A “Maars” Scape

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.

Mesa Penistaja

After viewing hundreds of photos last night from Mike Richie’s “San Juan Basin Badlands” presentation at the Native Plant Society meeting, it was obvious that today’s hike should be an exploration of one of the areas discussed in the presentation. Shortly after moving to Albuquerque, I went on a hike with the hiking club to Ceja Pelon, one of the 5 Nacimiento Badlands west of Cuba. Lee and I have considered exploring out there before on our own but without any established trails we didn’t know if we should attempt it.

Just recently, however, I discovered a phone app that allows me to load a GPX track on to a map and then follow the track–exactly the functionality that a handheld GPS device provides but no need for an extra gadget. The hiking club publishes their GPX tracks on their website so now we can use their tracks to guide us to new destinations.

For today’s hike we selected Mesa Penistaja, a 6.6-mile loop hike that promised interesting rock formations and lots of petrified wood. It certainly delivered on the petrified wood. Pieces of all shapes, sizes and colors were scattered throughout the arroyos and on top of the hillsides. The dominant flower in the grassy areas was the Mariposa Lily. I have never seen them in such abundance. Many were growing together in clusters, whereas usually they are just a single isolated plant.

The GPX track gave us a place to start the hike and a reassurance that we could find our way back through the maze of arroyos. We ended up only doing about half of the published hike before we veered off and created our own track. With so many things to look at we weren’t hiking very fast and, given how hot it was, we felt that 5 miles was enough to call it a day.

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Ponderosa Pine grow on the mesa tops.
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And some of them are fighting for their lives!
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Detail in petrified wood.
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A pile of petrified wood.
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Bleached white petrified wood in arroyo bottom.
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Looks like a regular log, but it’s petrified.
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A chunk of petrified wood that got left on top of eroded mud.
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Petrified log next to a dead branch.
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Close-up of Mariposa Lily.
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Cluster of Mariposa Lily.

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Ball Ranch

I had heard about Ball Ranch, a section of BLM land less than an hour’s drive from town, that has areas to hike through, but I didn’t know much about it. Then last month I learned more about it from the latest edition of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Albuquerque”.  At a talk given by co-author, David Ryan, he said that it is one of his favorite places to hike because of a large area there that is covered with petrified wood. That captured my interest.

Getting there involves another one of those dreaded stretches of rough New Mexico dirt roads. In addition, since it is surrounded by Pueblo tribal lands, there is a locked gate at the entrance to the road that crosses tribal land to get to the BLM land. You have to go the BLM office in town and sign out a key for the time you plan to hike. Thanks to the information in the book, that was easily accomplished.

I also carried the book along on the hike, knowing that there wouldn’t be any established trails to follow. Many times on BLM hikes we get off track, even with specific directions and maps, but that didn’t happen this time.

The first part of the hike had us walking in an arroyo that was trampled down with hundreds of fresh hoof prints and obvious signs of the presence of a large horse herd. I thought at any moment we might round a bend and see some wild horses. No such luck.

But Lee did see some wildflowers to photograph and I enjoyed gazing at the many-layered, hardened mud walls of the arroyo.

Some spring wildflowers

When it came time to climb out of the arroyo for the side trip to view the petrified wood, we weren’t sure at first that we were in the right place. But then we started to see chunks of petrified wood scattered on the sandy hillsides around us. The more we looked the more excited I got. It is simply amazing to see so much petrified wood in one place.

A fun hike for viewing geology and flora, even without seeing any horses. Back at the BLM office the person at the desk said that there are more wild horses than the grazing can support. The BLM tries to round them up but they head off into the surrounding tribal lands where the BLM doesn’t have the authority to enter. Maybe next time we will see some horses.

Recipe for Beauty

Take plenty of New Mexico dirt and rocks, add copious amounts of sun and wind, sprinkle in a bit of moisture and then set aside. Find an isolated, totally desolate piece of land such as the Ojito Wilderness. Place your mixture somewhere in the middle and leave undisturbed for awhile.

On a quiet, late-winter day drive a dozen or so miles on a rough dirt road and find a place to park. You may or may not have a particular destination in mind for your hike, but as Lee and I have learned on our excursions into the Ojito Wilderness, it won’t be long before you begin to see the beauty that sun, wind and water has carved out of the landscape.

