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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chain of Craters, Day 2

Trails are like friends you’ve just met.  It takes a while to figure out their quirks, discover their strengths.  Getting along can be instantaneous, or it can take a little effort before you fall for them in a friend-crush sort of way.  
Ants build more mounds to add to the chain of craters along the CDT.
The CDT has a tough reputation.  The unofficial motto is “embrace the brutality."  Its definitely got it’s quirks in this section at least, but they grew on me by our second day, once I adjusted my expectations about some things:

This is not a trail.  
It’s a route.  When you are not roadwalking, there is no tread, no defined path.  It’s walking over tussicks, stumbling over rocks, squishing through mud, and slogging in sand.  It is never smooth.  No one passes the exactly same place.  Unlike the cow paths which are clearly defined and heavily traveled.  On the Arizona Trail, it was easy to get lost by veering down a cow path, since they looked like the trail.  But not here—if you find yourself on smooth trail, that’s a sure indication you went astray.

This is not on the trail.
Since a route fosters a sense of freedom, why not wander a bit?  Go where the terrain and your own inclination take you. 
Scramble up Cerro Lobo (8345 feet) and imagine how lava shot up out of the cinder cone and breached one side of the crater.
Rocks along the rim.
This is not a gate.
There are these things Guthook’s Guide calls “gates.” These are not gates.  Gates are things that open so you can pass through. Not so here.  
Jan is skeptical about this "gate" which is really just a fence we have to climb over.
Here, gates here are obstacle courses with pointy pokey wire that are too tall to climb over gracefully, too low to crawl under, and too well-built to dance the limbo under. 
Piles of unstable rock to precariously balance on while trying not to gorge your crotch with barbed wire.
Long legs help here.
At one point we found a piece of wire that we though could have once been attached to a helper stick, which Farwalker showed us how to use on the Arizona Trail. Do other CDT hikers carry collapsable titanium pole vault sticks to get over the gates?
Are we suppose to use this barbed wire loop to catapult ourselves over?
This is good water.
Water— a glorious sight after the previous cattle tank turned out to be dry.  We had no trouble adjusting our expectations about water at least, we didn't even double treat it.
Half full!
At the second water source of the day, there was more water… and more fresh cowpies.

As I was filling up my water bottles with cow-slobber water from their tank, the cows started staring at me.  

“Jan, come quick, they are moving closer,” I shouted.  (Those of you that have hiked with me know that I’m scared of cows, and they all know this.) Thank goodness Jan came to my rescue.
Filling our bottles before the cows return.
The roadwalking
Roadwalking hurts, but at least miles are cranked out quickly.  The forecast of 30% chance of rain/ snow/ thunderstorms had us worried.  Jan’s car was parked on a “hazardous if wet” dirt road.  
Racing the storm clouds.
The tree report for Chain of Craters
Good trees here— ponderosa, alligator juniper, one seed juniper, and pinyon pine. Oh how I love sleeping in these trees.  
Gorgeous trees- tall and regal, spreading and gnarled- they all thrive out here in the lava.
This was a great section for a weekend backpack trip- scenic, very quiet, and fascinating geology.  Allow extra time to stage the cars at either end.

More Information

Started at Cerro Negro (CDT mile 482.8) and at the CR 42 trailhead near Cerro Brillante (CDT mile 469.7), then we roadwalked along CR 42 back to Jan’s car at Hole In the Wall for a 22ish mile day.

The water report for this section was last updated in April of 2015.  Just like last year on the Arizona Trail, Jan and I wonder why previous hikers fail to update the water reports.  Please do your part and contribute to the hiking community by updating the water reports as you hike through (email updates to cdtwater@gmail.com).
Some sort of mustard?  Edit: it's candytuft!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chain of Craters, Day 1

A reunion hike with my hiking buddy Jan, exactly a year after we started the Arizona Trail. This time, a 36.8 mile, two day backpack on the CDT across the Chain of Craters south of Grants, NM.
"J and J" reunited on the CDT in New Mexico.
 This section of the CDT isn’t smash you over the head gorgeous in the classical sense.  It takes time for eyes to adapt to the wide-openness of the ponderosa savanna and pinon-juniper forest, the shades of grey-green-brown, the wind blowing through the eyelash grass. Over the last two months living out here, I’ve come to love this landscape.  
But hearing Jan’s stories of her latest spectacular adventures—the Sierra, snow-covered Lassen, the Death Valley Superbloom, the Grand Canyon—I get all nervous because how can this compare?  Is she going to be bored?

But Jan doesn't seem to mind.  She’s a wonder of cheerfulness. 
Following the cairns.
Hiking with Jan is like being six years old and going out at recess to play.  Only we get to go play in the lava and climb cinder cones and stay out by ourselves all night with no supervision.

