Thursday, June 11, 2015

Spring Shakedown 2015 - Part 1

Shakedown Cruise Introduction

I was late getting the camper on the truck this year due to all sorts of issues of no interest to you, and then a bug knocked me down for a couple of weeks. So I was late taking my shakedown. The plan was to start the camping season with a trip of only several days to verify the truck and camper are functional, and that I have successfully organized the excessive amount of stuff I bring along. So, I didn't want to travel too far, and if I explored an area new to me, so much the better.

I thought I might explore the northwestern part of the Gila and the adjacent area in far eastern Arizona. I did only the most general and vague planning with the idea of stopping at the various district ranger stations as I went along - a benefit of travel during the week when they're open. In doing my web research I came across mention of the wildfire that devastated much of the mountains in the section of Arizona I'd been thinking about. I thought, then, that I'd just stay in New Mexico. Spoilers: during the first days of my trip several knowledgable people strongly encouraged me to go to AZ as there were many beautiful areas only lightly touched by the fire, or skipped altogether. So that's what I did.

Important Note: I am organizing this trip report into separate sections to both make it easier to read and to organize the geographical areas for your future trip planning.
  • This post, Part I comprises part of Wednesday and part of Saturday covering El Malpais National Monument. This breaks the timeline, but puts all of El Malpais in one section.
  • Part II covers the rest of Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning in the Apache and Gila National Forests.
  • Part III covers El Morro National Monument from Saturday evening through Sunday afternoon.
  • Part IV is a photo gallery of the inscriptions of El Morro National Monument. I separated this out as they will be of only limited interest to those interested in a historical perspective.

Overview Map of Spring Shakedown

Remember, you can click on this graphic, or any photo posted to the blog, to view larger versions.

Note: travel direction and campsites indicated by little truck/camper icons. The inset map is for a wider perspective.

I. El Malpais National Monument

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I headed out west I-40 from Albuquerque and took Exit 89 south on HWY 117, just before Grants, into El Malpais [pronounced: el-mal pie-EES; translated: bad country, i.e., badlands].  I'd been down this way only once, several years ago, and wanted to see this interesting area again. Plus it looked like it would be an good way to get to the west-central mountains I wanted to explore.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

Sandstone Bluffs looking northwest

I stopped at the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook and it was just as spectacular as I'd remembered. One drives a mile and a half west off the highway on a dirt road to the edge of a great sandstone cliff. From the outcropping one looks west and north across the badlands covered in lava.

Mt. Taylor is above the bluffs on the horizon; the black areas below are patches of bare lava

To the north is Mt. Taylor, itself an ancient volcano. It is not responsible for the lava below, however, as the mountain erupted 135 million years ago, but the lava in El Malpais is only a few thousands of years old. It comes from a string of newer volcanoes on the west side of the monument.

Looking south from the overlook toward The Narrows

I skipped the La Ventana arch structure this time, but here is a photo from my trip in 2008

La Ventana Natural Arch - 2008
The highway then passes though an area called The Narrows - this is a strip of land between the bluffs on the east and the edge of the lave flow on the west.

Last time I stopped at the south end of The Narrows and hiked the Ridge Trail north from the picnic area. I took some cool photos of "the narrows,"  but I skipped that this trip, too, in interests of time. Here are two photos I took in 2008 from the trail, looking westerly over the lava field. The gap of The Narrows proper is at the foot of the bluff and cannot be seen in the photo.

View from the Narrows Trail, late afternoon - 2008.
View from the Narrows Trail looking west - 2008.

Lava Falls

I did stop to take the Lava Falls hike. It is not very strenuous, but very interesting. I highly recommend this hike of less than 2 miles, as long as you have good hiking boots. One follows the "rock" cairns through all sorts of lava flows with cracks and sink holes, hills, etc. I was amazed that the lava rocks almost sound like glass plates when you walk over shifting pieces. The lava here is still in smooth sheets, for the most part, though there are extremely deep cracks in those surfaces. I seem to recall that the lava in the northern areas of the monument is much rougher and rugged.

Here is a small gallery from my hike:

Start of the trail, next to the parking area

Information about the trail as shown on the sign, above

The trail is marked by these lava rock cairns

The trail crosses many deep cracks in the lava surface, from 6 inches to a foot
or more wide. Some are so deep the bottom cannot be seen.

McCarty's Crater - no, not the depression in the foreground (as I initially thought.) It is the cinder cone
just barely visible as a tiny hill in the exact center of the horizon (you may need to view the larger photo to see it.)
Most of the lava on this side of the park, stretching all the way to I-40, came from this one volcano.

Note the "ripples" along the hillside - I'm thinking that this is part of the "falls."

The other side of the hill in the photo just above and more "falls".

At the turn-around point of the trail, a small sentinel atop the final cairn. Note the blue on his throat & belly.

I had to look straight down to see this cactus that was blooming within a wide crack in the lava.

A black swallowtail butterfly feasting on the cactus flowers and having a tough time in windy conditions.

