On the Road to Mount St. Helens

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

The tranquility of the Mount St. Helens region was shattered in the spring of 1980 when the volcano stirred from its long repose, shook, and exploded back to life. The local people rediscovered that they had an active volcano in their midst and millions of people in North America were reminded that the active—and potentially dangerous—volcanoes of the U.S. are not restricted to Alaska and Hawaii.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history, sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano. The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steep-sided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people visit the area around Mount St Helens by leaving Interstate 5 in Washington state at exit 49 and traveling East along a road called Spirit Lake Highway. The road is so-called, because, before 1980, it used to terminate at Spirit Lake. The lake is no longer accessible by road from the West, and even from the East, a substantial hike is required. So, I like to refer to Spirit Lake Highway as the Road to Mount St Helens.

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. These centers are located along the 52-mile-long Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, the only scenic byway in the United States that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like a book with four chapters, each visitor center tells a different part of the story: the mountain as it was before the blast at Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center; first-hand accounts from survivors who experienced the explosion at Johnston Ridge Observatory; the recovery of the mountain and the region at the Forest Learning Center; and its present state at the Silver Lake Visitor Center. Each center offers a unique experience that brings visitors face-to-face with one of the most memorable natural phenomena of our era. 

Mount St. Helens Visit Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Located 5 miles from I-5, Silver Lake Visitor Center is a world-class facility located on the western shore of Silver Lake. With its high ceilings and massive windows, the outdoors becomes a part of the architecture. Your senses will come alive as you enjoy the interactive exhibits, a step-in model of the volcano, and theater programs. Outside, a mile-long trail takes you into marshy plains surrounding Silver Lake where you can see waterfowl and picture-perfect views of the mountain. 

Hoffstadt Bluffs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center

Located 27 miles from I-5, Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center offers an up-close view of the mountain and the flood plain where mud rushed down into the valley, raising it a mile higher than it was prior to May 18, 1980. Take a short walk to another viewing point where a grove was dedicated in 2000 in memory of the 57 people who perished during the eruption. 

Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large post-and-beam structure, Hoffstadt Bluff houses the “Memories of a Lost Landscape” exhibit, which provides an excellent depiction of the mountain prior to the blast, when the area was full of youth camps and visitors enjoying the outdoors.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Learning Center

The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on the rebirth of the forest.

Walkthrough the forest, hearing the sounds of the birds and animals on the mountain prior to May 18, 1980. Enter the “eruption chamber” to view a video of what the forest looked like immediately after the eruption. Breathtaking photographs and life-size models of loggers working in the blast zone bring the experience to life.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnston Ridge Observatory

At the end of the scenic byway, 52 miles from I-5, Johnston Ridge Observatory is tucked into the side of Johnston’s Ridge, a mere 5 miles from the north side of the mountain. Providing visitors the opportunity to come within a stone’s throw of the crater, the observatory is unparalleled. Walkout on the viewing deck or take a stroll along one of the trails and feel the energy of the mountain as it continues to puff steam into the sky.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 16,000 square-foot structure offers a fully-equipped theater where visitors can watch a video about the eruption. Just as the mountain surprised the world with its blast, the movie does likewise as the show concludes and the screen rises to deliver a picture-perfect view of the mountain.

View the many exhibits and read through personal survival stories from that fateful day in 1980. For more detailed information, catch a formal talk or join a guided walk led by one of the observatory’s volunteers.

