Under a Delft-like blue sky dotted with a few cotton-ball clouds, my husband Paul and I turned onto Old Buckman Road and immersed ourselves in the unexpectedly rich, complex history that lingered around us. A thousand years ago, the road was one leg of a vibrant trade route that extended from Mesoamerica to the Rocky Mountains. We imagined ancestral Puebloans exchanging turquoise, pottery, seashells, feathers and stones, as well as news, customs and technology.
In 1598, Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate’s expedition from Mexico traveled through this region, hoping to find great mineral riches and establish a settlement here. The riches never materialized, but the impact of the meeting — conflict and coexistence of the European and Puebloan cultures — is still evident today. The trail became part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Inland Royal Road), the historic trade route between Mexico City and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo that lasted until the nineteenth century. In my mind’s eye, I saw the ruts of a mule caravan that once ground noisily along the dusty road.
When we arrived at Diablo Canyon, we gasped audibly at the unanticipated beauty and majesty of the two gigantic volcanic rock walls and the dry, sandy riverbed that snaked between them. We unfurled our rolled-up aluminum picnic table, opened our folding chairs and settled under the shade of a tree that grew smack in the middle of the arroyo (steep-sided gully) that led to the mouth of the canyon. Then we unpacked our gourmet takeout picnic lunch prepared by award-winning Santa Fe chef Carmen Rodriguez. He gave it a devil-inspired flourish for this particular outing. As we savored smoked salmon chipotle mousse with gluten-free crostini, pickled cucumber, fresh horseradish deviled eggs, and arugula dried cranberry salad, a park ranger passed by. He stared at us, then broke out in a huge smile. “You guys sure have it figured out,” he said.
After a leisurely lunch, we walked through the wash into the canyon itself. The sand beneath our feet was studded with pieces of basalt and quartz, and we picked a few up and examined these little jewels of nature. There were several choices of paths that paralleled the main thrust of the arroyo, and a few times we had to step over large rocks on an otherwise easy trail. The patterns in the cliff faces are dazzling and suggest everything from rivulets to sculptures to corrugated stone. The dramatic scenery continued as we walked through the canyon that was carved by wind and water erosion. Around each bend was a new, unexpected vista, and the cliffs changed color with the light.
I wondered how the canyon got its name. Maybe because it’s hellishly hot in the summer, or an early visitor saw a devil’s outline in the rock. Or perhaps someone gave it that name to dissuade people from coming and spoiling this little-known and glorious destination.
On our way back to our car, we stopped to watch rock climbers who were scaling the cracked basalt cliffs. They invited us to use their gear and give rock climbing a try. When I declined their offer with a bit of a shudder, one said, “I guess heights aren’t your thing, right?” We all laughed as I nodded.
If you’re a rock climber, the canyon is definitely a sweet spot. If you’re a ground hugger like I am, it’s the ideal place for an unforgettable outing that’s close to Santa Fe. And if you go, please keep the secret . . . or there may be the devil to pay.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel and culture journalist, author of three books, speaker and frequent media guest as a travel expert. Her husband, Paul Ross, is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photographer. Their website is globaladventure.us.