NM – El Malpais – Chain of Craters, Hello CDT

I’ve spent the bulk of my life living near volcanic debris zones. In fact the first mountain I ever climbed was a cinder cone presumably from a Mt Shasta volcanic event. It’s been interesting to learn about volcanoes outside the Cascade range. The Chain of Craters in New Mexico is part of the El Malpais National Conservation Area and is managed by BLM. Nearby is the El Malpais National Monument managed by NPS. In Spanish, El Malpais means “the badlands,” in reference to the volcanic geology. Pronunciation is el-mal-pie-EES. I never could quite get it right.

My adventure buddy, Joan (aka Hemlock), invited me to join her for a section of the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). Since I’d yet to set foot upon that continuous path from Mexico to Canada, I was thrilled with the opportunity. Our goal was to hike the 25-mile section between Highway 53 and Road 42 (CDT mile marker 495 to 470). Elevation was 7-8,000′ range, it was early March, and there was a bit of lingering snow. Temperatures overnight were in the high 30’s, low 40’s. 

The cinder cones in this area look like vegetation-covered mounds.  

With the line of mounds, you can see why it’s called a chain. Why it’s called craters, I don’t know. According to the CDT website, “the Chain of Craters is a twenty-mile geological oddity built by an underground lava flow that created a rift at the surface and erected 30 cinder cones (the largest cone, Cerro Alto, stands at 8,460 feet).

Areas of volcanic activity invite exploration. Navigation along this section of the CDT is much different than on the PCT. Many times, there is no trail; instead cairns to help guide the way. If we couldn’t immediately see a cairn in the distance, we found stopping at the last identifiable one most efficient. 

See the cairn? Two sets of eyes were helpful. We were also using the Guthook App (available in both Apple and Android stores) as well as paper maps.

There are also a myriad of route markers besides the CDT signs. 

There are also a variety of CDT signs, showing the evolution of the trail. Sometimes these wooden placards have been painted white or covered by a newer decal type sign.

This was a special occasion. Sign, plus trail, plus cairn equals WIN for easy navigation! (Photo credit: Joan)

As is the case with many desert trails, water can be an issue. Here I am checking distance to the next water source. Our information is fairly unreliable as this section of the CDT is not all that popular with thru-hikers and the report hadn’t been updated recently. The CDT includes may route options (rather than a single trail) with this being one of two through the El Malpais area. (Photo credit: Joan)

Water source #1. We had only been on trail for a little over an hour. Did we want to gather water here or wait for the next source? We decided to wait.

Water source #2. Bad decision to wait.

Shall we pretend like it’s chocolate milk?

And thanks to the magic of the Sawyer filter, brown be gone! 

Then it was time to clean the mud from the filter. This is my alternate backflushing method. Instead of using the syringe, I use a Smartwater bottle blue cap with a soft squeeze bag. The nipple of the filter fits nicely into the spout of the blue cap. 

Water source #3. That’s not very helpful.

Sometimes you need to be resourceful. (Photo credit: Joan)

We found if you add a little water to the snow, and keep it from freezing, by morning it’ll have melted. I stored it in my backpack in my tent overnight.

Any idea of the purpose of these logs? Guessing to keep the cows out, but this is a cattle trough?? 

Best water of trail. (Photo credit: Joan) 

Where there is cattle water, there are usually cows, which means barbed wire obstacles. 

On the Arizona Trail, Joan and I had become experts with the various gates. But when we arrived to our first “gate” on the CDT, we found a fence, but no apparent gate. Where’s the gate? The app and map says there’s a gate. Notice the pile of rocks under the fence, that’s the “gate.” (Photo credit: Joan) 

Definition of gate? According to Merriam-Webster, “an opening in a wall or fence.” According to CDT? Good question! Sometimes there were piles of rock to make for a fairly easy step over, especially for those with long legs (that excludes me of course). 

Barbed wired steps anyone?

A tiny step, securely attached with more barbed wire. Wouldn’t want it to run away. I was thankful to have a partner assisting as I crossed over, under, and in between these stickery prickeries. It was a good reminder of the need to keep your tetanus vaccine current.

Eyelash Grass (aka blue grama or Bouteloua gracilis, the official state grass). Thankfully it was sock and shoe friendly as it was abundant across this region. 

Constance’s Spring Parsley (Cymopterus constancei).

Candytuft (Iberis)

We had checked the weather before beginning our trip and knew rains were predicted for late on our last day on trail. Heeding this warning, I parked near the main road rather than at the trailhead. 

The storm arrived a day earlier than predicted, so we decided to hightail it to the car rather than spend another night on trail. Since I hadn’t parked at the trailhead, that meant an 8-mile road walk (still officially part of the CDT), turning our 25-mile 3 day trek into a 33-mile 2 day adventure. Note: According to my tracking app it was 36 miles, with 1300′ gain and 2100′ loss.

This is a nice visual of the Chain of Craters. 

Date(s) Hiked: March 5-6, 2016

Road Trip Day(s) #15-16 out of 88

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Creative photo by Joan

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