Going to Maars in New Mexico

Going to Maars in New Mexico


The cliff face above the Upper Falls, Bandelier National Monument

No, that is not a typo. A maar is a type of volcano. New Mexico is infested with them, statistically speaking. By now you may have noticed that I seem to talk about volcanoes and volcanic features rather often. It’s impossible not to do so – New Mexico should have been called the Volcano State rather than the Land of Enchantment. You can hardly look out your window anywhere in New Mexico without seeing something volcanic. New Mexico has “one of the largest numbers, the largest diversity of type, the largest range of preservation, and some of the best type examples” of volcanoes in the North American continent. We even have a bun in the oven, so to speak, smack dab in the middle of the state: the Socorro Magma Body. This is a mid-crustal sill of magma that is slowly, but actively, inflating beneath the city of Socorro, New Mexico and surrounding areas, one of only three such features in the United States – and the only one that hasn’t expressed itself at the surface. Yet.

A maar is shallow, flat-floored volcanic crater formed by violent steam explosions, caused when ascending magma meets water at or near the Earth’s surface. The eruption at the surface is confined to these explosions, which toss out great quantities of loose, water-sodden sediment mixed with shattered fragments of chilled magma and the occasional bit of exotic rock torn from the deeper crust. No great cone of lava is built, and in fact the low crater, usually only a mile to two across, typically fills with water to form a shallow, circular lake. Such relatively modest features don’t last long here at the surface, where weathering and erosion work relentlessly, so if you find a maar it’s probably pretty young. Geologically restless New Mexico has a world-class collection of maars, in all stages of preservation, and just west of Santa Fe, the Rio Grande River and its short tributaries have cut canyons right through an entire pock-marked field of these things, preserved by burial under the lavas of the Caja del Rio Volcanoes.

One of these short tributaries is the beautiful canyon of the Rito de Frijoles, which forms the centerpiece of Bandelier National Monument west of Santa Fe. This lovely canyon, which is mostly cut in the orange and pink deposits of the Bandelier Tuff, is accessible from end to end, nearly, by trails which start at the Visitor’s Center. The most popular trail heads up canyon to the Ceremonial Cave, with its 140 feet of ladders pinned to the cliffs and the restored kiva in its alcove far above.

A walk among the Ponderosa on the Falls Trail in Bandelier

But if you head down canyon, you will be treated to a number of wonderful sights along the so-called Falls Trail: meadows full of towering Ponderosa pine, the chortling music of the Rito de Frijoles, two waterfalls, a remarkable transition from woodlands to arid canyon vegetation, and some beautiful color in the autumn. You can follow this trail all the way down to the Rio Grande if you like, although the last bit is in a sloggy delta covered in dead junipers (once flooded by the lake behind Cochiti Dam) that I prefer to avoid.

For years I hiked down this trail and wondered at the tall cliffs of contorted lava above the waterfalls, which protect a softer wall of obviously stratified material, orange, buff, white, and grey, that could not contrast more strikingly with the somber rocks above. And this stratified stuff didn’t fall into any easy categories of sedimentary rocks I’d seen before: no water-cut channels, no dune or bar-like features, a weird regularity of bedding and the oddest mix of volcanic particles with regular sand, and – strangest of all – rough boulders of basalt sitting right in the middle of the beds, with the layers below bent down and contorted, as if someone had just thrown them there.

Finally I learned that I was actually walking inside of a volcano. Frijoles Canyon has cut a perfect cross section into the flanks of a maar, and the stratified beds are the remains of the wet sediment and shattered lava flung out by explosion after explosion of steam caused by an injection of magma into the floodplain of an ancestral Rio Grande. The gently sloping layers are punctuated by volcanic bombs ejected by explosions beneath the riverbed and hurled down onto the flanks of the growing tuff ring, as it is sometime called. That explained my mysterious boulders.

