NM – Valles Caldera National Preserve

After learning about volcanic tuff during my visit to Bandelier National Monument and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, how could I skip the place responsible for creating these geologic marvels?

“Valles Caldera began erupting 1.25 million years ago. Once the eruption ended, the massive pyroclastic flow material inside and outside the caldera began to cool and solidify, forming a rock geologists refer to as tuff. Solidified pyroclastic flow materials from the Valles Caldera and Toledo Caldera comprise the Upper and Lower Bandelier Tuffs. Much earlier, 7-6 million years ago, Bearhead Rhyolite erupted in the southern Jemez Mountains sending debris flows over the area now known as Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.” Source: Valles Caldera National Preserve Guide and Map by High Desert Field Guides

At the time of my visit, this park was touted as the “Nation’s Newest National Preserve.” The Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000 signed by President Bill Clinton on July 25, 2000, created 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve. By the way, valles is pronounced VIE-yays or va-yes.

Beware of restricted access hours. I found myself at the gates saying OPEN, OPEN, OPEN. 

Little did I know a reward for my timely arrival was a road filled with hundreds of crazed prairie dogs racing back and forth creating a death-wish obstacle course. I wish I would have thought to video this frenzy. The rangers said it was the first time they had witnessed such an event. When I left later in the day all was quiet. 

As I looked around I noticed these porta-potty looking buildings. I learned they are used by grad students studying prairie dogs as part of John Hoogland’s Prairie Dog Project, which he began in 1974.

It was funny to see the prairie dogs labeled like race car drivers. 

Their homes were also labeled. JB will you come home?

Many roads had not been opened for the season so my options for exploration were fairly limited. Experienced anglers brought bikes as a way to reach more distant water features. Adjacent to the Visitor Center is the 1.6 mile trail around Cerro La Jara, one of many hills left behind after the caldera collapse.

Be sure to pick up a free interpretive guide at the Visitor Center. 

Cerro La Jara was not much to look at. I’m guessing it’d be nicer during green grass and wildflower season.

To gain a view of the preserve, the rangers recommended I hike the trail up Rabbit Mountain. 

You know how much I enjoy hiking through burn areas. Sigh! 

Good reminder of LNT. I met some hikers collecting antlers on a nearby road, so this seems to be a thing in this area. I heard collectors are paid well.

The aspen trees are sure to put on a show in the fall. 

I hiked up to Rabbit Ridge, about 5.5 miles round trip with a little over 1,000 feet elevation gain.

For some reason I don’t think I’ll be visiting Bandelier National Monument from this trail. Just say no to bushwhacking.

The views from the ridge were less than stellar but I’m sure better than before the fire. 

Chasing butterflies in honor of Joan was a good distraction. 

The trail was well marked. 

Adventure Date(s):

  • April 23, 2018






CA – Black Butte with views of Mt Shasta

It’s actually quite embarrassing to not have hiked the Black Butte Trail, especially since I’ve driven by the butte at least a zillion times. It stands next to Interstate 5 and looks a bit like a Mt Shasta mini me. I assumed there wouldn’t be much too see except stellar views of the west side of Mt Shasta. It looks like a big pile of rocks. Not exactly something high on my check list. My friend Steve was partnering with me for this adventure and took this sunrise photo to get us motivated. 

It was in the high 20’s when we arrived at the trailhead.

This caution sign was posted at the trailhead. We spent most of the hike wondering about the definition of gabion. 

Much of the trail is on the protected north side, making for chilly, snowy, icy conditions. But look at that fantastic view of Mt Shasta. We marveled at the trail builders who created this path through volcanic rock. 

I’d say this is a pretty accurate description for this trail. 

As I anticipated, plenty of rocks to hike among. 

One of the surprises for me was finding these smaller mounds of lava rocks near the trail. They aren’t visible from afar but are quite large and actually create a channel or canyon. 

In the distance is Mt Eddy (link to recent related post). 

As we neared the summit, there was more of this layered type rock. 

My hiking buddy, Steve, enjoying views of Mt Shasta on his way to the summit of Black Butte. 

The foundation of an old fire lookout tower remains on the summit. I met a couple guys on their first trip to far Northern California. They hadn’t heard of lookout stations, so I spent a bit of time talking about their history as well as pointing out local points of interest. The Black Butte was created for the mules resupplying staff manning the lookout. As a result, it has a gentle grade.  I have a special connection to lookouts as my mom was raised on one near Happy Camp and my dad maintained lookout radios for Klamath National Forest. He frequently saved those trips for the weekend when he could take the family. Photo Credit: Steve 

Our new friends Kyle and Matt at Black Butte summit. 

I like the next couple photos as it shows the technical challenges for those seeking a seat in the lookout foundation. Photo Credit: Steve 

There were some large sections of surface hoar. I’d not seen this variety previously. We tend to get very wet snow but when it’s cold and dry, the powder evaporates and transforms into this very light, dry element. It was about 4-6″ deep and fun to kick through, much like a trail covered in leaves. I’ve since learned this creates serious avalanche conditions. Imagine a sandwich. This loose dry layer wedged between an old base of hard-packed snow and a new layer of wet snow, creating easy slippage in steep terrain. This is why it’s important to take an avalanche course if you’re going to spend time in the back country during snow season. #knowbeforeyougo 

Back to the term gabion “a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks and used especially in building a support or abutment.” In the below photo, you can see how the cage of rocks creates a wall to protect the trail from rock fall. 

The gabion lying perpendicular to the slope slid down from an upper section of trail. 

