Jim Versus the Volcano

Have you seen the comedy movie, Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? It’s a movie about this guy named Joe, that for reasons I’m not going to get into, decided to jump into an active volcano. I found myself thinking about that movie as I stood atop a volcano near Grants, New Mexico.

If you have driven I-40 by Grants, New Mexico, there is a patch of black broken up rock that looks a lot like a lava field. Guess what? It’s a lava field! I’ve driven by it dozens of times over the years before finally getting curious enough to check it out.

Apparently, there are several lava flows in the area some dating back just 3,000 years with others dating back 10,000 years. We visited the most common one called the Bandera Crater and Ice Cave. The area is aptly named the Land of Fire and Ice.

Lava Field

When you first drive up to the location, you are welcomed by an old rustic-looking trading post that was built back in the 1930’s that originally housed a saloon and dance hall. Inside it has that touristy look that typically puts me off but I was happily surprised with our visit. This private land is owned by four sisters that are descendants of the original owners who had purchased it in 1946. The fascinating history is well documented within the trading post walls along with artifacts that date back 1,200 years.

A short distance walk from the trading post is an ice cave that is actually a collapsed lava tube. It naturally stays at or below 31˚F. I was expecting a long walk down a steep stairway into a fully enclosed cave. Instead, there was just 70 some odd steps down to a half open cave to the outside. It was 74˚F outside that day. As we descended down the steps, it got colder and colder. Seventy steps later, I thought I had walked into ice cooler. In fact, I had. Since it never gets above 31˚F, this cave was used as a natural cooler and for ice for those hot thirsty travelers that came by. I’m not scientific enough to explain why an open cave would stay at below 31˚F. It just does.

Ice Cave

Rain and snow seep down to the cave and it freezes, changing the depth of the ice over the years. There is arctic algae within the ice giving it an eerie greenish glow. The trading post was originally built there because they could gather ice in mid summer and have a natural refrigerator for their goods. The ice is about 20 feet deep and the bottom of the ice dates back 3,400 years. The Pueblo Indians call it the Winter Lake.

A second, longer trail takes you to the Baldera Crater that lies right along the Continental Divide. The half mile hike slowly rises about 120 feet along an easy to walk trail that curves around the outer crater. Eventually you reach a slit along its side providing an entrance to the inside.  The view left no doubt that this was a volcano. At 1,400 feet wide and 800 feet deep it was impressive. It would be even deeper if the rocks along the side didn’t keep sliding in and filling it.

This is one of those stops that takes an hour or so, but for Kris and me, we both agreed it was well worth the stop. An added bonus is that the El Morro National Monument is just 18 miles away and helped us fill in the rest of our adventure that day.

Oh, and the volcano? I didn’t jump in like Joe did in the movie. Having survived four heart attacks and making the climb to the top for its impressive view, I’d score it Jim 1, Volcano 0.

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