Friday, January 14, 2011

New Mexico's Badlands

It was a sunny, crisp morning--a fine day for a drive to "the badlands" near Grants (NM).

The 60-mile drive west on I-40 out of Albuquerque took us through parts of the To'hajiilee Navajo, Laguna, and Acoma Indian Reserva-tions and past two casinos. Other than fellow interstate travelers, this train was about the only movement of any significance we saw along the way.

Mount Taylor, with an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, has been a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes, with special significance for the Acoma people. Centuries before the mountain was named for President Zachary Taylor, it was known to the Acoma as Kaweshtima, or "place of snow."

We headed south of Mount Taylor on NM 117 toward El Malpais (el-mal-pie-EES), Spanish for "the badlands."

We took these photos from the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook. "The dominant landscape features--lava flows, mountain ranges, mesas--appear like a huge lake in satellite photo images.

"Paradoxi-cally, the malpais landscape is at once primal, pristine, ancient, and surprisingly modern. Here is a living remnant of the Old Southwest entering the 21st century as virtual unknown lands.

"With continuing research new knowldege is revealed. Lava that poured out of McCartys Crater established a new land surface 2,000 to 3,000 years ago" (park brochure).

Standing on the Sandstone Bluffs and braced against some strong winds, we could see 200-million-year-old sandstone to the right (photos above and below) and 300-year-old lava bordering the bluffs on the left.

Settlements have existed along the edges of the lava flow from 800 A.D. beginning with the ancestors of today's Pueblo people. Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s for a relatively brief period, and Dust Bowl era homesteaders arrived in the 1930s.

I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to homestead here. Home-steaders had to make $800 worth of improvements and live on the land for seven of twelve months for three years before the land was theirs. Many families did not fulfill the conditions for ownership.

El Malpais is located at elevations that range from 6,500 to over 8,000 feet above sea level in a semi-desert. Precipitation averages 10 inches annually with most of it coming from rainfall during the monsoon season (July-Septem-ber).

One of the potholes, or tinajas, is shown here filled with ice.

A few miles south of the Sandstone Bluffs was the La Ventana Natural Arch. Pulling into the parking area, visitors have a clear view of the Arch.

A short quarter-mile hike leads to its base. Largest of New Mexico’s natural arches, La Ventana, at 135 feet, was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.

El Malpais ranges in elevation from 6500 to 8300 feet. At this elevation and with a pretty good wind, it was not surprising that we only met three other people visiting El Malpais today.

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