Up for some other-worldly adventure? Nope, not Roswell and alien conspiracies. Instead, head out on a western New Mexico road trip to find geographic marvels like ancient volcanos, lava flows, and caves. And it’s not too far away – easy to do in a day or overnight.
Just outside Grants, NM is New Mexico Scenic Route 53—also known as The Ancient Way. This scenic byway near the Continental Divide has been a well-traveled route for thousands of years. It was a traditional route between the Pueblos of Zuni and Acoma, and was followed by Coronado, the Cavalry, and western settlers. Not only is it known for its volcanic wilderness but it is also a spiritual hub, and considered sacred space for contemporary Native American groups. Resulting from violent eruptions and fierce fires, this beautiful landscape is a terrific area to explore.
El Morro National Monument
This one is easy on the budget—there is no fee to enter El Morro National Monument!
A massive sandstone bluff (200 feet) with a waterhole drew Spanish and Anglo travelers starting in the late 1500s: they carved signatures, dates, and messages that are still in evidence today. Prior to that, ancestral Puebloans lived atop the bluff (more than 700 years ago) and inscribed petroglyphs along the bluff’s base. You can see more than 2,000 carved inscriptions and petroglyphs as well as the mesa top Asianna Pueblo, which was discovered by archeologists in the 1950s. El Morro was called “the Headland” by the Spaniards and “Inscription Rock” by Anglo-Americans.
A short 1.5-mile hike along Inscription Rock Trail passes numerous petroglyphs like a bear paw and bighorn sheep and chiseled names from early Spanish travelers and westward settlers. In fact, you can see one by Don Juan de Onate, who founded New Mexico’s first permanent Spanish colony. A 2-mile mesa top trail is worth the effort—catch great views of the Zuni Mountains, volcanic craters of the El Malpais region, and the El Morro Valley below. You also can explore the Atsinna ruins, where approximately 1500 people lived from 1275 to 1350 AD.
Ice Caves and Bandera Volcano
$12 each – 13 and over
$6 for children 6-12, free under 6
This family-owned, private wonder has been a tourist attraction since the 1940s. The short Ice Cave Trail passes through a lava field and past ancient twisted trees, a small cave that was once the family’s refrigerator, a large sinkhole, and a section of collapsed lava tube. Several steep staircases descend to the ice cave, where temperatures average 31 degrees. The blue-green tinted ice is caused by Arctic algae and the deepest and oldest ices date back 3,400 years. Puebloan Indians called the site “The Winter Lake.” The ices original formation is a mystery—but its longevity is due to ice-box-like conditions: 20 feet of ice in a well-insulated cave shaped to trap frigid air.
The Bandera Volcano Trail
A fairly easy ½ mile trail takes you past a spatter cone, which is a jagged blowhole formed when molten lava splashes out of vents. You also will pass a cinder cone and lava tube system. At the top of a 100-foot climb, you can check out 15 of the area’s 40 volcanoes. The Bandera Crater is part of a 10,000-year-old eruption—at the top of the trail, you can look across the 1,400-foot wide span and see nearly 800 feet down.
El Malpais National Monument
El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area offers everything from easy drives, scenic overlooks, and short walks to strenuous trails, caving, and rugged backcountry. Caving permits are required but are free, and can be obtained at the various visitor and information centers.
El Malpais means “the badlands” and it is 114,000 acres of volcanic landscape with lava flows and tubes, cinder cones, spatter cones, and ice caves that date back 115,000 years. El Malpais is enormous with three information centers serving the area.
For a taste, try an easy-to-moderate, 3-mile hike just off New Mexico Route 53 –a route that will take you into Junction Cave, one of the well-documented lava tube caves. This 115,000-year-old cave features a short area that is open at both ends and offers a “cave experience” without the necessary gear. It is naturally lit but requires scrambling around boulders and sure footing. But flashlights or headlamps, hard hat, gloves, and sturdy hiking shoes are definitely recommended.
Hiking cairned routes throughout the area requires careful attention to navigation. Make sure you have the next cairn in sight before leaving one and keep your eyes on the ground while you walk. The terrain is very uneven and twisting an ankle is easy to do. If you want to enjoy a view or take a photo, be sure to get a secure footing first. El Malpais is not terrific for snapping selfies!
Downloadable maps and guides are on the nps.gov website so you can plan your trip accordingly.
A few other highlights include:
Xenolith Cave is for the more adventurous, experienced, and well-prepared caver with appropriate equipment and physical conditioning. There is no trail in this cave and scrambling over large, unstable boulders is common.
Big Skylight Cave with its massive size has to be seen to be appreciated. It contains more than just a picturesque window to the world above; the cave includes perfectly preserved lava benches and delicate “moon milk” minerals. This one requires a high clearance vehicle a difficult cairned route hike of more than one mile to the mouth of the cave.
Giant Ice Cave—At certain times of the year ice features form and create an interesting caving environment.
How to get to the Ancient Way:
All these incredible experiences are located on New Mexico Route 53 and are within a 20-mile span. If you are traveling 1-25 toward Albuquerque, take 1-40 west to Grants (approximately 42 miles from the intersection); then take Exit 81 onto N. Mex 53.
Where to stay:
There are many chain motels/hotels in Grants, including Best Western and Holiday Inn Express. But Grants is a 20- to 40-mile drive to/from the various sites. You can opt for the intimate bed-and-breakfast Cimarron Rose, or stay at the Ancient Way Café and Outpost campground, which has cabin rentals. Stop in at the Ancient Way Café for tasty lunch or dinner.
Did you know that State ECU has a summer auto loan program that is as easy and pleasant as a summer breeze? You can apply online or work with a State ECU member representative to secure a terrific rate on a new car, used car, or refinance loan—get preapproved before you shop! With $150 back and 90 days to pay, the State ECU summer loan gives you some extra green in your wallet so you can start planning your summer road trip today.