Saturday, July 30, 2016

Grants: Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is unexpectedly being greeted by a mountain lion at a bend of the trail and 10 is discovering a new, unexplored cave full of precious gems, the visit to the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano near Grants, NM ranks a 6 in our book.

This adventure was very enjoyable with three main areas to explore. The road signs to arrive couldn't be more easy to follow as billboards seem to be placed every few miles advertising this attraction for 50 or more miles away. This is a privately owned area featuring an ice cave, a self guided tour of a volcano, and a gift shop a water tour outside in which to sift gems out of a sand bag you can purchase. This was definitely a unique stop with about 1-2 hours worth of entertainment. The one thing we didn't like about this area was the price, with each adult being $12 and children 6-12 years old being $6 per day.

After making the 28 mile drive west of Grants, the first place to stop at would be the gift shop where you can pay the admission fee and thus get the paper to read during the self guided tour. You then have the option to walk to the volcano or to the ice cave first.

For those wishing to begin with the volcano, the trail starts behind the gift shop building. From beginning to end (at a nice lookout area) is about one half of a mile long in one direction with a climb of about 150 feet. We didn't realize it until about halfway up the hike, but along the trail are numbered trail markers. At each of these stops you can match up the number to a paragraph on the self guided trail guide paper. Here we learned much about the history of the volcanoes of El Malpais. We learned how they were formed, how far away the lava flowed away from the Bandera Volcano, and other details such as about the local flora and fauna. I would consider this hike easy if traveled at a reasonable pace. I wouldn't call it handicap accessible, but I'm sure several have successfully made the climb. The trail is well maintained and the views are terrific.

Upon traveling back down to the store, head left of the store (if you are facing the store) to enter the trail head for the ice caves.This path is mostly level and is only about 400 yards before you get to a staircase which you must descend to see the ice cave. At one point in the descent, you will feel an almost immediate temperature decrease. At the platform at the bottom of the stairs, the ambient temperature in the cave is about 31 degrees F. Tempting as it may be, you are not allowed to climb past the platform to stand on the ice. The ice is currently about 20 feet thick and it has been forming for at least 3,400 years consistently. As the temperature is low inside the cave, it may be wise to bring a light jacket or, alternatively, go down after having completed the volcano hike on a hot New Mexico summer day.

The final noteworthy detail of this stop was the water tour constantly pouring water through the day. You can purchase a sand bag with gems in the store then come outside and act like a miner sifting through dirt near a river. A case allows you to compare your gems to a sample so you can know exactly which stones you found. This may create a memorable experience for children!

Overall, we had a great hour at the ice cave and volcano. I loved reading about the sink holes, twisted tree formation, and other special features of the geography and biology of the area. Their website, has other details about the family history of the owners and a detailed FAQ section. As it is only about 90 miles away from Albuquerque, it is a great day trip for just about anyone! If you've made this stop and have great stories or details you'd love to share, please post them in the comments below!!

Monday, July 11, 2016

El Malpais National Monument

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is finding a bear in your cave and 10 is getting to visit the world Pandora (from 2009 film Avatar), visiting El Malpais National Monument in Grants, NM ranks 7 in our book.

There is so much to see and do at this National Monument that you'd definitely want to stay for more than a full day if you want to experience it all. From the beautiful hikes to the high quality visitor's centers to the awesome lava tubes, El Malpais provided a unique experience for our family.

An obvious first stop upon arriving in Grants is to go to the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center. If you are coming from I-40, just take Exit 85 and the Visitor Center is conveniently located on the southwest side of the highway. This Visitor's Center has an absolutely stunning view out the large windows. Several informative room and booths are available including a video room where you can get a ranger to start a documentary-type movie. Depending on which you pick, this will give you information about culture of the area and about the geologic history of how the lava tubes and volcanoes formed. There are also plenty of fun items to purchase at the gift shop. Mostly, though, I would recommend talking to the Ranger at the desk about your trip and what interests you. They have maps and plenty of handouts to give you with hiking and caving information. If you plan on doing any sort of caving during the trip, it is absolutely required to get a caving permit with one of the Rangers. He will discuss safety requirements for both you and the bats (they can help you clean your equipment to help prevent white nose syndrome of the bats). If you wish to go camping in the National Monument lands, you may discuss this with the Ranger as well. Finally, all this information and the permits are available at two other areas if you want to skip over the Visitor Center. These locations are the El Malpais Information Center and the El Malpais Rnager Station (click on the "maps" option at the top of this page to view these areas).

Unfortunately, we arrived in Grants right as a summer afternoon lightning and rainstorm began. We were kindly told at the Visitor's Center to avoid being outside if lightning begins as the rocks contain iron which may be more likely to conduct lightning. This storm subsided eventually, giving us enough time to get in a hike at the El Calderon Area before sunset (sunrise to sunset are the Park hours and you cannot park at the Park overnight). This was a beautiful 2-3 mile hike which passed by many areas including the Double Sinks Caves (very spacious sink holes surrounding either side of the path), the Bat and Xenolith Caves, and El Calderon Cinder Cone.