There is a hole.  Perhaps a lava tube?  It’s tempting to jump in feet first to see if I fit.  But I wonder if maybe my legs would get bitten off by a mountain lion, and legs are not something that I want to loose, given their utility in backpacking.  
I stick my head in first and it smells like pee or maybe skunk, or skunk pee.
Since there are no glowing eyes staring back at me, I climb inside.  Into a cold other-world with ice and definitely a strong smell.  It might be fun to hide in wait until another hiker comes and then jump out and say boo.  Only we don’t see any other hikers the entire trip so I’m glad I didn’t try it.
I’d been optimistic about the first cattle tank having water.  On the water report, it was marked “good” back in April of 2015 by Peru.  That was 11 months ago, but I met Peru at the Andersons on the PCT and she was really cool.  By hiker logic, surely that would mean that there must be water now at this stock tank.   
The thing about hiker logic is that it’s not really logical.  There are fresh tire tracks, but the tank is dry.  Suddenly I’m flooded with anxiety over whether we’ll find any more water out here.  Maybe it’s too early for cows?  Maybe we will die of dehydration out there.

Jan starts singing, “Who let the cows out.. Who, who, who!” (to the tune of who let the dogs out)  And we erupt into a geyser of giggles and continue hiking.  What else is there to do but hike on?
Walkin' on the "trail"
On the lee side of Cerro Negro, a grove of ponderosa, with a bed of soft pine needles for Jan, becomes home for the night.

Hanging in the ponderosa.
Jan holds down the fort, while I rush strait up the cinder cone to catch the sunset.  Only three or four hundred feet up but all the difference for views that reveal the arc of the snow-dusted volcanic cinder cones along the Continental Divide that make up this Chain of Craters.  With the fire of a sunset, it’s possible to imagine the lava spewing up out of the vents some 110,000 to 200,000 years ago.
From the top of Cerro Negro.
Ah sunset.
Back in camp, we start a grand snow melting operation.  As long as there is snow, we will not go thirsty!  We are stoveless, of course, but we use what assets we’ve got, namely body heat.  Snow is packed into water bottles, and seeded with water to facilitate melting.  
Filling our bottles with snow.
After double checking the lids are tight, I cuddle up to my slushy-snow water container inside my hammock.  It’s the complete opposite of sleeping with hot water bottles— ice sucks up all warmth but I’m so cozy in my quilts that it doesn’t matter.  And eventually the snow melts to water, and they get banished to my pack for the remainder of the night, and yay we probably aren’t going to die after all- yay!
Ice water bottles in my hammock.
Just before falling asleep, I yell over to Jan, “Did you say the forecast was for zero % chance of rain tonight?” 

“That’s right,” she shouts over.  

At midnight, it starts to lightly rain.  

Of course.

As I drift off to sleep again, after getting up to check my tarp rigging, I think to myself, life doesn’t get any better than this.


Date hiked: March 5-6, 2016

This was our first day on our two day, 36.8 mile section of the CDT in New Mexico through the Chain of Craters, south of Grants, between 117 and 35.  

On our first day, we started hiking at the junction of 42/Chain of Craters and 53 (Guthook CDT mile 495.0) and hiked south to near Cerro Negro (CDT mile 482.8).

No water at the stock tank 19-245RX.
First flowers of the season

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Off the Beaten Path Hikes in Petrified Forest National Park

Want to experience the wilder, quieter side of a National Park?  Previously this required a long hike or backpacking trip.  But an innovative program at Petrified Forest National Park called Off the Beaten Path Hikes gets you off the paved sidewalks and away from the crowds in routes of just 2-8 miles. 
This is Off the Beaten Path--no trail, no other people.
The future of dayhiking—routes not trails.*
Routes differ from trails in that they are unmarked and require navigation skills.  Don’t expect signs at the trailheads either.  Pick up directions at the visitor centers, or get them online.  Following these routes read like a treasure hunt “from the spot where the tree is located, follow the drainage west…” Picking your own path and backtracking (when you find you went the wrong way) take extra time, but in return you will discover hidden treasures. 

The payoff
Off-trail exploration is a most welcome opportunity for the visitor seeking a quieter experience. I saw no one else Off the Beaten Path.  Instead, there was more nature— pronghorn, jackrabbit, and only flower I saw were all Off the Beaten Path.
At first these looked like animatronic pronghorns..
Until they showed up around the next bend and bolted off when they saw me.
Routes also provided connections with NPS park history—old roads and trails built in the 30’s make up two routes.

The Routes
In late February, I hiked four of the six described routes on a two day trip to Petrified Forest.  Because they were short, there was still time to hike all the paved interpretive trails as well.

