Volcanos, caves, painted dessert, petrified forest

Trip Start Apr 08, 2005
Trip End Apr 09, 2006

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Flag of United States  , Arizona
Friday, August 19, 2005

Before leaving the town of Grant we get a nice breakfast in an unconventinal internet cafe... that is the cafe actually sells coffee!

After breakfast we take a detour along New Mexico's scienic Route 53 also known as "The Ancient Way". This trail encompasses El Malpais National Monument, El Calderon trails and El Morro national monument. This region of New Mexico is rich with volcanic formations, caves, ice caverns, in all there are 29 volcano's in a 15 mile radius. It is referred to as The Ancient Way as it was the traditional route between the Indian reservations (Pueblos of Zuni and Acoma). It was the path once followed by Coronado, the cavalry and settlers following the trail on journeys west.

The El Calderon trails are 20 miles south of Grant and are an area amid two Indian reservations namely Acoma and Ramah Navjo. We did a little expoloring and walked along the gravel and dirt tracks past volcanic features to the Junction caves and double sinks, further along the trail are the Bat caves and cinder cone, but we don't venture that far in the extreme heat.

We (mainly Fergus as Ad is petrified of meeting mice or bats and God knows what else)explore the Junction caves for awhile. Ad doesn't venture much further past the twilight zone. Junction cave extends for almost 17 miles.

In effect scientists divide the life found in caves into four categories:
1. Accidentals - usually moths and humans are found here
2. Trogloxenes - typically life which lives above ground and does not depend on the cave for survival such as bats an mice
3. Troglophiles - animals which may live their entire life within the cave but are not fully adapted to the cave environment such as spiders and beetles
4. Troglobites - entirely dependant on the cave for survival such as mites and worms

How was Junction Cave formed?
Junction Caves is a lava tube created by the lava flows from nearby El Calderon Cinder Cone. A lava tube was formed as flowing masses of hot lava began to cool and harden on top, while while the lava beneath continued to flow. This continued and eventually formed a tunnel-like formation called a lava tube.
The Cinder cone was formed about 115,000 years ago, when a vent in the earth shot lava hundreds of feet into the air. The lava cooled and hardened in mid-air and fell back to the ground as cinders. This continued and cinders piled on top of each other, creating a cone. A combination of vegetation and erosion slowly break down lava into smaller particles, until eventually the area is transformed from a blackened landscape to the forested land of today. See photos attached.

We wander a little further up the trail to the Double Sinks. These steep sided holes are about 80 feet deep and are formed by the collapse of lava tubes. We don't explore the sinks as the earth is very succeptible to collapsing, nevermind the fact that we're running late and its roasting hot!

Our second stop of the day is at El Malpais and Volcanic Ice Caves which are located along side the continental divide. Over 100,000 years of volcanic activity formed the landscape at El Malpais.

We climb the Bandera crater along the El Malpais trail. Unlike our Villarrica volcano experience in Chile, Bandera has not errupted in 10,000 years. Nonetheless Ad manages to make it a little dangerous by slipping and almost sliding into the crater - instead she dives down onto the dirt trail path much to my amusement.

Along the El Malpais trail are ancient twisted trees - the trees growing in lava find it hard to establish deep roots, resulting in twisted trees. Additionally due to the iron in the ground the trees are very suceptible to lightning strikes, resulting in many forest fires.
Other features found on the trail are a natural ice box, sink holes, lava tubes and splatter cones.

We also explore an Ice cave. Despite an outside temperature of up to 100 degrees the temperature in the cave never exceeds 31 degrees fahrenheit. As rain water and snow melt seep into the cave the ice floor thickens. The ice floor is approx 20 feet thick. There is a green tint on the ice floor, caused by an artic algae. Along the back of the cave is an ice back wall, the back wall was formed when ancient Indians and early settlers mined the ice. In 1946, ice removal was stopped at which time the ice wall was nearly 12 feet high. Since then the ice floor has risen relative to the back wall and is now within a few feet of the top of the wall.

EL MORRO, "Paso par aqui: Passed by here"
Our final destination in New Mexico is El Morro National Monument. This is a giant sandstone rock with a pool of water at its base which was on a main east/west trail. Over the centuries those who traveled this trail stopped to camp at the shaded oasis under the cliffs. They carved evidence of their passage - symbols, names, dates and fragments of their stories onto the rock.

The Zuni Indians whose Anasazi ancestors lived here call the rock "A'ts'ina - place of writings on the rock", the Spaniards called it "El Morro - the headland" while Anglo Americans called it "Inscription rock".

We then hit the Interstate west bound for the Painted Dessert and Petrified Forest of Arizona.

The Painted Desert covers an area of 93,533 acres that stretches southeast from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest National Park. The desert derives it's name from the multi-hued badlands of the Chinle Formation rocks that cover the park.

This scenic desert is covered by a very soft layer of earth consisting mainly of mud, sandstone and volcanic ash. Various combinations of minerals and decayed plant and animal matter contribute to the various colors seen throughout the park.

We drive along a 10 mile paved road which runs right through the park providing quite a few pull off points with plaques explaining the geology and coloration within the park.


Further along the 10 mile Painted desert trail is the Petrified Forest. 225 million years ago a flood plain existed here, the ground was tathered with fallen trees. Periodic flooding buried the logs beneath layers of salt. Over time deposits were filtered through the wood, "petrifying" the wood and encasing the trees organic material with minerals. The colours of the Petrified forest can be explained as follows;
- Iron gives the wood a distinctive red, yellow and orange hues
- Maganaese oxides produce blues, purples and deep blacks
- The original carbon produces shades of grey

Unfortunately, unbeknown's to us Arizona have not adopted day light saving hours. What this means is that we were one hour ahead of the time used in Arizona, consequently we missed out on visiting the meteor crater, we thought we were too late!!! The meteor crater is 35 miles East of Flagstaff and is supposed to be the best preserved and first proven meteorite impact. Still, all it is is a big hole in the ground , so we're not too bothered by missing it.
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