Lower Falls Trail Maar Crater

And if you turn around you will see this. It’s very likely that the Upper Falls is cascading down the lava-choked throat of the vent that fed the maar in the first place. Amazing!

Cliffs towering above the Upper and Lower Falls

You can see in the above picture that these lavas have a ‘sticky’ component, by the way they are thickened and contorted, rather than showing the flattened ‘runny’ layers characteristic of basalt lavas.

But it gets even better. Check out the photo on the left.  Just below the Upper Falls, you can actually see the curving interior of the crater of the maar, which has been filled with layers of lava, interbedded with scoria. The shallow crater filled with small lakes of lava!


All of these features are preserved by thick flows of contorted andesite that form the cliffs above. Andesite is a lava rather closely related to basalt, but with a higher silica content. Don’t quote me on this, but I think of andesite as ‘contaminated’ basalt – basalt that has incorporated lighter material from the crustal rocks through which it has leaked upwards.

But I always found these particular rocks puzzling, since they are nearly as dark as basalt and full of tiny crystals of olivine – that component of the Earth’s mantle whose presence nearly always shouts ‘basalt’! Oh well, no one said igneous petrology was straightforward.

In any case, what an opportunity it is, to be able to see a volcano from the inside out, as you can do here on a lovely trail not far from Santa Fe. It’s just one more reason to visit Bandelier National Monument when you come out to see us, here in maar-velous New Mexico.

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Natural Albuquerque: The Rio Grande Nature Center

Natural Albuquerque: The Rio Grande Nature Center



Rio Grande Nature Center
It’s funny how, even in urban areas, nature makes a stand if you give her half a chance. Sometimes she’s a little too pushy, of course, if you count earthquakes and hurricanes – or termites –  those times she lets you know who’s really boss. Sometimes she nudges you lightly with a sparkle in her eye, when a hawk decides to nest on the upper floors of a Manhattan apartment building. I’m thinking, however, of those graceful places and moments where the natural and the cultural coexist with intention. At the end of Candelaria Street in Albuquerque, where the road ends abruptly in the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, there is such a place: the Rio Grande Nature Center.
The Rio Grande neatly bisects the state of New Mexico from north to south, entering the state with vigor not far from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and exiting at the southern border as a desert-bound river near El Paso, Texas, where it turns in an easterly direction, on its long way to the warm sandy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The northern stretch of the river is hemmed in with rocky canyons over most of its length – the Rio Arriba, or upper river, of the Spanish – but just southwest of Santa Fe the river leaves its confines near the Pueblo of Cochiti and takes up a more sedate course through the rest of the state.

A path through the bosque of the Rio Grande

Most of New Mexico enjoys a semi-arid climate, and a great deal of the central and southern part of the state is downright arid – as in qualifying as true desert, where less than 10 inches of rain will fall in a year. The Rio Grande flows year-round even in the driest times, however, and its narrow floodplain supports a unique ribbon of deciduous forest throughout the central part of New Mexico. It’s called the bosque – a Spanish word for woodlands – and interestingly, the place it is best developed – and most accessible – is right in the middle of our largest city, Albuquerque. Walking and biking trails run for miles through the leafy cottonwoods of the bosque throughout the city; the Albuquerque zoo takes advantage of its pleasant shade; and at the end of Candelaria Street the city has created a park to celebrate its little Nile: the Rio Grande Nature Center.
Ponds in the floodplain attract waterfowl of all kinds, and there is a very pleasant room, perched on the edge of one pond, with floor to ceiling windows, sofas and chairs, a little library, and a view into a sea of birds and turtles:
Viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

The viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

Hidden microphones pipe the cacophony of peevish waterbirds right inside. Here culture and nature truly intersect, as you sit back in the comfort of a sofa and listen to avid birders point out the distinctive markings of the female wood duck – yes, that little brown one that has just pushed all the other birds off the feeder.
There are some good interpretive displays inside the nature center, as well as a sweet little bookstore and a children’s activity room.  Outside there is a network of trails under the cottonwoods of the bosque, with access to the banks of the Rio Grande and series of small gardens of native plants. Concrete walls with strategically placed holes form blinds for viewing ducks, geese, snipe, cranes, and other waterfowl at the edge of the ponds. There are excellent views of the Sandia Mountains to the northeast.

