Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Day 22: County Road 42 to Crater Near Mile 522

El Malpais National Conservation Area protects a volcanic area including lava tubes, caves, craters, and lava fields or badlands. Our route took us through El Malpais today. But first, we hiked to the Bandera ice cave, a short side trip just outside El Malpais. Although most of the volcanic features there could also be viewed in the park, the underground cave with a floor of solid ice was interesting. 

Continuing on, we stopped by the ranger station for more information about the trail through the park and some of the local plants and animals we've seen along the way. Beyond the ranger station, our trail passed through tall grasslands shaded by stately Ponderosa pines and squat Pinyons. 

Reaching a "Trail Closed" sign gave us a moment of panic, but a ranger reassured is that the trail had merely been rerouted due to frequent mountain lion sightings. Sierra spotted two pieces of pottery near the new route.  We took photographs, but left the pottery there for others to enjoy. 

The trail passed by lava tubes and deep, cool caves. Using headlamps, we climbed down and explored. One of the caves tunneled deeply underground, about the length of a football field. At the back of the cave, we discovered an ancient dried ear of corn left on a natural shelf on the cave wall. 

Traveling over lava rocks is slow.  We plodded through several sections of lava as we navigated around numerous craters. Soon our route will join the ancient Zumi-Acoma cairned route across the lava fields. The route is over six miles long, and can take up to eight hours. Knowing we would not be able to complete the route today, we made an early camp on a bed of
soft pine needles underneath a tall Ponderosa pine on the edge of a large crater. 

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