Friday, December 24, 2021

Day 31: El Malpais: the bad country....

May 21: I woke up to a cloudy, ugly day--but it wasn't raining. Not yet, at least! I soon caught up with Haiku and Prana and continued hiking with them for awhile.

After a few hours, though, it started raining. A steady, albeit light sprinkle. Mile after mile, and today would mark the first day that I actually pulled out my umbrella to battle the rain. I had used it earlier to fight the sun, but the trail had been gloriously rain-free during my hiking hours until now.

Evidence of underground spaces in the lava were abundant. Prana reported that there were even some small stalactites in this cave when he poked his head in to look. I didn't even think of poking my head in as option and missed those. =( I often wondered how many empty caverns I walked over without even knowing they were there since only the ones that broke to the surface were visible.

The trail eventually ended, however, returning to follow a few miserable miles along a busy, paved highway. I was glad it only lasted a few miles, but it was still a few miles too many!

The road eventually led us to a ranger station for El Malpais National Monument. For anyone who knows a little Spanish, you'll know that El Malpais is Spanish for "The Badcounty". Not so much because the area was ugly, but more because of the vast lava fields that made the area difficult to travel through--and the lack of water and abundance of heat a treacherous area to venture through.

The ranger station was closed, allegedly due to "remodeling," but there was no obvious work going on which made me wonder if it was closed at least partially due to the pandemic. But despite its closure, the ranger station turned out to be a wonderful safe-haven on this cold, wet day. The water for the building was still turned on, so we could fill up with nice clean water. There were trash cans available, so we could dump our trash, and it provided a large, spacious covered patio with benches that allowed us to get out of the rain.

The ranger station was closed, but we could still throw out trash, get water and get out of the rain under the patio. It was a luxury!

I used the opportunity to cook a dinner for lunch. I found myself doing that a lot along this trail, cooking my dinners wherever water was readily available and eating lunches in the evening where water often wasn't available.

The rain eventually stopped while we were at the ranger station, but the ugly clouds remained with an occasional, short sunbreak to remind us that it was still daytime.

Haiku and Prana left the protection of the ranger station before I did, so the next several miles I did on my own, eventually reaching El Calerderon Loop Trail trailhead where I caught up with Haiku and Prana exploring a short lava tube. It didn't go for more than a hundred yards or so, with openings on both sides making it feel more like a natural culvert than a real tunnel, but it was admittedly fun climbing through.

We actually weren't entirely sure if it was even legal for us to do this. There were signs warning that caves were closed to the public to protect bats from both the coronavirus as well as some fungal disease that has been spreading across America and decimating bat populations, but the tube we went through--although it did go underground--seemed more tunnel-like than cave-like, and nothing at the location said it was a cave or off limits. And not even a very long tunnel at that, since sunlight managed to light up the entire space. And since we didn't see any bats, it seemed unlikely that we could disturb them anyhow.

You can't see it in this photo, but this tunnel exits through another hole in the ground creating a tunnel maybe 100 yards long.

Afterward, I checked out the signage at the trailhead which displayed a map of the trails in the area and that's how I discovered a loop trail that led to the top of a caldera, past two caves, past two sinkholes and followed alongside a lava canyon. It sounded awesome! It turned out that the last half-mile or so of the CDT was actually a part of the loop trail, but I loathed the idea of backtracking.

But taking a closer look at the map, I realized that I could do a "half-loop". There was a gravel road that led from this trailhead to another trailhead on the other side of the loop, and none of the interesting features on the map were located on the other side of the gravel road. A trail would have been nicer to walk on than a gravel road--but not if it was out of my way and had nothing interesting to offer.

So rather than do the entire loop, I headed up the gravel road. I was going off trail! I had no maps of the trail system except for the photo I took of the map at the trailhead kiosk.

The trail climbed steeply, heading to the top of a caldera with absolutely stunning views from the top. The wind up there was fierce, but the dark, menacing clouds had turned into happy white fluffy ones with plenty of sunbreaks, and I absolutely loved it! "Woo-who!" called from the top. I was flying high on a natural high! =) 

Views from the top of the caldera were awesome!

The trail followed along the ridge around the caldera. If the center was full of water, it could have looked like a miniature Crater Lake.

It was getting relatively late in the afternoon, however, so I didn't linger at the top too long. I hadn't known about this loop trail and hadn't planned for it at all, and I definitely didn't want to camp up here on the exposed terrain. Nope, I wanted to get back down to the CDT where it was a bit more protected from the wind and elements.

On the way down, the trail passed by the two caves. Those, I knew, I wasn't supposed to enter, so I didn't. One had always been closed to the public, and the other had been closed since the pandemic started. But it was still cool to look into their cavernous openings. They were obviously lava tubes where the roof collapsed, leaving two openings--one in each direction--and creating two separate caves.

Then the trail passed by two sinkholes, one one each side of the trail. They were quite large and impressive. I was frustrated not being able to get a decent photo of them, however. They were just too large to fit in a photo!

And the lava canyon basically looked like a lava tube that had collapsed along its entire length.

I absolutely loved this side trip. It was totally off-trail and eventually brought me back down to the trailhead where I started, but it was my favorite part of the entire day and it seemed a pity that the CDT wasn't officially routed along the loop. Most thru-hikers weren't even passing this area opting for the shortcut that started two days earlier, but I felt absolutely certain that almost no thru-hikers would have willingly hiked off trail to do this loop trail which seemed criminal. It was awesome!

Back on the CDT, I followed the trail out from the trailhead, basically planning to stop at the first decent spot I found to camp. Sunset was fast approaching and I needed to set up camp sooner rather than later. The lava terrain, however, didn't often provide a decent place to camp, and I kept walking and walking....

The trail passed through an area that had recently burned due to prescribed burns, and one tree I found was still smoldering despite the rain earlier from the day.

One tree was still smoldering, perhaps weeks after the prescribed burn ended and despite the rain earlier in the day.

I wound up hiking until almost 8:00, just before sunset, a few miles from the trailhead. I had lost track of Haiku and Prana at the trailhead. Presumably, they were somewhere ahead of me, but knowing their desire to explore anything interesting even if it's off trail, they might have tried completing the entire loop trail. I just didn't know.

 And that was the end of another day with a surprisingly wonderful end for such a miserable start!





So much lava....


Prana, hiking down a gravel road. You can tell it's cold out--look at all the clothes he's wearing!

The worst part of the day was the road walk to the ranger station.

Hello, Continental Divide!

Haiku couldn't help but check out every little crevice in the lava. =)

The steepest section of the day was the trail to the top of caldera.

I just loved the views from the top of the caldera!

I started seeing these on the trail hundreds of miles ago, but only discovered relatively recently that it was Pez who was leaving them. So when I found this, I knew that Pez had taken this route, and that he was somewhere ahead of me. *nodding* Usually when I found them, other hikers had filled in a couple of more squares, but so few people were sticking to the red line on this area, it looked like I was the first to find this! I'll take the center square, please. =)

Sunset was quite pleasant!

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