. . . I've been told that I write novels for email messages. Perhaps this is the way to go. I'll try to make each entry, or Gemstone, a "precious" one. On mediocre days, all I might be able to produce is a "semi-precious" entry. In any case, an entry might be a "neat" Gemstone--something that is uniquely mine.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

El Malpais National Monument

For the last leg of our weekend road trip we drove down Hwy 117 on the eastern rim of "the badlands" which make up the El Malpais lava flow where it meets the sandstone bluffs.  The largest evidence of past volcanic action in New Mexico lies in El Malpais National Monument. Most of the area can be viewed by car with some small trails. The lava extends an area of 60 by 35 miles.

The El Malpais lava beds were produced from eruptions of several volcanoes up until about 800 years ago. There are numerous cinder cones and small craters found within the monument. The lava flow consists of large, blocky flows called aa to small ripples at the edges of the lava flow called pahoehoe. The rock is very brittle and sharp. The top layer is black with the lighter reddish gray colors underneath due to longer cooling time and less exposure. There are lava tubes and caves all along the monument.

View of the sandstone bluffs with the lava flows 400 feet below
Sign at the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

The lava is bordered on the east side by a long sandstone cliff structure up to 400 feet high. We stopped at the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook to view the lava beds below. After driving a bit farther down the road, we stopped to see the La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest in New Mexico. It formed in a bend in the sandstone cliffs. The arch was eroded from sandstone dating back to the age of dinosaurs when the area was an inland sea.
La Ventana Natural Arch
You might be wondering how our chauffer did on the drive: very well. He clocked about 10 hours of driving on this trip. He still has a lot of hours left to go before his permit expires so I guess that means we'll have to go on more road trips. This weekend was a good one. I recommend visiting this area when you can.

The Land of Fire and Ice

On our second day of our road trip, we visited sights in El Malpais National Monument, again south of Grants but in between Hwy 53 and Hwy 117. We started off in “The Land of Fire and Ice” and visited the privately owned Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano.  Our first stop there was the Old Time Trading Post, built in the 1930s along with a saloon and dance hall. At the time the Zuni Mountain Railroad was operating. They kept their beer cold using ice from the Ice Cave. Now the Post deals in jewelry, rock specimens, and other wares from local Indian Tribes.

Bandera Lava Flow
Along the gentle hike to the Ice Cave, Aa lava jutted out on both sides of the trail. The Bandera Lava Flow formed as jagged, broken lava that formed when the surface cools and hardens while the lava underneath is still flowing. There are lava tubes, sink holes, and Indian ruins along the trail. At the end of the trail is a stairway down to the Ice Cave. The temperature in the cave never gets above 31 degrees Fahrenheit. As rain water and snow melt seep into the cave, the ice floor thickens and is currently 20 feet thick. The deepest ice dates back 3,400 years. The green color of the ice is caused by an Arctic algae. It is a natural ice box: 20 feet of ice (including the back wall) in a well-insulated cave, shaped to trap the cold air. The Ice Cave was known to the Pueblo Indians as the Winter Lake.
The Ice Cave

After we walked the Ice Cave Trail, we headed back toward the Trading Post and onto the Volcano Trail, which led to the Bandera Volcano. The trail wound through the lava flow, past a spatter cone, and through the trees (Ponderosa and Pinon Pines mostly). The trees often had their tops blown off from lightning strikes. We found out that the lava flow is rich in iron content, which tends to draw lightning strikes to the trees growing in it. At the end of the trail is the great crater left when the Bandera Volcano, a cinder cone,  exploded 10,000 years ago. The crater is nearly 1,400 feet wide at the top and roughly 800 feet deep. The elevation at the look out point is 8,036 with the top being 8,367. It is a very impressive crater.
Bandera Volcanic Crater

Next stop: Sights along Hwy 117 in El Malpais National Monument.

Friday, November 11, 2011

El Morro National Monument

The trail down to the pool
My family decided to take a road trip this Veteran’s Day weekend. It started off as an idea to get driving hours for my teenager so that he can get his driver’s license. So off we went to the lovely small town of Grants, NM, which is close to two national monuments in the northwestern portion of the state.

The pool at the base of the bluff
Our first stop was El Morro National Monument, about 30 miles south of Grants along Hwy 53 and which is situated on top of a sandstone mesa whose claim to fame is the pool at the base of the cliff that provides a reliable, year-round source of drinking water. It has been a gathering point for travelers for hundreds of years. The pool is not a spring, instead being fed by run-off from rainfall and snowmelt from the mesa above. The hole is at least 10 feet deep and is protected from the sun so that it holds water all year, even during summer droughts. I loved seeing the cattails surrounding the pool and how clear the water was, reflecting the cliff behind it so that you almost could not tell that it was a pool of water at the base.

Bighorn sheep petroglyphs
Beginning on the cliffs surrounding the pool are thousands of drawings, signatures, and messages carved in to the rock. This area is known as Inscription Rock and covers three distinct time periods: Ancestral Puebloans from up to 1,000 years ago, Spanish conquistadores from around 1605-1800, and American settlers after that time. The oldest inscriptions make up the petroglyphs from the early people, such as the row of bighorn sheep. The Spanish carvings include one from the conquistadore Juan de Onate (the butcher of native peoples) in 1605. The American inscriptions include many from the initial settlement of the West to the railroad building; most stop around the year 1900.

Zuni Sandstone
Past the pool and Inscription Rock, the trail winds around to the top of the mesa and we walked on the Zuni Sandstone, a barren landscape of pure white sandstone with some red and orange rock on top. The trail leads you around a deep box canyon and to the Ancestral Puebloan ruins of Atsinna, which contained about 40 rooms and including each a round and a square kiva. The rest of the ruins are unexcavated at this time.

Atsinna Pueblo Ruins, Square Kiva
All in all, the trail was about 2 miles total and included 200 feet in elevation with switchbacks leading up and then down the mesa top. I definitely recommend you go visit this small New Mexican national monument.

Box Canyon