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2004 Travelogue #27 El Malpais
Cibola Sands KOA.
Grants, New Mexico

Places of Interest:

New Mexico: Grants, Visitors Center, El Malpais National Park, El Cauldron,
El Morro, Mining Museum, La Venta, Lava Falls

8/15 This morning's move was not far, just 60 miles down I-40 to Grants, New Mexico and the Cibola Sands KOA. We arrived a little after 1 pm at our site, near the back of the Park, which overlooked "El Malpais", the "badlands". This area is covered with lava that flowed 3000 years ago; the RV Park sits on the edge of the flow and offers some good hiking trails through the lava flows on their property.

After set-up, we took off in the Saturn to explore the city and found the Visitors Center on the outskirts of town. This is a beautiful new adobe Puebloan structure that, along with racks of information and a gift shop, contains a video center and a museum. They had more than 20 videos about the area and we selected those of interest for viewing. The museum explained the history of the lava flows and the early travelers through this rugged landscape. We discovered that there was much to see and do here in Grants and we might need to stay longer than three days. We bought a CD with Indian cedar flute music; this enchanting sound will accompany our drive through this land.

Leaving the Visitors Center, we followed old Route 66 east a few miles and found the ladies maximum-security prison. Then, driving up Lobo Canyon, north of town, we came to the men's maximum-security prison. It looks as if they went into the prison business when the uranium mines played out.

8/17 We drove south on SH-53 to El Malpais National Park this morning. The character of El Malpais, derived from its geologic past, is from successive volcanic activity. The most recent eruptions and flows occurred about 3000 years ago and created a new surface layer.

Our first stop was at El Cauldron that erupted 115,000 years ago and its lava flowed east, ending near present day I-40. The lava colors were fascinating because they were both black and red from the various eruptions. There was a 3-mile hiking trail up the hillside and around the cauldron of an extinct volcano. The hike was fun as we wound up and around canyons of collapsed lava tubes. One in particular was a bat cave, which had a sign describing it but it really wasn't necessary, since the smell alone was sign enough. In the summertime bats fly from the entrance at dusk to forage for insects.

We continued driving down SH-53, which parallels one of the oldest roads in America. It was a main east-west trade route dating from antiquity. In the distance we saw a sandstone bluff jutting into the valley and we knew this was El Morro. The Spanish explorers named "El Morro" which means "the headland" and later the Anglos called it "Inscription Rock". El Morro is a massive 500 to 600 foot sandstone bluff extension of a mesa overlooking the valley with the Zuni Mountains on the other side.

We arrived at the Park just as it started raining. Grabbing our umbrellas, we entered the Visitors Center, picked up a self-guided tour booklet, and took off up the trail. The trail led us alongside a waterfall and pool of water at the base of El Morro. This place was a welcome campsite for the early weary travelers. Here we saw petroglyphs carved in the sandstone from the ancient ones as well as messages from the Spanish conquistadors and autographs of the early pioneers and 49er's on their way to the goldfields of California. Each "highwayman" left carved evidence of their passage with symbols, names, dates, and fragments of their stories.

8/18 Peggy was up, walking in and around the lava tubes this morning, then made a stop for the continental breakfast and visit with Suzanne, the owner of the KOA. This is a very good park and very big rig friendly.

Our visiting place today was the Mining Museum, on Route 66 in town. We parked and entered. A gentleman docent met us at the door and said the museum was free but there was a small charge to go down into the mine. We paid the $2 a person and took the elevator down into the mineshaft. Actually, it was the basement of the museum that had been reconstructed to look, smell, and feel like an actual mine.

Uranium was the mineral that was mined in the Grants area. The discovery in 1950 by Paddy Martinez, a Navajo sheepherder, opened the Grants area for major mining and the museum was a reconstruction of a uranium mine. The mining tracks with mining cars were in front of us as we stepped from the elevator. Numerically marked stations led the way and at each stop, with a push of a button, a past miner described the scene. Most of these miners had long tenures of 25 plus years and added interesting tidbits about their experiences.

Arriving topside again, we visited with Van Smith, the Museum Coordinator, who was a miner for 32 years and one of the speakers in the mine shaft below. The gentleman was extremely knowledgeable about the mines in the area and about the whole uranium boom and bust. Our time with him was entertaining and most informative.

From the Museum, we drove west on US 66 until we spotted a DQ (Dairy Queen) on the eastbound side. Doing a U-ey, we backtracked for a Blizzard and visited with an elderly lady running the cash register, who said this was her store and that she'd been here for 32 years. She even had a picture-wall showing the Dairy Queen history, and the various management teams that had come and gone since she'd been in the DQ business. She was knowledgeable about the franchise and made good Blizzards.

Returning home it was "toddy" time and time to fire up the grill for some pork- back-ribs for dinner.

8/19 We headed east on I-40 this morning to SH-117, then turned south to The El Malpais National Park Visitors Center. This is definitely not a favorite tourist stop; we and another couple were the only ones there. They were cyclists from the Netherlands, Paul Basset and Nadine van der Sluis; they had stopped at the Center to refill their water bottles. We stopped to visit as they loaded the water bottles into their packs. They had flown to Denver; from there they were driven to Grand Junction, on the Western Slope and had been bicycling south for the past two weeks. Tonight, they planned to camp at a campground down the road before cycling on toward Silver City, where they would end their trip. A friend will meet and drive them to El Paso for their return to the Netherlands…ah… youth. (We have since received an email that they returned home safely and thoroughly enjoyed their U.S. adventure.)

We toured the Visitors Center's small museum, picked up some information, and then headed down the highway to our next stop, La Venta, meaning "the window". Here stood a beautiful sandstone archway carved over the centuries. A trail led up to the arch, which Peggy took with umbrella in hand. However, she didn't take the normal entrance to the trail and therefore, didn't see the sign that read, "Trail Closed due to Washouts". Well swell, now I had to keep an eye and ear open for her because it was a long way up there and back. Long minutes later, she finally returned saying the trail was sort of crummy, with a few boulders and rocks to climb over. I said; "Look at that sign over there."

Farther down the road was another hiking trail called, Lava Falls. This one was definitely a different experience. It was a mile-and-a-half of walking on lava beds and lava flows. Pamphlets provided a self-guided tour across the lava flows marked by cairns, which are small vertical stacks of lava rocks, along the way. There was no way we could have followed the lava trail without these markers being placed at key points.

Looking around we realized that the earth is relatively new here, just a mere 3000-years-old. Here, with dynamic underground force came the lava swirling, twisting, growing, collapsing and flowing its way into position before gradually cooling and now resting in its final form. The Lava Falls area lies on the youngest of the lava flows at El Malpais National Monument.

We have never hiked over such a rough landscape and they were correct to warn at the entrance to wear proper footwear. Walking across these lava flows, I wondered why the lava dipped here and not over there or swelled up here and not over there and why is the lava so smooth here and not over there. It's hard to understand the volcanic forces that created this surreal area. Some of the cracks and crevices are so deep that we couldn't see the bottom. But even here on this hard, black, rugged surface, if we looked closely, we saw signs of renewed life…a tiny fragile wild flower or fern tucked into a crevice.

We noticed that a thunderstorm was drawing ever closer. Here we were like two lightning rods, stuck out in the middle of this basalt and iron field; no way, could we scurry back quickly. Carefully but as fast as possible, we finished the hike and reached the car just as the rain started. We did have a few close lighting strikes and loud claps of thunder. It was good to be in the car and heading toward home.

Bob & Peggy Woodall


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