Monday, December 19, 2011

Hike 2011.091 -- Narrows Rim Trail, El Malpais National Monument/National Conservation Area, New Mexico

Hiked Wednesday, December 16.

After finishing my walking in Petroglyphs National Monument, I hopped in my car and drove about one hour west on I-40, exiting at New Mexico state highway 117, and heading south about nine miles, to the BLM's El Malpais ranger station. I chatted with a ranger there before continuing south on 117. After an additional 9 miles, I passed (but did not stop at) the La Ventana Arch viewpoint, which has a short hike to the base of the arch. I then continued an additional 3.5 miles or so further south, passing a sign that indicated this was "The Narrows," before reaching the South Narrows Picnic Area. This is the trailhead for the Narrows Rim Trail, which I hiked this day.

"The Narrows" seems misnamed to me, because I'd expect a narrows to be, well, narrow, with walls on either side of you. Instead, these narrows have the sandstone wall on one side, but a lava flow on the other.

The BLM handout for this area, is here. The descriptions of La Ventana and The Narrows Rim Trail are the first two entries on the handout. One thing to be aware of, however, is the length of this hike. While the handout says this hike is 6.5 miles roundtrip, the ranger at the info center gave the distance of the Rim Trail as 8 miles roundtrip. This would be consistent with some on-line descriptions of the trail, which emphasized that the mileage estimate for this trail seemed to be substantially shorter than reality.

If heading south, you turn left into the picnic area. The trailhead is right near the entrance to the picnic area, on your right as you drive the short spur road. There's a small parking area across the road from this trailhead. However, because of the snow, the parking area was not obvious to me, and I ended up parking at the far northern end of the lot and having to walk back the 1/5 of a mile or so to the actual trailhead.

What was obvious to me was that no one else had walked this trail since the snow fell, probably on Tuesday. I saw plenty of rabbits and rabbit prints, and at least one set of coyote tracks. But there were no boot prints or evidence of boot prints having been covered.

This trail is well-planned, because it gets you on top of a mesa with very little climbing. By starting at the far southern end of the mesa, it's an easy walk-up, with even the first 1/2 mile or so that is the steepest part of the trial still not feeling like switchbacks.

The trail is even more level later along the way, with much of it running near the west end of the mesa. A nice view down to the picnic area is visible near this start.

As you continue to the north, your relative altitude increases, with a sharp drop off on your left. Normally, you'd be overlooking black pahoehoe lava. On the day of my hike, however, the lava was snow-covered, with the only dark areas being where cracks in the lava revealing shadowed sections of earth.

The snow made a crisp "squeak" as I walked, indicating the snow had not melted since it fell. Despite it being after noon by the time I hiked, the temperatures were still down in the upper-20s or lower 30s, below freezing. This made traction similar to walking on sand, meaning it was more work than you would normally expend for the distance covered.

After what seemed like somewhat more than one mile (and, by the on-line description I had read, WAS more than one mile), I saw a rock with a "1 mile" written on it. Along pretty much the entire way, I walked through a dwarf piƱon pine/juniper forest.

After about 3 3/4 miles (or, I should say, about 1/4 mile from "the end"), the trail makes a sharp right turn and crosses to the other side of the mesa. That brings you to the high overlook, with La Ventana face-on, across about 1/2 mile of grassland.

There were numerous numerous cairns or ducks marking the path pretty much the whole way, which was helpful because of the snow. The actual path was snow covered. But, even more so, some trail sections cross over rock, meaning that there'd be no evidence of trail without the cairns.

It took me approxi-mately one hour and forty minutes each way. I passed only one other hiker along the way. I'm sure it's a much busier trail in the spring, fall, or summer. It's probably a lot tough in the summer, too, since the dwarf forest doesn't provide much shade during this hike.

After returning to my car, I drove back north, stopping at the La Ventana viewpoint off the road. I took one shot looking up to La Ventana, and another shot looking over towards the mesa cliff where I had just hiked.

I then continued driving south an additional three miles or so, then turned left on the gravel road that heads to Sandstone Bluffs. Unlike the trail I hiked (which is in a BLM-managed national conservation area), Sandstone Bluffs is in the NPS-managed national monument. From the top, there's some nice views across a good slice of El Malpais. There aren't any formal trails up here, but lots of places to poke around the edge. A sign warmed against going too close to the edge, on account of the ice on the face. I did not go any where that risked a long fall, but I did hop along the sandstone bluff a bit.

Pools of solidly frozen water filled depressions in the sandstone at the top. During the summer, the pools team with fairy shrimp. However, the low temperature the previous night was supposed to be 14 degrees in Grants, the nearest town to El Malpais. Hard to imagine those "shrimp" eggs surviving being alternately frozen solid or dried under a hot sun, but still being able to hatch, but this, they have apparently been doing for thousands of years.

1 comment:

  1. I love this area! Can't believe how much snow there is!