Interpretive displays inside the Rio Grande Nature Center

It’s funny: in spite of hiking all around the Southwest, some of my most fascinating animal sightings have been right here in the heart of Albuquerque. I’m thinking of enormous porcupines perched in the upper branches of the forest canopy, nesting owls, a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in its beak, and – best of all – a pair of bald eagles feasting on a fish on a sandy island in the river. So if you can tear yourself away from the historical delights of Santa Fe for part of a day, or if you have a few hours to kill in Albuquerque, waiting for your flight, consider a walk along the Rio Grande under the cottonwood trees. Keep your eye peeled for porcupines. And hey, it’s Albuquerque, so you can hit a Satellite Coffee or the Flying Star Cafe minutes later!
The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

Inn on the Alameda, That Enchanting Small Hotel in Old Santa Fe, proudly presents all historical blog posts written by Joe & Michael Schepps. Read about the authors here.

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Randall Davey Audubon Center

Randall Davey Audubon Center


Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary main sign

Sometimes you just need a quick getaway from town, a breath of fresh air, a place to stretch your legs without too many people around, and maybe a spot just to sit and be quiet for awhile. We have the perfect destination for you: The Randall Davey Audubon Center, just a couple of miles from the Inn on the Alameda, with good parking at either the Center itself, or just off Upper Canyon Road, at the Santa Fe River Canyon Nature Preserve. Both are free.

It’s a lovely place to have a short hike and there are a variety of paths in the Nature Preserve south of the Center, with interpretive signs here and there. The “serious” birders are also quick to post their sightings.

Randall Davey Hiker

A pleasant walk on a winter afternoon. That’s Picacho Peak above.


An interpretive sign near the classroom and nature store

Randall Davey bird sign

Catch of the day

A friend and I love to stop by the River Preserve to see what the beavers have been up to. Lately they’ve been rearranging their dams.  “Busy as a beaver” doesn’t begin to describe these creatures. It’s amazing what they can accomplish!

Randall Davey new bear pond

The latest engineering project on the Santa Fe River

Randall Davey chewed tree

An evening’s nosh

Randall Davey felled tree

And down, ready for stripping and hauling. That’s a big tree!

There are already plenty of birds to see, even though it’s still February, and more are no doubt on the way. The robins are back – that’s always encouraging – and we also spotted mallards on the beaver ponds, scrub jays, white-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, juncos, two kinds of towhees, and a pair of red-tailed hawks circling overhead, keeping everyone in line. The usual menagerie of reptiles is absent since it’s still winter, so for those of you averse to slithery things, this is a great time for a walk.

Getting There:

From the Inn on the Alameda, turn east on Alameda Street (toward the mountains) and follow it along the tree-lined Santa Fe River until it makes a sharp right turn. At the stop sign at the intersection with Upper Canyon Road, turn left and enjoy a slow drive through a very picturesque section of Old Santa Fe until the road makes an abrupt left turn. Here you have a couple of choices: you can turn left here and then immediately right into the parking area for the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe River Preserve, or you can continue straight ahead, along a dirt road, about half a mile to the paved parking area at the Randall Davey Audubon Center itself. There’s a great nature store here, and it’s the meeting place for the Saturday morning bird walks. Check their website for the calendar of events.

Randall Davey's House

The old Randall Davey House seen from inside the Preserve

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Mike’s Blog: The Hot Springs of New Mexico

(Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/ Getty Images http://www.gettyimages.com/Search/Search.aspx?contractUrl=2&language=en-US&assetType=image&p=japanese+macaque

(Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/ Getty Images)

Among the many natural resources the state has to offer, few are as conducive to well being as the hot springs. Soaking in hot, natural waters, is one of the primal pleasures of humanity – a pleasure shared by many cultures, and even other species, as seen in the Macaque monkeys of Japan.