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is most popular during the summer when its most beautiful features are revealed after a long snowy winter

While Lassen Volcanic National Park is just as serene and peaceful as other California national parks, it was established to protect and aid the research of a turbulent landscape. The birth of this park as a federally protected area really began in the summer of 1914 when three climbers ascended Lassen Peak in an attempt to uncover the reasons why the dormant volcano had recently started rumbling deep beneath its surface.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mudflow that flooded across the region. The climbers narrowly escaped and survived the event—an event that would become one of intense study for many years to come. In 1915, the peak blew its top. The catastrophic eruption forced rock, trees, and debris miles down into valleys devastating the surrounding areas and changing its landscape forever. Then in 1917, the volcano fell dormant. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape of jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for its extreme weather. During heavy snow years, the main park road along the Lassen Volcanic National Park Scenic Highway (the main park road) may not open until May and sometimes not until mid-July putting visitors at the mercy of Mother Nature during any season of the year. Lassen Volcanic fully opened for summertime activities this year in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads are open for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with some patches of snow.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that is set amid forests, lakes, and streams. The centerpiece, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, has just an inch or two of snow left on portions of the switch-backed trail that leads up from the parking lot. It is expected to melt off soon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a national park, Lassen is like Yosemite’s little brother—it gets about 750,000 visitors each year (542,274 in 2020) compared to Yosemite’s 5 million (2,268,313 in 2020). It is a unique destination for camping, hiking, trout fishing, and wilderness treks. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through much of the park.

With summer heating up, here is the ultimate guide to Lassen Volcanic with ideas on how to enjoy the park’s greatest hits and stay cool.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Along the Lassen Park Highway, you can find major campgrounds and camping cabins at Manzanita Lake (multiple loops, 179 sites, 20 cabins). Or check out Summit Lake with two separate campground areas and 94 sites which opened June 25. Near the southern entrance station, Southwest Walk-in has 20 sites, first come, first served. In the park’s more remote regions, the campground at Butte Lake (101 sites) is located across the entrance road from the car-top boat access.

Camps are also available at the distant Warner Valley (17 sites, first-come, first-served) and the even more remote Juniper Lake (16 sites, first come, first served, opened June 25). Access to these spots is along dirt roads and SUVs are advised to reach them.

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Three easy hikes

The park’s most popular hike, the Bumpass Hell geothermal area (named after a guy who accidentally fell in), is now open. It’s a 3-mile round trip: a short climb and then a descent to a basin filled with boiling pots, hot springs, steam vents, and hydrothermals. A series of boardwalks provide access to the basin.

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From Hat Lake along the Lassen Park Highway, there’s a pretty hike along a creek past a waterfall (a short cutoff on the right provides the best view) to gorgeous Paradise Meadow. It’s a 2.8 miles round trip with a 700-foot climb on the way in. The meadow is nestled in a mountain bowl at 7,100 feet where visitors will find an explosion of wildflowers.

Mill Creek Falls, a gorgeous 75-foot chute-like waterfall, is a 3.8-mile round trip. The route starts near the southwest parking area (near the park entrance, behind the amphitheater), then is routed through the forest with a few small stream crossings.

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Two tougher hikes

The park’s signature hike, the Lassen Peak Trail, has recently become accessible for hiking as the snow melts off the south-facing switchbacks. It’s a 5-mile round-trip with a 2,000-foot climb on the way up to the rim. Then it’s a short jaunt across the caldera to the plug dome summit crag. As you approach, the best route up to the pinnacle is on the far side on the left.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the trailhead at Butte Lake, the park’s most unusual climb is the 2-mile trek to the rim of the Cinder Cone (4.5 miles roundtrip). It’s somewhat of a slog through volcanic rubble but the reward is a view inside the collapsed caldera of the cone and views of the Spectacular Lava Beds and also to Lassen Peak. A trail rings the rim of the cone with a cutoff spur that plunges to the bottom.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lakes

The park’s most famous lake is Manzanita Lake, located a short distance from the Highway 44/89 entrance station. During the summer, it is a favorite area for kids of all ages to hike, swim, and paddle. With a kayak or canoe, you can paddle across the lake with a backdrop of Lassen Peak. Kayak rentals are available at the Camper Store. The lake is also a destination for flyfishers with special regulations in effect for catch-and-release wild trout.

