Lava Tunnels & Ice Caves
El Malpais National Monument
Grant, New Mexico
The New Mexico Ice Cave has been a mystical place to me for many years. When my youngest brother, Jason, was in middle school one of his classes went on a field trip there, a bizarre lava-made cave in the Southwestern desert that holds ice year round. Jason loved the field trip, but he also returned with a gift for me, a beautiful dragon necklace he bought in the gift shop, because it reminded him of me, and because he thought I would have liked to see the ice cave. For all these years, the necklace has been a treasure to me, and a symbol of all the places that I have yet to explore.
This adventure was at the top of Cat’s and my list for Outlaw Summer, and we decided to go at the first chance of us both being in town together again. We were exceedingly happy to be joined by our friend and fellow mooncusser, Jasmin, who is always up for any kind of adventure!
El Malpais National Monument is south of Grants, New Mexico just off of I-25 and is famous for its titanic landscape of extraordinary lava fields. Malpais translates to ‘badlands’. These badlands are basically a field of ancient volcanos (and I love volcanoes), cinder cones and spatter cones have created rock and cave formations, and there are acres of bubbling basalt, and I was expecting a volcano or two, but not the amount that there were. This is why I constantly go to places I know nothing (or very little) about.
*Note: I’m almost certain my friend, Lee (who is almost five years old), thinks I spend all my time on ‘dead volcanoes’ when I’m not on the airplane to visit him. After this summer, I think he’s pretty much correct.*
At the visitor’s center, the park ranger who gave us directions mentioned that we should probably avoid the lava fields and tubes if there was thunder and lightning, because of the high iron content of the volcanic terra. As Cat, Jasmin, and I drove to the ice cave the storm was pretty far behind us, but when we started our hike the cradles of thunder sounded inside the horizon.
The hike up the half mile ridge to Bandera crater was not very steep, but when we reached the top of the volcano, we could look down into a three-walled canyon. I’m no scientist, but I can imagine the magma spilling from the fourth side of the spatter-cone over the burning plains.
Now Bandera crater is full of evergreens: pines and cedars and dry forest moss. Eagles nest in the secluded trees and half a mile is just high enough for the horizon, a warm range of basalt and cedar under a kaleidoscope sky.
The rain started as we hurried back down— afraid of the electricity under our feet, but never the rain. Water here is a reminder—every droplet is a jewel, and the sky our ocean.
The ice cave is on the other side of the crater down a marked trail sidelined by lava tubes and basalt pools. They are so beautiful that we stop at every one of them to look inside and see how all the stones solidified so uniquely and perfectly. Inside of the caves are stacks of rocks and then pools of deep darkness. We saw a ‘wildcat’ stalking the cliffs for small prey and then curl up under a cedar.
At the end of the trail where the ice cave is hidden there is a long stairway into a small canyon, as we walked down the stairs, the temperature dropped probably close to 40 degrees. At the bottom was a cavern and a frozen pool. The lava tube looked just like the other ones, but this one was covered by layers and layers of thick rock blocking all warmth from the water below to create and keep the ice. The pool was covered in some kind of bright green lichen. Beyond it was a frozen waterfall that led deep into the lava caves, into more frozen darkness.
At first glance, the cave actually reminded me of my favorite scene in the new Riddick movie where Vin Diesel saves an alien puppy from water monsters in a cave. That scene is worth the whole movie.
We hiked back up and after being mesmerized by the swirls of twenty hummingbirds we decided to take a quick hike to El Calderon, another caldera, with lava caverns that you can hike into. Since we didn’t have much time, or a caving pass, we explored a closer tube, and it was the perfect kind of caving simulation to end to our adventure—descent by careful footsteps and rising with the sunlight.