Some of New Mexico’s most fabled hot springs are found in the Jemez mountains, the resort town of Ojo Caliente, the historic pools of Montezuma near Las Vegas, and the artesian springs of Truth or Consequences.  A brief description of them should help the visitor decide which of these unique offerings might best fit their needs or itinerary.


Ojo Caliente is a true jewel of a town, located about 50 miles north of Santa Fe.  Named by the early Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca, the earliest description dates to the 16th century.

“The greatest treasure I have I found these strange people to possess,” De Vaca wrote, “are hot springs which burst from out of the foot of the mountain…. so powerful are the chemicals contained in this water that the inhabitants believe they were given to them by the gods.”


Image of Round Barn from ojospa.com

Nestled in, and fully a part of the landscape, the hot springs of Ojo Caliente offer much to appeal to the visitor. The historical amenities offered by the resort include several buildings entered in the National Registry of Historic Places. These include the famous ‘Round Barn’ who’s unique architecture and design remain remarkably appealing to the visitor.


The hot waters of the town of Jemez Springs have tempted Santa Feans to make the trip for decades. Named for the nearbly Pueblo of Jemez, the small town offers numerous springs and bathhouses.  The atmosphere of the Jemez Valley is a special and spiritual one, being home to both Catholic monasteries and Zen Buddhism centers.


Retreats and spas are found throughout the valley, including a village owned non-profit spa whose proceeds are invested within the community. The Jemez Bath House is over a hundred years old and remains a hub for community life.


Visitors can also find numerous free natural springs throughout the valley and are advised to check visitor reports for current conditions here.


Truth or Consequences has become synonymous for misguided civic boosterism.  Originally named Hot Springs, after the myriad natural pools and springs, the city changed its name to that of a popular Radio show in 1950 as an effort to boost tourism.  The town contains numerous resorts and baths, though there are significantly fewer than there used to be.  Before World War 2, there were around 40 registered spas.  Today there are ten, all featuring the minerally rich and complex waters of the region.


Many of these resorts can be found here, and a discerning traveler should be able to find “The cure for what ails them” through judicial booking and soaking.

Image from ojospa.com

Image from ojospa.com

As you can see, New Mexico has many geothermal amenities for the visitor.  Assistance with booking or visiting any of these locations can be obtained through the Inn on the Alameda.  We can’t wait to hear about your epic NM hot spring soaks!

Winter Outings in Santa Fe

Enjoying winter in Santa Fe

With a whole string of brief storms whirling though the Southwest this winter, the mountains above Santa Fe are primed with snow and full of opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, or just taking a short walk up on a snow-packed trail in winter light. Just look at this webcam up at Ski Santa Fe! Check out the happy hikers enjoying their first snowshoe walk on Outspire’s Facebook page!

Just this past Sunday I needed to get out for some fresh air and exercise, and so I headed up the road to Aspen Basin, just below Ski Santa Fe, and parked at the Nordic Ski Area, armed with snowshoes and a thermos of hot tea. You can’t snowshoe on the Norski trails – those are reserved for cross-county skiers in winter – but the Winsor Trail passes through the parking area, and at this time of year, only snowshoes will let you enjoy this popular hike.

The Norski Trails, especially groomed for cross-country skiing

I headed down the Winsor Trail along a path trenched into well-packed snow.

The Winsor Trail

Lovely winter light streamed down through the trees and kept me warm the entire way.

Down the Winsor Trail!

This particular part of the forest is dominated by wonderful groves of Douglas Fir. Aspen mix in too:

Young aspen along the path

And since we are still within the mixed-conifer zone, a variety of pines and firs tower overhead:

Douglas fir, Ponderosa, and White Fir forming an open canopy below a beautiful winter sky

It wasn’t long before the packed trail became the road less traveled, and the snowshoes proved their worth.

