spread out behind you as you hike. Cabezon is only the biggest of many volcanic plugs in the Rio Puerco Valley.

Scrambling down - Cabezon Peak

Down the scree field

At the base of the plug, we saw a couple scrambling down the scree field below the actual slopes. Their slow progress only reinforced our decision not to scramble the Class 2-3 route to the top. It was late in the afternoon, so we decided to forgo the hike all the way around the base and head back down.

local lizard - Cabezon Peak

One of the locals

We had more views of the plug field as we descended in cloudy late-afternoon light. One of the local lizards challenged us to a pushup contest as we passed through his territory. Somehow we missed the ghost town of Cabezon on the drive back to U.S. 550, but we were probably too tired to enjoy it.

Shot Notes
I set myself up for near and far with a 24-70mm f/2.8L on EOS5D mk II full-frame dSLR and Canon FD 100-300mm f/5.6L adapted to Fuji’s mirrorless X-E2 camera. I shot most of it with the 24-70mm, and used the 100-300mm as a telescope. I zoomed with my feet to get closeup shots. I underexposed basaltic rock to get it to look as I saw it. Both cameras were light enough to carry around my neck without discomfort, but I can see myself researching harnesses to avoid a sore neck yet keep cameras ready to shoot.

More Information
Cabezon Wilderness Study Area, accessed from
You’ll find directions to the trailhead here.

Rio Puerco / Cabezon Volcanic Necks, accessed from

Volcanic neck, accessed from

Cabezon Peak and the Rio Puerco Necks, accessed from

Cold, Bold & Old: 10 Monumental Volcanic Plugs, accessed from

Devils Tower Geology, accessed from