In New Mexico we are accustomed to hiking in landscapes that can be described as “moonscapes.” Today’s desolate hiking destination took us through an otherworldly landscape around a special type of volcanic crater known as a “maar”, hence a “maars scape.” When hot, molten rock comes into contact with subsurface water it can cause a huge explosion of steam that hurls ash and volcanic material over a large area before collapsing and creating a shallow crater.
Kilbourne Hole, located about 25 miles southwest of Las Cruces, is a large maar designated a National Natural Landmark in 1975 due to its unique geology. We are spending a couple of days exploring hikes in the Las Cruces area and decided that today would be a good day to check out this special volcanic feature.
I thought a feature designated a national landmark would be fairly accessible, but without the detailed driving directions in our guidebook “Day Hikes in the Las Cruces Area”, we never would have found it. There’s no such thing as a direct route through this part of Dona Ana County. Once leaving the interstate, it is a series of 8 different turns back and forth on increasingly rough county roads leading out into the vast Chihuahuan Desert grasslands. The only sign indicating that we were headed towards Kilbourne Hole was a hand written sign placed on one of the dirt roads that branched in two directions. My guess is that the rancher got tired of having lost tourists taking the wrong branch and ending up at his ranch.
The edge of the crater itself is the only indication that you have finally arrived at your destination. The bottom of the crater is private land but a number of jeep trails and dirt roads surround the rim, making it possible to hike the entire 7-mile perimeter. Except for some sandy areas that made for difficult walking, it is not a strenuous hike. It’s not exactly a scenic hike, but it does have the desolate beauty of the desert solitude we enjoy so often in the Land of Enchantment.
Besides being a volcanic maar, Kilbourne Hole is renowned among rockhounds as a place to find “volcanic bombs” or xenoliths. These are blobs of molten lava ejected from the volcano that contain pieces of other rocks, most notably olivine crystals in the hardened lava rocks at this location. We found many broken pieces of black basalt that were encrusted with the bright green olivine crystals.
Bright green anything is a welcome sight this time of year. Lee found a couple of tiny flowers that he could photograph but not much else was growing yet. Thankfully, the spring winds aren’t blowing yet either. After a chilly start in the morning we had plenty of sunshine to warm us up and make a perfect hiking day.