Taking a break for tea

In places the fine, ancient bones of the mountains peeked out on southern slopes,

but along most the the trail the snow was thick and enveloping:

A small stream buried in snow

The winter forest is peaceful, yet remarkably invigorating. I credit the light, which illuminates the forest from below as well as above on sunny afternoons. But even a snowy day will bring its own magic:

“Between every two pine trees is a doorway to a new world” John Muir

So come join us this winter, and make time to enjoy our snowy forests while you are here. The Inn on the Alameda offers an anniversary special that makes a three-night stay in January or February particularly affordable, and there won’t be any summer crowds at your favorite restaurants.  And we’ll be happy to point the way up the mountain for your winter adventure!

The White Fir

The healthy crown of a White Fir along the Chamisa Trail

It’s the time of year here in Santa Fe when an afternoon ramble in the mountains seems like the perfect way to refresh your spirits after a late breakfast, or a bout of Christmas shopping among the shops downtown. A fifteen minute drive from the Plaza will bring you to easy trails that wind through the mixed conifer forests so characteristic of the middle elevations of the Southern Rockies. Typically free from snow this time of year, and bathed in the warm slanted sunlight of the dry New Mexico winter, these trails invite you into a woods of surprising variety. And one tree which is sure to catch your eye is the White Fir Abies concolor.

This is the tree that makes the waxy blue note among all the other evergreens:

The distinctive silvery-blue to silvery-green needles of the White Fir

A closer look reveals ranked and upright needles curling from grey twigs. If you crush a few of these between your fingers, you’ll release the sweet balsamic fragrance of pineapples.

White Fir needles

Although the bark of young trees is smooth and grey, mature trees are clothed in a thick, rough, furrowed ashy-grey bark quite in contrast to the warm cinnamon-colored plates of their companion Ponderosas:

The bark on a mature White Fir

You almost never see these trees’ cones littering the forest floor. Perched high at the top of the trees and sitting upright in the manner of true Firs, the scales of White Fir cones disaggregate easily and fall unnoticed to the ground:

White fir cones

When the White Fir is free to reach for the sky unimpeded by neighboring trees, it takes on a distinctive ‘nose cone’ profile which frequent hikers come to recognize:

The profile of a tall White Fir along the Chamisa Trail

It’s hard to admit that such a fine tree could have a bad habit, but since it is reluctant to self-prune its dense whorls of branches, it often retains a skirt of dead wood right down to the ground. Ponderosa Pines, by contrast, are commonly as free of lower branches as a palm tree. These branches can act as fire ladders to carry flames up into the canopy during forest fires. On a less significant note, this also means that White Firs rarely invite you to sit under them, and while I have climbed high into Douglas Firs, and sheltered under Engelmann Spruce, I don’t think anybody except for a squirrel has climbed a White Fir:

The uninviting thicket at the base of a White Fir

When I think of fir trees, I picture boreal forests high on cold mountain peaks, making a last stand just at timber line. And indeed, in Colorado the slender Alpine Fir occupies this very position, as does the magnificent Red Fir of the Sierra Nevada, dominating the lofty granite ‘flats’ of those mountains. But the White Fir is happy at middle elevations, from 7500′ to 10,000′ in our Rockies, and  it drops out at greater heights, where the snow forest of Engelmann Spruce and aspen takes over. Like the Ponderosa Pine, it seems perfectly content with long dry summers as well as snow.

Young White Firs immediately put you in mind of Christmas trees. It’s that time of year, you know.

A young White Fir along the trail 

The most common Christmas trees sold by local families in Santa Fe are these firs, cut in the mountains east of us. Brought inside and transfigured by lights, ornaments, and love, the White Fir becomes the shining star of the Christmas season:

Christmas in Old Santa Fe