National Park Service rangers at Lassen also provide regular guided tours that examine summer bird species in the area (there are 213 species in the park) The one thing that never changes at Manzanita Lake is the straight-on view of Lassen Peak from its north side. Gorgeous! 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summit Lake, ringed by conifers, is also popular for kayaking with the best access on the northern shore; no rentals.

Remote Butte Lake has a designated area to launch car-top boats and from here you can paddle amid a backdrop of pine forest, volcanic crags, and shoreline rubble. The lake has fair trout fishing with fish up to about 12 inches. No motors are permitted at any of the lakes at Lassen.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 106,372 acres

Date Established: August 9, 1916

Location: Northern California, at the southern foot of the Cascades Range

Park Elevation: 5,300 feet-10,463 feet

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Lassen Volcanic National Park was named after the high-point in the park, Lassen Peak (10,463 feet). Lassen Peak was named after a Danish blacksmith named Peter Lassen who explored the area and settled there in the early 1840s. It has also been called Mount Lassen or Lassen Butte. It’s Native American names varied, translating loosely as Fire Mountain, Water Mountain, Snow Mountain, and The Long High Mountain That Was Broken.  

Iconic site: The unobstructed view of Lassen Peak from Manzanita Lake is a showstopper and a site that can be accessed all year long. Along the popular 1.5-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake, there are plenty of cool offshoot trails meandering the serene alpine setting. From the north side of the lake, forests of conifer trees frame-up Chaos Crags, Eagles Peak, and Lassen Peak like a painting. Stay for sunset! It’s an easy walk back to the car and the alpenglow is beautiful. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Sunset Magazine called Lassen The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland.

Lassen is one of the few places on Earth that contains all four of the world’s known types of volcanoes—stratovolcanoes, volcanic domes, shield volcanoes, and cinder cones. A shield volcano can be seen at Prospect Peak, a cinder cone volcano that formed the Painted Dunes when it erupted in 1666, Lassen Peak itself is a plug dome volcano—the largest in the world, and the stratovolcano (also known as a composite volcano) can be seen at Mount Diller.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All of the mountains in this national park are volcanic.

The only volcanic eruption occurring in a national park in the lower 48 states during the 20th century was at Lassen Volcanic.

 Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)

The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

At one of America’s newer National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Meditteranean chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salinas Valley in west-central California is the site of an ancient history spanning 23 million years. Over the course of that time, the “pinnacles” have migrated some 200 miles from their original home on the San Andreas Fault where the volcano that they were born from once stood. Today, that volcanic rock from the Pacific Coast Range has morphed to form monoliths, spires, peaks, cliffs, and other formations that jut out from the pastoral hills of the region. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first 2,500 acres of the rugged Pinnacles were made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since 1908, the monument significantly increased in size to 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park. 

Hiking and rock climbing are popular activities in Pinnacles National Park as is watching for the majestic California condor overhead. Pinnacles National Park is a nesting place for the endangered soaring bird, the largest in North America.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the early 1980s, the California condor population had dwindled to just 22. The birds were placed in captive breeding programs, and Pinnacles became one of the release sites. Other condors from the Big Sur area also frequent the area which increases the odds of seeing one of these rare creatures.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remarkable rocks sculpted by 14 million years of volcanic turmoil. The rocky spires and pinnacles have long attracted rock climbers. So have talus caves (formed when massive boulders tumbled into narrow canyons) inhabited by protected bat communities. A well-maintained 30-mile trail system, partially created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, beckons hikers to this rugged landscape. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the temperate climate makes for year-round exploration opportunities.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into east and west access points which are connected by trails. But, there is no road connecting the east and west entrances of the park.

The eastern access road (CA 146) branches off CA 25, 30 miles south of Hollister, and leads up a wide, partly wooded valley alongside Bear Creek, and past the park campground. The mountains are visible to the west though they seem unremarkable from a distance as the volcanic formations are hidden behind more conventional rocks.