Back on the highway, I continued south. Within a few miles I spied a turn-off to a little dirt road called "Chain of Craters" that looked interesting, perhaps I will explore it on a later trip, I thought.

Note: the trip timeline continues in Part II. I chronicle my return to El Malpais on Saturday afternoon below.

Saturday, late afternoon, May 23rd

Being retired, I didn't feel the need to stay out for the entire holiday weekend, though I thought one more day camping and exploring would still get me home without dealing with the holiday traffic, but where to go? I then remembered that primitive road in El Malpais National Monument, the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway. Hmm, I could drive up that road which terminates on State Highway 53 not far from El Morro National Monument. I knew El Morro had a very nice little campground, then the next morning I could photograph the inscriptions before heading home. Cool, I had a plan.

Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway

I had no information on the condition of the Backcountry Byway, as I hadn't stopped at the visitor center when I drove by there on my first day. I did have a brochure from my earlier trip and it included a map that showed the road. (I tend to save brochures, file them at home by state, then bring those I might use when I take a trip. Worked out this time!) I pulled off the highway and onto the road. I stopped to look at the information kiosk, which didn't include more info than I already had with my brochure. I also took note of a large, yellow caution sign placed by the county warning folks that the road was impassible when wet and although it may not look bad at the start it got much worse farther in. The road seemed dry as dust now, so I didn't have that worry. (I learned later that just a few days earlier it would have been too muddy to navigate.)

A couple of miles in there is a fork in the road. The right fork goes north into the "Hole in the Wall" area.
The left fork, marked with the sign above is County Road 42, Chain of Craters.
Along the horizon is the actual Chain of Craters for which the byway is named.

The first part of the road heads west across a native grass prairie with the area of lava flows Well to the right. There were areas where the soil was obviously of the composition to turn into deep mud when wet as evidenced by the ruts (and the detours others had made around those spots.) The road would be a bitch when wet, for sure.

There were hundreds of small birds along the road in the open, grassland stretch. They would be sitting in the road, presumably as the wind deposited seeds there for them to find. As I'd drive close to them, they would take flight, but follow the road, settling down ahead where I'd come upon them again and again. Occasionally a few would settle to the side of the road and I'd attempt to photograph them. I figured they must be sparrows or buntings.

One of the many Horned Larks on the road in the grasslands area of El Malpais National Conservation Area.

Once I finally got one in my telephoto sights, it turns out they were Horned Larks. Wow! This is a common enough species in this type of habitat, but I've been unable to ever get a photograph before. I happily snapped many exposures.

There were also areas where the road cut across the ancient lava flows. These zones were extremely bumpy and required one to drive very slowly.

One of the many places where the road crosses a narrow lava flow.

For most of the road's length, the area on the NE side is designated wilderness administered by the NPS; on the other side of the road is national conservation area administered by the BLM.

About ten miles in there was a trailhead. Turns out this is where the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail leaves the road to go cross country along the west side of the volcanic hills directly upon the continental divide. Interestingly enough, and I wish I'd taken photos, folks had left gallon jugs of water there for hikers - some jugs were marked for specific people with a request to leave the water for them; others were marked as available for anyone's use with a request to "carry the empties with you."

Looking easterly from the side of the road.

The road leads toward the line of hills running north-south. These are the eight major volcanoes, of the 30 some cinder cones, for which the road is named and from which much of the lava on the west side of El Malpais originated. The term "crater" being used for the volcanic cones themselves. There are side roads leading around these primarily access for the cattle ranchers, I guess, but as this area is under BLM administration, dispersed camping is likely allowed (check with the BLM visitor center first.)

These ruts are shallow compared to most. Note the cinder cones in the background.

Once near those hills, the road turns north. Just about the point where I figured I was indeed in the middle of nowhere there was a ranch house with a pickup truck just arriving. Ha! I bet these are cattle ranchers. The lands would seem to lend themselves to ranching as the grasses looked very healthy covering the ground between the widely dispersed piñon and juniper.

Looking again toward the east. I took no photos looking west due to the low angle of the sun.

The road grinds along this stretch, then about 4 or 5 miles before the end are side roads that lead to the Big Tubes area. There are reportedly trails to lava tubes and caves - high clearance vehicles recommended. I'll have to come back and explore this area later. The road eventually re-enters the monument proper and then within a few more miles terminates at state highway 53.

Just inside the monument boundary the road clips the main lava field.
The lava is not two different colors, rather the dark areas are shaded by trees behind the camera.

At SR-53 I drove west to El Morro National Park. I will cover this in Parts III & IV. However...

I thought I'd add a couple of additional photos of my trip to El Malpais in 2008 so you could get a glimpse of the Junction Cave a short drive south of SR-53 just east of the NPS Visitor Center.

First sighting of the Junction Cave - 2008.

Looking down into the mouth of the Junction Cave - 2008.

OK, now you can read the next part of my recent trip in Part 2.

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