Sh!t Pot Volcano
As we drive out of the hills through the juniper on a forest road above Albuquerque, tumbleweeds dash across the road as the wind races across the landscape. I've never been good at relaxing in windy situations, even if inside. We reach I-40 and a wicked crosswind keeps the bus from reaching our usual 60mph speed as the she's blown left and right. Slowly, the landscape shifts. Red rock mesas appear and the wind subsides.
I see some black ground off the highway and read a billboard that says something like "Grants, The Land of Fire and Ice". I suddenly realize the black ground was a lava flow. I had no idea that New Mexico had a volcanic history. Fascinated, I call Elizabeth who was driving about 10 miles back. "You gotta see this!". The flow borders I-40 for a few miles and is soon gone as we drive off towards Flagstaff.
We didn't stop at Grants, but my curiosity was piqued. Later I researched it and there are all kinds of craters and lava flow remnants in that area. I've made a mental note to return and see what it's all about. When I think about volcanoes in the US, I think Shasta, Rainier, Hood, or even Yellowstone. But to see black lava on the surface in western New Mexico was a surprise.
After getting settled into our new backyard at a great campsite just south of Flagstaff (maybe an upcoming site review?), we were looking for places to hike and climb with the girls. I was looking at Humphrey's Peak above town contemplating a late in the year ascent. At 12,637ft, snow and cold temps made it a bit more of an adventure than we were looking for but as I looked at Google Earth, I saw, just north of Humphrey's, what looked like a whole group of cinder cones, one specifically, had a dark black lava field that had flowed out of its north side. I also saw, in that same group was Sunset Crater National Monument. After some research I found directions to hike SP crater, the one that had the black lava flow.
Plans were made. First we would go to the visitor center of Sunset Crater NM for the geology lesson/homeschool (have I mentioned how awesome homeschool is?), then we would go to the mountain for an afternoon/sunset hike of SP crater.
The visitor center was informative. We learned that Sunset Volcano last erupted about 1000 years ago and the difference between pumice (cooled very quickly with a lot of air pockets) and obsidian (cooled very slowly), and the types of flowing lava rock ʻAʻā lava slowly flows and breaks up into chunky rock and Pāhoehoe, that flows faster and the surface cools and hardens in a flowing rope-like structure.
We drove north from Sunset Crater towards SP Crater...
Okay, so about SP Crater: C.J. Babbit, a rancher from the 1880's who owned the mountain said that the mountain resembled a "shit pot". I guess the lava flow and the round crater rim can resemble a toilet catastrophe. Map makers refused to spell it out and just abbreviated it to be SP Crater.
As we drove north from Sunset Crater National Monument on Highway 89, we went from a forested area into a landscape of junipers then into something that more resembled an open prairie with random mountains/cinder cones. At "Hanks Trading Post" we turned left and followed the gravel road for a few miles until the road got to the base of the most prominent cinder cone in the area and climbs to the saddle between the next mountain over.
We start up the road to the saddle and immediately the grade is so steep that we have to be careful not to slip as we go, but soon enough we are at the high point between mountains and have to leave the road and make our way to the summit. The footing now is loose and the small pebbles have nowhere to go other than into our shoes. The dried plants all have seeds in them so that when we brush by them it makes a sound like rattlesnakes. The sun is low in the sky making everything glow in the golden evening light. On the way up the cinder cone proper, we find bits of obsidian and pumice and occasionally some ʻAʻā and Pāhoehoe. The higher we get the more the surrounding landscape starts to take shape into a land of volcanoes. To the south, sitting just below Humphrey's Peak, the amazing Colton Crater's rim is wide and lower than SP Crater. The whole landscape on fire with the evening light.
Picking our way up the side was pretty straightforward and soon we were on the rim. The caldera was steep, dark, and uninviting, but the rim beckoned. The wind blew and the cold temperatures set in. The sun was almost setting and we had only gone around a portion of the rim so Elizabeth stayed back with Wren while Sadie and I circled the caldera. Lichens and dry grasses grew amongst the rocks. Looking to the north the lava field spread for miles (4.3 miles to be exact). Further across the landscape lay the Painted Desert and the rim of the Grand Canyon.
We made it back to Elizabeth and Wren and started back down the cinder cone wall. At this point the sun made the whole area glow more gold than ever. The kids had fun "skiing" down the loose pebble slope as the sun set.
This area surprised me. No trail signs or trailhead to speak of. Not even an actual trail. So close to Flagstaff, yet it seems like a bit of a secret. If you are in the Flagstaff area I highly recommend this hike. It's not a long hike at all (maybe 2 miles out and back) and the scenery and geology are stunning. I highly recommend this as a sunset hike. The whole San Francisco Volcanic Field is amazing. If you visit, do us all a favor and practice LNT practices. Tread lightly, leave what you find and take home what you bring. This is truly a special place that should be taken care of.
Blog post by Adam