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Pinnacles Campground offers 149 tent, group, and RV sites with 30-amp electric service. Water is located throughout the campground. Showers and a dump station are available. During the spring and summer seasons, campers can enjoy the campground swimming pool and ranger programs at the campground amphitheater.

The road bends around a side canyon and ends next to the visitor center just as the main valley (Bear Gulch) starts to become relatively narrow. The center has exhibits, a small selection of books for sale, a public telephone, and flashlights for use in the caves.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding vegetation is typical of the chaparral zone, mostly small oak trees, and bushes, reflecting the low elevation, moderate rainfall, and long hot summers of this part of California. The main hiking area is to the west, further along, the canyon—within 2 miles are Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and many rock climbing sites, while 2 miles further are the extensive formations of the High Peaks. Many trails intersect, allowing for a short loop or a longer all-day hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bear Gulch Cave provides a home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats as they rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer. The colony in the Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The lower half of the Bear Gulch Cave is usually open from mid-July through mid-May each year, depending on the presence of the colony of bats. The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young. Bring a flashlight if your hike leads through a cave.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west entrance has just a ranger station plus parking and is reached by a narrow, 12-mile road from Soledad that is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From the road’s end, three trails depart to the north, west, and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.

Fact Box

Size: 26,000 acres

Date Established: January 10, 2013

Location: West central California, in the Salinas Valley

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: In 1880, the area where the national park is now was known as “the Palisades” until a newspaper article came out in 1881 describing the trellised areas as “the Pinnacles.” Further exploration of the area and additional marketing of it as a tourist destination helped the new name to stick. It has been officially known as Pinnacles since it was protected as a National Monument in 1908. 

Iconic site in the park: The geologic formations are known as “the pinnacles” are a series of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that have eroded over time to take the shape of colorful and ornate cliffs, crags, and talus cave formations that rise from a forested landscape. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.

American writer John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and lived there until he went to Stanford University in 1919. The location inspired several of his works, one of them being East of Eden

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Entrance Fees: $30/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping Fee: $37/night

Worth Pondering…

May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view……where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.

—Edward Abbey

New Mexico’s Land of Fire & Ice: Hike through Volcanic Rock and Ice Caves at This National Monument

The floor is literally lava—and it gets fewer than 150,000 visitors a year

Your dreams of a Canadian Rockies road trip this summer just went poof! On Friday, Canada extended restrictions on nonessential travel across the US border until July 22. Those restrictions have been in place since March 2020 when countries across the globe shut down international travel to curb the spread of COVID.

Many are, in a word, frustrated

The US and Canada’s economies are more intertwined than CatDog (animated TV series that follows the life of a conjoined cat and dog). And while goods can be shuttled between the two countries, the tourism and services industries on both sides of the border are feeling the pinch. Lawmakers and businesses in both the US and Canada have lashed out at the Canadian government for what they say is putting politics over science.

“The complete lockdown we’ve experienced is not consistent with science and it’s very, very bad for our economy,” said US Rep. Chris Jacobs of New York.

“We need to open the border for fully vaccinated travelers immediately,” Harley Finkelstein, the president of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify, tweeted.

About those vaccinations…to keep the virus at bay, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the border would stay mostly closed until 75 percent of the population has received the first dose and 20 percent have been fully vaccinated. As of yesterday, 65 percent had received the first dose and nearly 17 percent had been fully vaxxed, per the COVID-19 Tracker Canada project.

Big picture: Canadian and American businesses that rely on cross-border traffic are getting FOMO (Fear of missing out) as other countries open up to international travelers. Yesterday, the European Council recommended that EU countries gradually lift restrictions on non-essential travel from 14 countries including the US.

Canadian Snowbirds: This decision muddies the water for travel to Sunbelt states this winter. Will these restrictions be lifted in time or is it another winter hibernating in the Great White North?