Jasper Forest Road (First Forest)- 2.5 miles round trip
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the Jasper Forest Road in the 30s but it was closed in the 60s. 
Traces of the old road.
In little over a mile, stand at the base of Eagle Rock, which was first described by John Muir.  This route has the most colorful and plentiful petrified wood, plus the John Muir tie-in, and thus clearly wins out as a favorite.
The Jasper Forest wood is mind-blowingly colorful.
Onyx Bridge- 4 miles round trip
Follow Lithodendron Wash into the Painted Desert Wilderness to find a concentration of 210 million year old petrified logs in the so-called Black Forest.  I got all excited when the description mentioned that one of the landmarks would be a “large living tree in the wash” but I never did find it.  Still, this is a beautiful area for wandering around.
Onyx Bridge.
Martha’s Butte- 2 miles round trip
Martha’s Butte (right) and Walker’s Stump (left)
Petroglyphs mark this special spot.
Historic Blue Forest Trail- 3 miles round trip
Originally built in the 30s by the CCC, they are not kidding when they say this is for adventurous hikers.  It’s steep and exposed, but the views are worth it.  And no one has to know if you butt-scoot/crabwalk down the steep parts. The guide for this one is the most detailed and gets bonus points for including geology notes.
Steep. Don't slip.
Petrified wood.
Oh the colors!
Off the Beaten Path Hikes provide a wonderful compliment to the paved interpretive trails at Petrified Forest.  Do the other trails first to learn from the interpretive signs about the local geology and history, then go Off the Beaten Path to see more and test your route-finding skills.
Even though it wasn’t on the OFBP list, the Long Logs trail was deserted and seemed to be overlooked. It was my favorite of the interpretive loops.

*The Trail Show Podcast refers to “routes not trails” being “The future of thru hiking”  Hopefully they won’t mind expanding this phrase to dayhiking as well.

More Information

Off the Beaten Path Petrified Forest Site

Ask for a paper copy of the directions (including a topo map) for each route from the visitor centers or the Painted Desert Inn. They also have plant identification information. YAY!
springparsley (Cymopterus spp.)
You may see other footprints, and sometimes the footprints diverge and lead you astray.  So constantly be engaged with routefinding and don’t let your mind wander.  GPS coordinates are provided for some of the routes, but are not a substitute for using your brain and paying attention.

Traditionally protecting the park is done by keeping people on the paved paths.  Going off trail in a national park requires you take on extra responsibilities.  The NPS still asks that you stay on the trail in fragile areas where footprints would be an eyesore.  Do your part and respect all posted signs.  Use good judgement when traveling off trail through sensitive terrain.  All it takes is one careless hiker to leave visible footprints across the fragile badlands to spoil the view for other visitors.

It should go without saying, but leave all petrified wood where you find it.  Yes, even that little piece that you’re sure no one will notice. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

The weight of stuff

Near-towns hikes used to be where I’d go when time was limited, back when I lived in a town.  Now, towns are places to pass through briefly to stock up on groceries and find wifi.  Driving through Gallup, NM on the way to go backpacking, the rock formation above town looked interesting enough to check out on a dayhike at Red Rock Park.

Starting out, the urban feel pervades.  Parking is by the Church Rock post office, then walking through trash-strewn, wide open sand. 
Heading out from the Church Rock Trailhead.
My backpack is filled up with stuff, not my daypack but my full pack. For a six mile dayhike, but what else can I do?  Backpacking gear, electronics, and laptop (which I have along for my wifi pilgrimage—yes that’s for you, dear readers, so I can upload my blog posts). 
Getting closer to Church Rock
Ever since my tire was slashed several years ago at a trailhead, I don’t feel safe leaving valuables in my trunk at trailheads.  
Getting close to the edge to look into the depths of the canyon.
As much as I try to convince myself it’s ALL replaceable.  I think about what it was like when my house was broken into a few years ago and the box where I kept all my mementos and jewelry from my mom and great-grandma was stolen.  In some ways, it freed me to loose all that. Nothing I have now holds meaning like those items. 
Tall ponderosa peeking out.
Now it’s about the financial cost and the time it would take to sew all new DIY gear when my sewing machine is 2000 miles away.  And I want to protect myself from feeling that kind of loss again.  Also, maybe I’m more attached to my hammock and DIY top quilt that I’ve carried for so many miles than I want to admit.
A tree.  Pretty to look at but not one I’d want to hang from. 
Once I start climbing, it feels good to have the weight against my back.  Centered, balanced, energizing.  The laptop fills in for the weight of food, and it feels like heading out for a few days on the trail. 
The view from on top of Pyramid Rock provided perspective on the whole valley and Zuni Mountains to the south.
Maybe my legs are strengthened by carrying all this along.  Maybe this is keeping me in shape for backpacking.  After all, I’m always glad when I head out backpacking and my pack feels weightless since I’m so used to carrying a full pack around all the time.

Or maybe that’s just rationalizing.  What would it feel like to be totally free to leave it all behind?

More information

Red Rock Park