These are the Double Sinks Caves

During this summer the Park has a special "Bat OutFlight Program" where you can meet with a Park Ranger at the El Calderon Trailhead at 7:30pm on Saturdays. Sadly, we didn't get to do this program this time, but we plan on returning in the future to do it and to do some more caving (we will update when we do)! With this program, the ranger will tell information about bats and you may be lucky enough to see thousands of bats leave this cave to feed for the night. Some information we learned about bats are that they are Earth's only flying mammals and a nursing mother can eat more than her body weight in insects every night. Even just the fact that bats use echolocation makes them quite cool, so my husband bought a pretty awesome t-shirt at the gift shop to commemorate them.

This is cool, right?!

We came back the next day and went caving in Junction Cave. This is the cave with the most moderate difficulty of all the caves at El Malpais. When you are caving, it is recommended to have the following gear:

  • Helmets
  • Knee Pads
  • Gloves
  • Water
  • At least 3 working flashlights per person 
  • Spare batteries
We texted a person who cares to let her know that we were about to enter a cave and weWe told her that we would text again when we exited. Upon entering the cave, we came across a metal gate which we think is present to keep out bears. This gate appears to have been installed in 2015. There is one small area where you are able to crawl through. After this point, it begins to be extremely dark. 

Lava tubes are created when lava rushes underground. The edges of the tunnel cool faster than the middle, which forms the outside of a tube. As subsequent flows come, other layers are added to the tunnel shell kind of like forming an onion from the outside in. This geology is very apparent in the Junction Cave. We very shortly reached the end of the cave. Looking at the cave map now, it appears that this cave is less than 1000 feet long. 

We shut off all of our lights and we sat in complete darkness for several minutes. The weirdest phenomenon occurred for me. It was as if my mind couldn't believe I was sitting in absolute darkness. In my peripheral vision, my eyes tried to create light where there was none. As I turned my head, that area would be completely dark. But then my peripheral vision would create a new lighted rock to the side again. As long as we kept it dark, these lighted rocks just outside my view never ceased to exist. It seems like there is some sort of metaphor that can be drawn from this instance. Like how the light inside us never ceases. Comment below if you can think of something better!

We exited the cave about 1 hour after entering it and returned back to the heat of the day. We very much enjoyed this free stop in our trip. There are many more caves which we didn't have time to explore this time and so we look forward to visiting again in the future!!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Kirtland Air Force Base Air Show

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is being subjected to Chinese Water Torture and 10 is that dream where you grow wings and fly, the 2016 Kirtland Air Force Base Air Show was a 5.

The 2016 Air Show was the first show hosted at Kirtland in five years and they spent months practicing and preparing every little detail. 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of Kirtland Air Force Base. The free show took place on June 4th and 5th and featured planes from the Cold War, World War II, and also modern planes. In addition to being able to stand inside some of the monstrous planes, pilots would perform various tricks to show off their talent throughout the day. All in all, this made for an amazing and rare event that may be once-in-a-lifetime for many people.

First things first, I don't know why I thought I could just drive straight on to base. I even worked on base for a summer, so I know exactly how stringent they are with needing proper credentialing to enter. For some reason, though, I thought the base was open to everyone for these days. That is most definitely not the case! I drove to one gate and was quickly turned in the other direction and sent driving away. SO.... if anyone is planning on going to a future event like this, it is important to know that Kirtland did provide a shuttling system for participants to park at various locations. They then had their own military personnel drive school bus shuttles to the location of the event. To enter the area, bags were checked and people were passed through metal detectors. We shouldn't expect anything less with thousands of people present for the events!

At the event, there were many volunteer-run vendors selling food and souvenirs with proceeds going to worthy causes. The first line I stood in was to get a mini-tour by an air force plane shooter. I was in this line for at least 1 hour and was grateful I had worn a hat and sunscreen as the clouds were providing very little protection. As I was in this line, I was so lucky to get the chance to see talented pilots performing tricks in the planes for us. Below are several videos of the events. I did not end up catching it on film, but the craziest thing I saw was when one pilot flew straight up into the sky to achieve quite the altitude. He would then shut off the engines and let the plane free fall for several seconds before starting it again and taking off. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that! That dare devil pilot wins my award for the most amazing part of the show!

When I finally made it to the front of the line for the mini tour, his stories made the whole wait worthwhile. Here are a few pictures from inside and also around the event:

These are parachutes only to be used in case of an emergency

This is the gunner-guru-story telling-tour leader-person

Here is the station he sits at... or stands on

The damage caused by what the air guns

The planes can shoot off 500 rounds

This is how huge the casings are!!!

Me in the cockpit

Pilot's place

This is the plane I got the tour of.

In the words of a friend Rod Etmer, "Osprey. One of the coolest aircraft EVER!"

Though there were long lines and it was quite hot out, the fact that the airshow had a free entrance fee made this event accessible to everyone. I'm sure it was also memorable to anyone who went. It is else-wise very rare to be able to stand where we stood and see what we saw. Again, the flying planes were the best part for me! I highly recommend going to this event in the future or if/when an airbase near you hosts such a show! Comment below on your favorite part!!