And now onto the “Land of Fire & Ice”…

Contrary to popular belief, Iceland isn’t the only “Land of Fire and Ice” (and the other one isn’t in the Game of Thrones universe, either). In this case, we’re looking at the very real American Southwest state of New Mexico

West of Albuquerque, a barren volcanic landscape dominates the shrubby desert terrain so desolate and raw it was once considered a possible detonation site for the atomic bomb. This is El Malpaís—literally, “the badlands.”

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not quite 4,000 years ago, one of the largest basalt lava flows on record inundated New Mexico. Today, the aptly named El Malpaís National Monument and the adjoining El Malpaís National Conservation Area comprise nearly 400,000 acres of basalt fields, lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones, and steam-explosion craters. Where the lava didn’t touch, you’ll find sandstone arches, cliffs, canyons, and some of the oldest Douglas firs in the Southwest.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scene is reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. In fact, what you’ll see here is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian-style volcanism,” and you’ll hear Hawaiian terms thrown around—for example, pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), a word for ropey, slow-cooling lava, the same dark stuff you’ll see beneath your feet.

For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indigenous peoples crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremonies. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The “Land of Fire” moniker should be obvious by now, but what about the ice? Wander inside a lava tube and you’ll quickly understand: the tubes trap cold air, forming underground ice caves. The ice has been forming for thousands of years and can be many feet thick. Despite being in the high desert the caves rarely rise above freezing. 

But it’s the caves’ human history that might be the most fascinating. These caves have been used as a shelter, storage, and for other uses by people in modern times on back to Indigenous cultures. Soot stains in the caves point to Ancestral Puebloans melting ice during periods of drought.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do in El Malpaís 

Hitting the trails is the big thing to do in El Malpaís. Both Big Tubes and El Calderon have great trails but the Narrows Rim Trail in El Malpaís National Conservation Area is can’t-miss: The 4.5-mile trek follows the edge of the most recent lava flow where the streams of blazing-hot magma met 500-foot sandstone cliffs. This is an amazing trail with incredible views. It is rough and there’s not a lot of shade so make sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and maybe a snack. Also, check the weather before you go.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), not far from Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, also winds through here. The trailheads along CR 42 provide access to the 3,100 miles long CDT that follows the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. This section of the trail winds among the Chain of Craters and passes through piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, and a variety of shrubs and grasses. Pack in plenty of water as there are no reliable sources of water in the area. Keep an eye on the weather, County Road 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.

La Ventana Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also want to explore the iconic La Ventana Natural Arch, New Mexico’s second tallest arch. This is a world-class arch! It faces southwest so the lighting can be even more spectacular before sunrise and afternoon in the fall, winter, and spring.

Curious how the arch formed? Thinking freeze-thaw? You’re getting warm. It’s from the daily temperature swings of over 50 degrees on the rock’s surface throughout the year. The sandstone expands in the day and cracks apart from the still cool rock hidden behind. The rock at the base and in the center was under the greatest load stress and cracked then failed first. Over time this created an arc that grew from the base as more rock failed and collapsed.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a real experience, in contrast, visit the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, “The Land of Fire and Ice,” right on the Continental Divide. Walkthrough the twisted old-growth juniper, fir, and Ponderosa pine trees over the ancient lava trails down into the cave and into a dormant volcano. The Ice Cave, an underground “icebox” is found within a twisting lava tube system formed by the Bandera’s ancient explosion. Take a walk around the 20,000-year-old dormant Bandera Volcano and view one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to prepare for a visit to El Malpaís

Before you head into El Malpaís be sure to grab a bike helmet, gloves, knee pads, and a headlamp if you’re looking to go underground. You can nab a permit from either El Malpaís Visitor Center or El Morro Visitor Center and go caving on your own. (Note: The caves are currently closed to the public due to COVID; check the monument’s website for updates.)

