Albuquerque to Gallup, New Mexico
My assistant had told me about an ice cave in an old lava flow near Grants, New Mexico when I was planning my trip, so I had set aside a day to check it out. I woke up nice and early and found old Route 66 just about a block south of my hotel. I decided I would catch some breakfast somewhere in town along route 66.
Those of you who have followed me for a while know that I grew up in El Paso, Texas. I had been in Albuquerque more times than I can possibly count while growing up, but I never realized that there was an official “Old Town Albuquerque”. Not knowing exactly how long it would take to get to the ice cave nor how long I wanted to spend hiking around the area, I decided to skip checking out Old Town Albuquerque. Now I have another reason to come back and spend more time in Albuquerque. A couple of blocks west of the hotel I crossed the Rio Grande River as I was heading west on old 66 out of town.
I was hoping to find a local restaurant for breakfast, but all I was seeing were the usual fast food chains. Just about the time I got to the edge of town I finally found a little café that I have to admit looked fairly questionable. However, there were several cars in the parking lot, so I figured I’d give it a try.
As as soon as I walked through the door I was greeted by a very friendly hostess/waitress who told me that I could sit anywhere I liked. I picked a booth that was near the front window, and ended up having a wonderful breakfast there. The food was actually pretty good, and the service was great. I could tell that I had hit upon a local jem.
I think I mentioned in my last post that I had had some interesting difficulties finding restrooms in New Mexico. I should’ve use the restroom at this little café, but I thought I could buzz into a grocery store a couple blocks back and pick up a couple more things for the road and use their restroom. No such luck! This major grocery store had their restrooms completely closed to public use. I went to a gas station on the same block, and no luck there either. The person at the gas station told me that there was a truck stop with open restrooms up on I-40 a few blocks to the west. It turned out okay because I had to head up that way anyway to get back on Interstate 40 as Route 66 ended not far past the restaurant.
My frustration was building with the situation in New Mexico. As a traveler who is not familiar with the local establishments, this restroom thing was just ridiculous. I mean the restaurants are open, and you go in and sit there without masks while you eat. The grocery stores are open. And yet they’re worrying about the disease spreading in public restrooms?
Anyway, I finally made it out of town and proceeded west on I-40. Interstate 40 is literally falling apart. I-40 is one of the major east-west interstate highways through the United States, and as such it sees a tremendous amount of heavy truck traffic. The large tractor-trailer rigs have beaten the road to a pulp creating all kinds of ruts and rough areas. I was quite surprised at the volume of truck traffic that I encountered as I was heading west out of the Albuquerque metro area.
Honestly, the drive was rather miserable. I finally made it to Grants, New Mexico and found a Walmart there to pick up some extra water for the day and use their restroom – yes, they were open! To get to the Bandera volcano and ice cave, I had to head south out of Grants on New Mexico 53 for about 30 some miles.
It it was really nice to get off of the interstate highway for a while and back on the two lane roads. The Bandera volcano and ice cave is a privately owned entity. I really didn’t know what to expect, but when I got there I was pleasantly surprised. The place had a pretty decent looking campground (for future reference), and I found the main building where I could purchase my ticket quite easily. And surprise of surprises, their bathrooms were actually open!
After getting the introductory spiel and some literature about the place, I decided that I should hike to the volcano first, and then go to the ice cave on the return trip as it was getting fairly hot. This part of New Mexico, in fact a lot of New Mexico, had been quite geologically active in the not too distant past. The Bandera volcano is one of many volcanic cones in the area left over from around 10,000 years ago. Certainly, the natives at that time would’ve had some interesting and probably scary adventures as the lava flow was quite incredible and really large.
There were two options for the hike to the volcanic crater and then back down to the ice cave. The first option was to hike up to the crater and then return to the visitor center. Then take another trail down to the ice cave. The second option was to hike up to the crater, and then on the return route take another trail directly through the lava flow over to the ice cave and then back to the visitor center at the end. That is the route that I chose.
This terrain was really breathtaking. The eruption had completely covered the landscape in what must’ve been very thick, slow flowing lava. The ground was so rough it’s just hard to describe. As this eruption was a little over 10,000 years ago, there is a lot of vegetation in the area now. But it’s really hard to believe how these plants can survive in this environment. The dark color of the lava rock intensifies the heat from the sun, so the hike up to the crater was fairly warm. As I had been sitting in my truck on the road for quite some time, I really motored up the crater trail pretty much passing everyone as I went upward.
While catching a break in the shade of a tree, I had pulled out my brochure and realized that this area is close to 8000 thousand feet (~2440 meters) above sea level. That explained the hard breathing a couple times on the trail up to the crater.
