Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Big Tubes in El Malpais

Of all the places I’ve visited so far in El Malpais National Monument, Big Tubes stands out for packing the most rugged and dramatic lava formations into a relatively small area.  In just two miles, there are graceful lava bridges and a huge lava tube system to explore.  Here, you can see firsthand evidence of the geological process that have shaped this corner of New Mexico into the rugged landscape that early Spanish explorers referred to as “the badlands.”
A glimpse below the surface into the geologic process that shaped this land. Lava flowed through these tubes for miles.
I was so excited that Still Waters drove down from Colorado to visit me for this hike.  She’s always been my scrambling-around-on-the-rocks partner, and caving alone isn’t smart.  Plus, it’s more fun to ohh-and-ahh and say “wow… wow” when there is someone to join in the ohh-wow-ing chorus, and on this hike there was plenty of that going on.
At just 10,000 years old, Big Tubes is the result of a volcanic lava flow that is quite young, geologically speaking.  What’s cool about a young flow is that the basalt is still exposed for you to see, since it hasn’t been filled in by blowing sand and dust, or eroded down.
You literally get a feel for how jagged the rock when you have to use your hands to make your way down the trail
These lava tubes were formed when rivers of molten lava flowed from Bandara Crater over several years.  Lava tubes are important because they allow the flows to go long distances across the landscape.  You can thank the long lava tubes for making the El Malpais such a vast landscape that worth exploring for days.
At Seven Bridges, the roof of a lava tube collapsed leaving a long trench with arching bridges of rock.
The hollow tube forms because the outer layers of lava cooled first, and the interior remained hot and poured out, leaving the tube.  As it continued to cool, the roof of the tube collapsed, sometimes partially, leaving holes or bridges, but sometimes more completely, leaving collapses or trenches.
Ponderosa pines tower above Still Waters on the graceful bridges.
Still Waters and I took our time exploring and climbing around on the rocks.  Even though it is just a two mile trail, we took all morning to wander around and climb down into a few of the tubes.  I also was enchanted by all the trees—those of you who know me, know I love trees— so out here, much time was spent investigating and roaming about looking at all the beauties.
Could this be a checkered white (Pieris protodice)?
Because the flow is relatively recent, the soil is young.  That has influenced the plant life here.  There are stunted Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine, with rare aspen, poking up through cracks in lava.  Because trees are scattered across large areas of pure lava, fire is infrequent.  Thus trees can live a long time out here.
What's a doug-fir doing out here?
 In fact, the oldest living Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir ever recorded at 1,274 years was found in 1997 on the Bandera flow.

We took time to climb down to Four Windows Cave.
Exploring the entrance of Four Windows Cave requires bouldering to get down under the holes in the ceiling of the tube.
What an odd feeling to see trees growing above you.
A unique ecological community flourishes at the entrances of the caves and under the “skylights” and “windows” which are collapses in the lava tubes.  The combination of cool temperatures, moisture, and a little sunlight provide the perfect combination to support moss gardens.  These contain endemic species— including one newly described species of millipede.
A patch of moss near the snow holds an entire community of life.
Overall, this is a remarkable place both for the exceptional lava tube systems and because it was surprising to see all the life out in the lava.

More information

Stop by the El Malpais Information Center to get your free caving permit.

Bring a copy of the NPS brochure “Hiking the Big Tubes” and guides/maps to Big Skylight Cave or Giant Ice Cave.

Driving here involves 8.5 miles on dirt roads.  During certain times of year, the road may be completely impassible or require high clearance and 4WD.  Thank you again, Still Waters, for bringing your truck to get us out there!

The trail itself is well marked with rock cairns and signed at junctions.  Travel over the lava is rough, and lave will eat your shoes.  Allow extra time to explore.

If you decide to go into the caves, you must stop by the ranger station and get a free permit.  Cave softly— pack out all trash, respect cave closures, and carry proper equipment (including extra headlamps and a helmet).  Gloves protect hands from the sharp basalt while bouldering into the lava tubes.

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