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But before you ramble off into the volcanic fields and lava tubes, know what you’re in for. Many visitors arrive ill-prepared. They look at a topo map and don’t see much elevation change on the lava fields. Those hard, uneven surfaces can be strenuous to hike on. Sturdy, well-cushioned hiking boots can be more important than ever on lava.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring lots of drinking water. Remember that El Malpaís is in a high desert and natural water sources are scarce. Hikers should plan ahead and carry the water they need especially when hiking through open land.

Worth Pondering…

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.

—D.H. Lawrence

Mount St. Helens: On the Eruption 40 Years Ago & Future Eruptions

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steepsided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forty years ago, Mount St. Helens erupted, killing 57 people and leveling the surrounding region. At 8:32 a.m. that fateful day, a 5.1 earthquake rattled the volcano, triggering an explosion of fluid. The north face of the volcano collapsed altogether. The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano.

Mount St. Helens from Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

Mount St. Helens from Hoffstadt Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. 

People remember the thick, dark plumes of clouds that day, the choking ash and lightning bolts that catapulted across the skies. That terrifying, apocalyptic scene is forever seared in the memory of so many.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since that natural disaster, scientists have made considerable progress in tracking volcanic activity, but more still needs to be done. Seismologist and former University of Washington professor Dr. Steve Malone was one of many experts who had been tracking warning signs of the eventual eruption for months in advance. He said there’s a real threat for another eruption in the decades ahead.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While he says Mount St. Helens is the most likely to erupt next, Mt. Rainier is considered the most dangerous volcano of the Cascades, largely because it’s surrounded by communities that are heavily populated.

There are five major volcanoes in the Washington Cascades, including Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and of course, Mount Saint Helens. Mt. Hood in Oregon also poses a threat.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The one we think is sort of the most frightening in many respects are what are called lahars or volcanic mudflows, that can travel down valleys and be totally devastating to anything within that valley,” Malone said.

While scientists can’t predict volcanic explosions with any precision, there can be warning signs up to a week in advance of an eruption.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I think Mount St. Helens triggered that awareness, that says ‘hey, we really need to pay more attention to these’ and there’s not just Mount St. Helens, but the other cascade volcanoes as well,” Malone said.

Seismologists say scientists will likely never be able to predict future volcanic eruptions with a great level of accuracy and precision, better monitoring stations on the volcanoes can help. While there’s an adequate number of volcano monitoring stations at Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, more are needed on other Washington volcanoes like Glacier Peak.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) says we cannot forget the message that Mount St. Helens communicated all those years ago. The mountains are beautiful, but they also have the potential to create these hazardous eruptions.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congress has authorized $55 million to better track volcanoes across the country, but they have yet to invest that money. Even still, the PNSN says it’s working on plans to implement those monitoring devices for once those funds are appropriated and any permits have been granted.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, American geologist (1841-1912)

Rivers of Ancient Fires: El Malpais National Monument

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

Known as “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe, and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas.

El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area was established in 1987. Its 114,277 acres is managed in a joint effort between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). El Malpais hosts more than 100,000 visitors annually; visitation is highest in July and August and lowest in December and January.

There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many points of interest are accessible from New Mexico Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route, which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In El Malpais many trails are actually routes marked with cairns. Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are common on lava landscapes, where creating a traditional trail or footpath is not possible due to the extreme nature of the terrain.

Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. As you travel, make sure you have the next cairn in sight before leaving the one that you are at. Keep your eyes on the land while walking; the uneven nature of the terrain demands that you pay more attention since the surface is not even.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To enjoy the views, stop, get a secure footing, and then look around. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes. Sturdy hiking boots are advised as is ample drinking water.

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

East of the highway are some 62,000 acres of lush, pine-covered rimrock called the Cebola Wilderness. Exploration of this area of the park will reward visitors with prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing down the highway, you’ll drive through The Narrows; here lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here, and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find.

At the Lava Falls Area, you can explore the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marvel at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive to the Big Tubes Area, where you can explore two of the network of gigantic caves formed by the flowing lava: Big Skylight and Four Windows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape.

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

Worth Pondering…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

—Wallace Stegner