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I had fun finding rock formations that had “Windows”

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A rock with some interesting life form growing on it.

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One last photo that is a caution.  Yes, there is beauty in a place like the Ojito Wilderness, but you have to be careful driving on the rough roads.  Lee is a careful driver and, fortunately, we did not end up like this car.

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Trials or Trails?

This week’s quest to find a suitable area for a day hike led us to a familiar area of BLM land known as the San Ysidro Trials. I once thought it was a misspelling and was supposed to be San Ysidro Trails. But it’s “Trials” because a large section of it is used for recreational motorcyclists (aka ‘dirt bikes’) who want to test their expertise riding in and around the rocky arroyos in the area. Fortunately, during the times we have hiked there we haven’t encountered any of the roaring, noisy machines, although it’s obvious from their tracks that it is well used.

When we go there we like to walk past the trials area and get to a section of eroded sandstone that, even on a cloudy day, has colorful and interesting rock formations. As wet as the desert still is, we knew we probably would have to navigate through some muddy spots before we got to the rocks. But the parking area is right off a paved highway so we didn’t have to drive any muddy roads. In the spots where the trail got muddy we were able to pick our way through spots of grass along the trail.

This landmark lets us know we are crossing the arroyo in the right place. Look closely to see the “monkey face” rock.

Another reason we like hiking in this area is to check out the many tinajas. “Tinaja : a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter.” We’ve had a winter with snow accumulations and the tinajas didn’t disappoint. Here are a few of the interesting ones.

Quebradas Sediments

A few weeks ago when we did a hike in the Manzano Mountains I got carried away taking pictures of rocks along the trail. The wavy, layered metamorphic rocks that are abundant in the Manzanos look to me like beautiful pieces of artwork. I couldn’t resist posting some of my photos here.

Yesterday we were hiking in another area that compels me to take pictures of rocks. We were in the Quebradas, this time not an area of metamorphic rocks, but, instead, mostly sedimentary rocks. But sedimentary rocks form in layers, also, and with the fractures, folds and faults that occur on the earth’s surface many sedimentary rocks end up with fascinating shapes and patterns.

In addition to folding and faulting that reshapes the sediments, sometimes there are certain chemical processes that change the colors of the rocks in interesting ways. I don’t know all of the details, but in the laboratory of the geology class I recently completed, I remember the instructor explaining the round white dots in some reddish sandstones as places where a chemical impurity in the sandstone as it was being oxidized (changing it to the reddish color) would prevent the oxidation, leaving a white space around the impurity. There were many rocks in the Quebradas that had that feature and I photographed several samples.

Quebradas is a Spanish word meaning “breaks,” a rugged or rocky area. The BLM owns most of the land along the Quebradas Back Country Byway, a 24-mile dirt road east of Socorro that parallels I-25. There are 10 numbered stops, places along the way to park and observe various geologic features. Official hiking trails are nonexistent–you just wander anywhere in the vast emptiness that happens to capture your interest.

We parked at Stop 4, which is in the upper reaches of the Arroyo del Tajo. A nice hike that we have done before is to walk about 2-1/2 miles down the arroyo, observing the rocks (in Lee’s case observing the wildflowers, which are few and far between this time of year) and then rounding a corner to find yourself in this amazing slot canyon.

Walking out the other side leads to a nice ledge to stop and have lunch, which is what we did, before turning around and retracing our steps back to the car. Altogether an enjoyable winter hike.

Manzano Metamorphic

Some of my favorite rocks are metamorphic rocks that have been formed by intense heat and pressure into wavy patterns referred to as foliation or schistosity. One of the best places I know to find metamorphic rocks is in the Manzano Mountains. On two hikes that we took there recently I found myself continually stopping along the trail to take pictures of the rocks.

The map view shows the location of the two hikes. The red line is a hike up Trigo Canyon, which is on the west side of the mountains, about midway between the north and south end of the range. The blue line is the Kayser Mill Run trail, at the south end on the east side.

I’ve made two groups for the metamorphic rock photos that I took. The first group was taken on the Trigo Canyon hike and the second group was along the Kayser Mill Run trail. I hope that you will appreciate the fascinating artistry of God’s handiwork in creating these formations.

If you are viewing the page that shows the two groups in a gallery, please click on the individual photo to see a larger image.

Trigo Canyon

Kayser Mill Run