After spending the morning at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site we headed to the Valley of Fires Recreation Area located .4 miles west of Carrizozo off 380.
The camping area was divided into two sections. The first section is a paved area that sits above the lava flow and has a combination of electric and non-electric sites. The lower portion sits beside the lava flow and is strictly primitive tent camping – no RV’s allowed. In all there are 25 campsites including 2 that are accessible. Hoping to use our tent and do some star gazing, we chose a campsite beside the lava flow were we thought we would be shielded from the increasing wind.
However, our attempt to sleep under the stars was foiled again by high winds (50+ mph) and within an hour we were packing up the tent to keep it from being destroyed. This is when we realized that camping west of Texas in a tent was hit and miss and the tent stayed packed for the rest of the trip.
We didn’t mind as the SUV was beginning to feel like home: Safe, dependable, and comfortable.
After settling in we headed up to the visitor center and to the 3/4 mile Malpais Nature Trail loop.
Above is a 180 degree view of the 4 – 6 mile wide, 44 mile long lava field. The source of the most recent activity here is the Little Black Peak toward the north. I believe this is a view of the area facing south. I tend to get a little disorientated when dealing with directions. I actually got lost in the woods once when I was a kid. But that’s a story for another time.
The first thing we noticed as we headed out along the trail is the drastic change in the color of the landscape. This stark contrast between the red and black rock was fascinating. The red can be found at the sandstone edge and the black basaltic rock throughout the center.
Once we reached the basin the landscape stretched out in front of us.
There were informative signs along the trail describing the different features, but if you visit be sure to grab a brochure at the visitor center or download one from online HERE. There is a lot to soak in and the brochure helps by highlighting specific points along the trail.
The pictures above are a combination of collapsed gas bubbles and lava tubes. It’s my understanding that there are a few lava tubes still intact at the Little Black Peak location.
The junipers play a big role in the reclamation of the land from the unforgiving lava. Dead junipers provide habitat areas for animals as well as providing the basis of soil and nutrients for other plants to thrive in. The picture on the right is a 400 year old living specimen and a popular place to stop and sit along the trail.
Walking amid the lava field in the basin is a little deceptive, it’s hard to imagine that the surface you see is only the top of a field that runs up to 160′ deep.
Another thing that impressed me was the diversity of textures. What a dream for professional and amateur photographers. A word of caution from Mr. McGee – Do not check to see if a walking stick cholla is sharp on a windy day. Just as I snapped this picture the wind picked up and he got quite a little “sting”.
The type of lava formation you see here is called a pahoehoe. These undulated patterns are the results of a low-effusion rate eruption, which brings me to an important point; The lava field you see before you was not caused by some large explosive event. Rather it was formed because lava was “extruded” through vents in an area where the surface of the earths crust was thin.
Another interesting fact is that this is the youngest event of this type in the continental United States; happening between 2000 and 5000 years ago. In geologic time this is a mere hiccup from today.
As the field ages the landscape will change over time. The diversity of plants which can now be seen along the edges will eventually spread out across the field as soil and nutrients are brought in by wind rain and decomposition. But for now one can still look out and imagine how barren the land must have looked not to long ago because extremely drought tolerant plants, like Cacti, are the only species that can survive on the surface of the lava.
That said, the animals have adapted to live here in much the same way as they adapted at White Sands. Except here, instead of the animal kingdom becoming lighter in color, they have grown darker.
And let’s not forget the creepy things. If I’m not mistaken the picture above is the home of a tarantula. We spotted many of these along the outer edges.
We made several trips along the trail and each time spotted something new. In all we were very impressed by just how much beauty there was to soak in among this almost alien landscape.
Speaking of Aliens, next week we’ll get our geek on when we visit the International UFO museum.
Valley of Fires Recreation Area website Phone 575-648-2241, 575-840-6243 P.O. Box 871 Carrizozo, NM 88301 Latitude / Longitude 33.68226167, -105.9224303 Four miles west of the Town of Carrizozo on US 380.
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