In, and Under, El Malpais

Ever been inside a lava tube? Yeah, me neither, leastwise until this last Saturday when I ventured out to El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais is 590 square miles of exactly what the name means in Spanish: badlands. Beautiful, mind you, but oh my is it rough, an area half the size of Rhode Island composed of trackless lava stretching between the Zuni Mountains, Cebollita Mesa and Mesa Negra in northwest New Mexico.

In geologic time, the volcanic eruptions in this area are fairly recent, occurring during the last three million years. The most recent of these were late enough to have impacted early humans occupying the area, an occupation that goes back to about 10,000 BC, and creating some interesting legends.

Hot, black lava-blood flowed from the eyes of the angry KauBat’. His sons, the Twins, had blinded their father to punish him for his ruthless gambling. He had wagered with their people until they were destitute.

Now the Twins watched awestruck as the foul liquid poured from KauBat’s eyesockets, chasing them home to the pueblo where they were born. The mass of lava curled into deep ravines and wide canyons. Heat waves wore paths into the sky and singed the feathers of birds flying overhead. The curious raven flew too close and was instantly turned the color of charcoal.

The kachina’s thick lava-blood destroyed all that lay in its path. As it cooled, it solidified into serpentine ropes and cresting waves of black rock. Eons of rain and snow had little effect on the frozen lava-stone.

El Malpais as it is today was created by lava flows pouring from some thirty volcanoes and more than eighty vents and spatter cones. This is some serious rock strewn about and you wouldn’t think anything could grow here and yet life has a way of overcoming all obstacles. On the surface you’ll find Aspen, Pinyon and Juniper growing alongside towering Ponderosa and Douglas fir. Indeed, some of the oldest Douglas Fir trees on the planet can be found in the El Malpais National Monument.

Cactus and Lichen of all sorts thrive here as well.

But the land is harsh and not everything survives.

As the lava flowed from what is known as the Bandera Crater, it was confined to channels created by older lava flows and, as the outer layer cooled and hardened, this flow created a miles long lava tube system. Seventeen miles, in fact, one of the longest in the Continental United States. Over the years, portions of these tubes collapsed forming rubble strewn ravines with the occasional lava bridge across them.

In some places the lava flow cut deep into the earth creating lava tube caves. Two of the most spectacular caves at El Malpais are Big Skylight Cave and Four Windows Cave located in the Big Tubes area. Caving is a serious business and should always be approached in a serious manner. Hardhats, flashlights, signaling devices, gloves and a first aid kit are a must. A complete lack of claustrophobia is also helpful. In this photo, we see the inadequately attired author of this post making a graceful entrance into Four Windows Cave.

The microenvironments inside these caves are very delicate. Light flowing into Four Windows Cave has created an area where spiders, mites, crickets and other small critters flourish in a garden of mossy green.

Venturing further into the cave can give new meaning to ‘things that go bump in the night’. Here you’ll find blind crickets, bats and other assorted critters that have adapted to a lightless world. You probably won’t see them, of course, but you sure can hear them if you venture in far enough. The next two pics were taken deep inside Junction Cave in the El Calderon area. The first is with benefit of a camera flash. The second shows what the cave really looks like to the human eye. It should be noted that the author’s screams did not echo.

Along the eastern edge of El Malpais, towering sandstone bluffs rise above the valley of lava stone. The Sandstone Bluffs consist of gently dipping, Jurassic and Cretaceous-age sandstone that crops out along the eastern flank of the Cebollita Mesa.

Summer monsoonal thunderstorms create pools in the sandstone, called tinajas, that host spadefoot toads tadpoles, tadpole shrimp, fairy shrimp, and aquatic insects.

I got here late in the day and had little chance to do much more than scamper over a small portion of what this area has to offer. I’ll have to save the rest for another time.

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