Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Straddling the Continental Divide: Western New Mexico, May 2009 (IV)

Cactus on the Narrows Rim Trail

El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area

On the fourth day of our trip to northwest New Mexico (Saturday, May 16, 2009), we decided to visit El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area south of Grants. El Malpais ("the badlands" in Spanish) are an area flooded just 2,000-3,000 years ago by lava flowing out of McCarty's Crater. Its volcanic features include jagged spatter cones, a lava tube system extending at least 17 miles, fragile ice caves, and a miles-long line of cinder cones that developed where the earth split and allowed ash and cinders to erupt into the air. We decided to make a loop, following NM 117 south from Grants, then heading back north on Cibola County Road 42 (The Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway) and finally returning to Grants via NM 53.

Our first stop (after visiting the excellent and helpful BLM/NPS/Forest Service Northwest New Mexico Visitors' Center along I-40 on the outskirts of Grants [a really hot young guy and his dad came in while we were there] was La Ventana Natural Arch along NM 117. La Ventana, the largest of New Mexico's easily reached natural arches, was eroded from standstone dating back to the Cretaceous Era.

La Ventana Natural Arch

From La Ventana, we continued south on NM 117 to the Narrows and the Narrows Rim Trail. Here, the lava from McCarty's Crater flowed almost--but not quite completely--up to the base of the same 500-foot-high sandstone cliffs from which the arch was eroded. The highway threads through the narrow corridor between the jagged lava flow and the cliff base--hence the name. We parked at the Narrows Rim Trail parking area, had lunch, then ascended to the top of the cliffs where we were treated to spectacular views across the lava fields to the chain of cinder cones in the distance, and, closer up, to a profusion of cacti blooming everywhere.

Cacti along the Narrows Rim Trail

Overlooking the lava flows from the Narrows Rim Trail

We descended from the trail, then hopped back in the car. By now, the sky had begun to cloud up as we headed further south to the Lava Falls Area where the National Park Service has created a self-guiding nature trail through the lava flow. The route is marked with tall lava rock cairns, but it's difficult to follow and the surfaces are uneven and jagged. Don't trip! Nevertheless, we completed the circuit in about an hour and enjoyed the landscape.

Collapsed lava bubble, Lava Falls Area

Detail of lava, Laval Falls Area
From Lava Falls, we had two options: we could continue to make the loop on the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway, or we could retrace our route north back to Grants. It was early afternoon, so we decided to try the Chain of Craters road.

This decision was a minor mistake. The road is a dirt track that is probably passable by a passenger vehicle (we had an SUV), but it wouldn't be a pleasant ride in any kind of vehicle. It's rutted, rocky, dusty and very uneven--much like the road to Chaco, but twice as long. Plus, the scenery is not spectacular and doesn't change much. The road passes close to only one of the cinder cones; the rest are all a mile or so in the distance and on private property. Cattle--numerous cattle--roam everywhere, mostly on the road and through ugly, overgrazed range. In retrospect, I'd skip this "backcountry byway," which took about 2 hours of white-knuckle driving to complete. (Our host at our Thoreau bed-and-breakfast had never driven the road despite having lived in the area for 20 years.)

As we approached paved NM 53, I had wanted to stop at the Big Tubes lava caves area, but the caves were 5 miles from the main road on more dirt road (!)--too far to drive so late in the day--so we passed them up. We finally reached NM 53 and headed back to Grants. Along the way, we stopped at El Calderon area for a half hour where there is an easily accessible lava cave, plus two deep, sheer-sided and gigantic lava sinkholes.

By then, it was getting late, a thunderstorm was immenent, and we were tired, so we headed back to Thoreau for our last evening in northwest New Mexico.

1 comment:


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