A Bright Spot in the Land of Enchantment
Q: What do New Mexico and Hawaii have in common?
A: Pahoehoe and a’a’, of course!
Kilauea (pronounced kil-ah-way-ah), the active volcano on the Hawaii’s Big Island is busy laying down the same smooth, ropey-textured lava known as pahoehoe (a Hawaiian term pronounced pa-hoy-hoy) as that in the Tularosa Valley of south central New Mexico. A’a’ (another Hawaiian term, pronounced ah-ah) is the blocky, jagged Hawaiian lava which interlaces with the ropey, swirled pahoehoe to make a unique and fascinating landscape in New Mexico.
Just west of the Capitan Mountains where Smokey the Bear and Billy the Kid both gained fame, north of the White Sands National Monument, and east of Interstate 25, the Carrizozo Malpais (Spanish for bad land) reveals the hidden jewel called Valley of Fires.
About 1,500 to 5,000 years ago lava vents opened in the thin-crusted northern valley, and spewed a vast flow of lava 44 miles long, 4-6 miles wide, and more than 160 feet deep at the center. The surface contains pressure ridges, extensive fissures, pits, collapsed bubbles, lava tubes, and islands of older rock known as kipukas. In fact, the olivine basalt surface is so rugged, sheepherders used to put the rubber from tires on the Angora sheeps’ hooves to protect them. They came out once a week to change their “shoes”.
On a late August afternoon, not expecting anything but another hour westbound on Highway 380 to the freeway, we passed a small entrance sign for Valley of Fires. Looking to the south with mild curiosity, what a grand surprise to see a ridge with spacious RV sites sitting just above the lava flow. A quick u-turn revealed the entrance to a wondrous experience.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers camping, nature trails, a visitor center, and restrooms with hot showers at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area. This is not just your basic desolate, black lava, deadened area in some remote corner of the world. The extensive and ever-so-interesting mix of plants and animals make this micro-environment a sensual candy of smells, sights, sounds, and feelings.
For example, more than twice the number of grass species grow among the lava than in the surrounding area. One of the Juniper trees, reputed to be more than 400 years old, grows among the majestic Sotols, cholla cactus, yucca, mesquite, sumac and eye-catching array of colorful wildflowers all of which provides a friendly habitat for the many cultures that make this wide valley home. Due to the abundant plant life, an even greater diversity of bird species inhabit the lava flow including mockingbirds, cactus wrens, roadrunners and three types of bats. Turkey vultures, great horned owls and eagles hunt the lizards, tarantulas, rabbits and other appetizing creatures. Mule deer, Barbary sheep, coyotes, kit foxes and ringtail cats all make this diversified land their home. According to Camp Host Janis Withers, the Barbary sheep has two twists to the horns rather than one, and you’ll smell it before you see it.
Whether you are a day hiker or an overnight camper, the mile paved Malpais Nature Trail among the lava, plants and animals brings moments of awe-striking wonder. Surrounded by purple-hued mountains, the light plays very differently hour-by-hour, and if you’re very fortunate, one of the many lightning storms may grace the evening skies before moving on to star-filled nights in the crystal clear air.
The park meanders along the eastern ridge and offers 19 campsites with shelters, tables and grills. Three of the sites are handicap accessible as is the Malpais Nature Trail. There are 13 RV sites with water and electric, 6 RV sites with water only, and 6 tent sites with water as well as two Group Shelters. The main restroom facility is located near the trail, and houses hot showers. Four more toilet-only restrooms are scattered throughout the park. An RV dump station is also available, and is free for overnighters or $15. for travelers. Campsites are first come, first serve except the two Group Shelters which can be reserved by contacting the office.
Day use starts at $3.00 for one person, $5.00 for two or more, and $15.00 per bus. The Group Shelters are $25.00, RV W/E sites are $18.00 and water-only are $12.00 per day. Tents with water available are $7.00. All sites are price with the Golden Passports for people 62 or older. The Passports may also be purchased at Valley of Fires with proper I.D. The park is located at 5400 feet and is open year-round with a 14 day limit for campers. June is the hottest month, and snow can occur 2-3 times per year anywhere from a dusting to closing the northern access roads for short periods.
Janis and Les Withers are the Camp Hosts. They are on-site daily providing information, maintaining the grounds, answering questions, and scattering laughter and joy to each visitor. When time calls for a weekly break for the Withers, 91-year old volunteer Johnson Stearns from nearby Carrizozo takes the helm at the Bookstore and Information Center. Johnson is well-known as the local historian having arrived in Carrizozo in 1917. Be ready if you’re here looking for ancestral information as Johnson can tell you where they lived, who they married, what their character was like, tales of their life, and where they are buried.
Albert Najar is the ever-so-versatile BLM Park Manager for Valley of Fires. In addition to overseeing the park, he guides endurance rides throughout the mountains, deserts, backroads, and valleys and is the favorite caterer for events and gatherings around the area. According to Janis, Albert makes a pretty mean New Mexican Green Chili Burger with his mobile chuckwagon smoker.
Together, these representatives of New Mexico, Bureau of Land Management, and Valley of Fires bring to life the spirit of this unusual land, its history, and the people throughout the ages. As passionate as Hawaii is about protecting her Native Hawaiians and Islanders, New Mexico equals in preserving the traditions of the Native Americans’ heritage throughout this Land of Enchantment.
State cookie is the biscochito, adopted in 1989, making New Mexico the first state with a state cookie.
6 C flour 2 eggs
tsp salt 2 C lard
3 tsp baking powder C brandy
1 C sugar C sugar
2 tsp anise seeds 1 Tbsp cinnamon
Sift flour with baking powder and salt. In separate bowl, cream lard with sugar and anise seeds until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Mix in flour and brandy until well blended. Refrigerate 2-3 hours. Turn dough out on a floured board and pat a roll to or inch thickness. Cut into shapes (the fleur-de-lis is traditional). Dust with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350 or until brown.
Of course, Janis also insists real lard be used in the cookies as well as quality brandy, and both Janis and Albert are quite adamant the brandy should be doubled so as to give the cook an equal amount during the baking of the cookies.
Valley of Fires is located four miles west of Carrizozo, a small town (pop. 1300) at the intersection of Highway 380 and Highway 54.
From Albuquerque, follow Interstate 25 south to San Antonio, then east on Highway 380 for 62 miles.
From Las Cruces, Highway 70 past White Sands to Alamogordo, then north on Highway 54 past Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Area to Carrizozo. Turn west on Highway 380 for four miles.
Travelling west from Roswell, New Mexico’s E.T. Home, take Highway 380 for 90 miles through the Capitan Mountains, historic Lincoln County, and the Smokey the Bear Monument and museum.
Valley of Fires Recreation Area
PO Box 871
Carrizozo, New Mexico 88301