Extra Credit:

I’d planned to spend the weekend backpacking on the PCT north of Deadfall Lakes (link to recent related post) but found too much snow. As such I spent the day hiking up an ATV road. I found some fun surprises! 

A different type of hoarfrost. Looks like amoeba.

Hike Details:

  • Date(s) Hiked: December 9, 2017
  • Mileage (per ViewRanger): 5.25 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain/Loss (per ViewRanger): 2,175/2,175
  • Elevation Low/High (per ViewRanger): 4,535/6,231
  • Trail Conditions:
    • Tree obstacles: minimal
    • Overgrowth: minimal
    • Signage: adequate
    • Terrain: rocky, some exposure, some scrambling
  • Navigation Skills: minimal
  • Water availability: none
  • Camping availability: none
  • Solitude: unlikely, we saw about 10 others
  • Bugs: none in early December
  • Wildlife: none
  • Precip: none
  • Temp: high 20’s to mid 40’s
  • LNT: no problems
  • Jan’s Cherry Picker Delight Scale: 3+ cherries (out of 5)


  • Carry plenty of water. In the summer this trail is pretty exposed.
  • Be prepared for rocky terrain, covered in ice or snow in the winter. Microspikes are a good option.
  • Be aware of avalanche dangers in the winter.
  • In the winter it can be bitter cold and windy.



According to Wikipedia,

Black Butte is a cluster of overlapping dacite lava domes in a butte,[2] a parasitic satellite cone of Mount Shasta.[5] It is located directly adjacent to Interstate 5 at milepost 742 between the city of Mount Shasta and Weed, California. The highway crosses a 3,912 ft (1,192 m) pass, Black Butte Summit, at the western base of the lava domes. The lava domes were extruded at the foot of the cone of Shastina following the period of its major eruptions about 9,000–10,000 years ago.[2]

United States Forest Service fire lookout tower was built on the summit in the 1930s, but destroyed during the Columbus Day Storm of 1962. A new lookout was built in 1963 and operated until 1973. The building was moved by helicopter to a new location in 1975 and only the concrete foundation remains today. A 2.5-mile-long (4.0 km) trail leads to the summit from a trailhead accessible by dirt roads off the Everitt Memorial Highway.[6] The summit boasts an outstanding view of the southwest side of Shasta and Shastina, and on clear days Mount McLoughlin is easily visible 70 miles (113 km) to the north in Oregon.[7]

NM – El Malpais- Sandstone Bluffs, The Narrows and La Ventana Arch

Conveniently located on Highway 117 just off Interstate 40 near Grants are three attractions worth a stop. You can easily spend a day or two exploring these areas. Be sure to stop at the El Malpais Ranger Station for maps and information.

Sandstone Bluffs

Mount Taylor dominates the skyline. 

The Chain of Craters, which I’d visited a few days earlier, is denoted on the left as Cerros (mountains in spanish).

Walking on this flat sandstone mesa is a pleasant contrast to the lava rock terrain I’d experienced on the Zumi-Acoma Trail

Beyond the views were nooks and crannies to be explored. 

Looking toward The Narrows mesa and the lava flow separating it from the Sandstone Bluffs mesa.

Talk about a bathtub with a view. 

THE Narrows or Narrows Rim Trail

I enjoyed the topography of the lava flow and seeing the Chain of Craters cinder cones from a different perspective.

This is called The Narrows as the lava flow stopped just short of this 3-mile long, 500-foot high escarpment, leaving a narrow corridor which naturally became a path of travel.  You can see the road below the rocks in this photo. 

The colorful rocks provided a stark contrast to the black lava field.

Look at those cracks and circular patterns.

You can see the forest beginning to take shape. Amazing anything can take root in these black crusted fields. 

Beyond the views, I enjoyed the sandstone sculptures and geologic features.

Caverns and crevasses warrant exploration. 

Finding nests and watching birds soar was another highlight. 

La Ventana Arch

This view is via a short trail along Highway 117. You can also begin or end your hike on the mesa of The Narrows Trail where a much different perspective of the arch is afforded. Without a second vehicle I didn’t have sufficient time to complete this as an out and back hike.

I was there at the wrong time of day for best viewing and photos.

Date(s) Hiked: March 9, 2016

Road Trip Day(s) #19 out of 88



NM – El Malpais – Zuni-Acoma Trail

In my wilderness travels when I see scat and tracks, I ponder, who walks here? With this trail there is no question of who walked here. This is a historic route between two communities of pueblo peoples, the Zuni and Acoma. Hikers of the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) now have the privilege of sharing tread with the ancient ones. 

Mt Taylor, at 11,305′, is a significant directional landmark for the area.

This is a cairn-based trail, which means you won’t find much barren smooth surface travel, instead piles of rocks (cairns) mark the way. Sometimes they are easy to follow, other times it takes a few minutes to find the next one, especially in fields of lava rock. 

Within this lava flow, there are varied geologic formations, offering plentiful exploration opportunities. It gives you a feel as to why the Spanish named this area El Malpais (badlands). Here Joan (aka Hemlock) explores the inside of a lava tube. 

Caves, canyons, crevices and rock bridges were made for discovery.

Of course my friend had to go in for a closer look. Me, I can skip those dark places where critters might live. 

I’m happy to be the photographer. 

I liked the smooth surface flows; made for a nice textured walking surface and a fantastic break from the ankle-twisting, lumpy, bumpy rocks. Photo credit: Joan

The ceiling of a cavern (covered in webs).

Date(s) Hiked: March 7, 2016

Road Trip Day(s) #17 out of 88



Photo Credit: Joan

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



Creative photo by Joan