After spending some time at the crater taking in the scenery and making some photographs, I headed back down the trail excited to see what it would be like to hike through this lava flow. It was really incredible to be down in amongst this ancient lava. The ruggedness of the terrain was just indescribable, and yet here and there were beautiful plants, some trees and even a bit of wildlife.
One of the interesting things about this particular lava flow were the numerous lava tubes. I had not really seen those since I was in Hawaii the last time. You could see evidence of lava tubes everywhere, and frankly it was a little unsettling knowing that one of these could cave in at any time. I was also amazed at just how much diversity there was in the plant life throughout the flow. There was everything from huge conifers down to tiny little cactuses.
For those of you who have seen the movie “Jurassic Park” you may remember a line from the character Ian Malcolm who said, “Life finds a way.” This is certainly an apt description of this incredible landscape through the Bandera lava flow.
The the hike from the Bandera volcanic crater over to the ice cave was really cool, and not too difficult. I spent quite a bit of time on this trail just looking around and taking photographs, but it really was an easy hike.
It turns out the ice cave was not a cave at all. The ice cave is actually ice that has accumulated at the bottom of a really deep lava tube. When I got to the staircase to go down in there, there was a little girl that was completely melting down as she was terrified at the prospect of walking down this really steep and long staircase into what appeared from the top as nothing but a black hole. Looking down in there, I couldn’t really blame her. As I descended down the staircase the temperature dropped noticeably and quickly. By the time I hit the landing just above the ice, it felt like I was in a large freezer.
According to the literature, the temperature in this “ice cave” never gets above 31°F, even in the hottest days of summer. The ice has accumulated over many centuries from rainwater flowing down into the bottom of the lava tube and freezing. According to the literature, the ranchers who owned this property used to harvest the ice out of the cave for their ice boxes. That must’ve been quite a chore, as the steep staircase descended more than 100 feet below the surface.
I told my assistant, Kymm who had suggested that I visit the Bandera volcano and ice cave, that this was an extremely interesting side trip. Honestly, I really enjoyed my time here, and if it wasn’t so hot I would’ve loved to have stayed longer. And hey, their bathrooms were open to the public, so it was a win-win situation!
My intent was to return to Grants on the same road upon which I drove down to the Bandera volcano. However, my truck’s GPS didn’t tell me which way to turn out of the parking lot nor were there any signs indicating which way was the route back to Grants. I thought I had remembered which way to go, but after about 15 miles I realized I had turned the wrong direction. I ended up seeing a sign for the El Morro National Monument that was well past the Bandera volcano; that’s when I knew I was definitely going the wrong direction. Fortunately this route (New Mexico 53) eventually ended up back in Gallup, so I just stayed on the two laner and enjoyed the scenery.
New Mexico 53 is a very rural route. There was only one tiny town on the way to Gallup called Ramah. Once again I encountered the New Mexico restroom closure issue, but fortunately being a guy, there were a lot of juniper bushes which solved my problem. I was so glad to see civilization when I finally made it back to Gallup.
I had made a reservation for the Gallup Best Western, and checked into my hotel. I soon discovered that my hotel was one street south of old Route 66 and just behind the old El Rancho Hotel and restaurant. I decided to head over to the hotel for dinner as the desk clerk at the Best Western told me they had very good food. When I walked into the El Rancho, it was like stepping back in time. The lobby was gorgeous although maybe somewhat cluttered from all of the eclectic paraphernalia. I quickly found the restaurant, and again I was immediately greeted by a friendly, smiling hostess.
After studying the menu, my waitress recommended the house fajitas. Oh my gosh! They were really tasty! I ordered the steak fajitas, and the meat was melt in your mouth tender. The vegetables were all cooked to perfection, and I think the tortillas were homemade. They were really soft and fresh tasting. These were some of the best fajitas that I have ever eaten, and the service there was absolutely incredible. The hostess and the waitress both made me feel really welcome and very appreciated.
After dinner I decided to go look around the hotel a bit and then headed out the front door to go check out some of Route 66. I think you have seen a couple of these photos in my previous post, but here are a few more shots of the hotel and the area around Route 66.
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed part three of the Mother Road series. Even though I got a little lost and ended up taking an entirely different route back to Gallup, I had a wonderful day exploring the Bandera volcano and the ice cave. I don’t think I could’ve had a nicer dinner than what I had at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup. Next time, I will be discussing the petrified Forest National Monument and the time I spent there.
As always, I appreciate you taking the time to visit my blog and I hope that you have enjoyed this little bit of my adventures along Route 66.