This 35-mile Section No. 20 of the Continental Divide Trail runs 25 to 60 miles south of Grants, accessed by NM state highways 53 and 117. It winds along the Divide in open ponderosa and pinon-juniper forest among a series of volcanic cinder cones up to 500 feet in height. The CDT in this area has been marked by several projects in recent years with cairns and trail posts.
The centerpiece of this trail segment is a 19-mile hiking trail with dirt road access at either end. Much of this trail segment is on BLM Wilderness or National Monument lands where dispersed camping is alllowed, but water sources are isolated.
The southern trailhead is 35 miles south of I-40. The first 11 miles west from NM 117's pavement are in open grasslands. It can be hiked (or driven) on County Road 42 (the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway). A parallel hiking trail north of this road has not been completely marked yet for the full 11 miles.
Then, the CDT leaves the road at a trailhead southeast of Cerro Brillante, a 550-foot cinder cone - the first of many, going north. It weaves through open forest among the volcanic hills along the Divide until reaching a second CR 42 trailhead west of Cerro Rendija, a low, wide ancient shield volcano. From Brillante, the off-road trail distance is 19 miles to where it rejoins CR 42, then 6 miles to pavement on Highway 53 ( 25 miles south of I-40).
This segment of the CDT can be a multi-day self-supported backpack as water sources are scarce; it can also be a 19-mile day-hike if a vehicle shuttle is done between Brillante and Rendija. CDT through-hikers should consult the latest web or print resources as to support options and water. *County Road 42 may be impassable in the summer rainy season, and if snowy.
Between the two trailheads along CR42, hikers will find a number of named cinder cones, some with lava outcrops, rising above the trail. These volcanic features vary in height, color, and texture. Some of the trail is on rough lava outcrops but much of it is open woodlands, carpeted with pine needles. Climbing the cinder slopes, while challenging, reveals vast views in all directions of rugged black lava fields, green pine forest, and the arcing chain of cinder cones - with volcanic Mount Taylor rising 40 miles to the northeast.
The visitor to this trail will find few if any other hikers over the 19-mile single-track segment. On the 6 and 11 mile approaches, vehicles or other users are rare, although some notable features in the nearby El Malpais area draw visitors into this trail corridor.