Valley of Fires in Carrizozo, New Mexico

By Bonnie & Bill Neely

On this RV trip across the USA in summer of 2021 we were discovering places we had never heard of, but which were real finds! Valley of Fires Recreation Area is part of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), lands where ranchers are allowed to graze their animals, people are allowed to hunt, fish, camp, hike, and picnic IF they respect and care for the cleanliness and safety of the land, which, as Native Americans always knew, no individual owns. We all, as US citizens, are care takers of these beautiful, protected places, and National Park and Golden Age, Senior and Disabled Passes are honored for free day use and half price on camping. A few campsites in some of these places can be reserved, but most are first-come, first-serve.

We had never heard of Carrizozo, NM, a town of only 760 people on US Highway 380, but in Tularosa, NM, we saw brown signs pointing to the Valley of Fires Recreation Area. Brown signs in hundreds of places along our USA highways always indicate parks, museums, and other unusual points of interest, historic importance, and great recreation, which are protected by our tax dollars and are well worth visiting. We had loved seeing the picturesque, bare, red-orange boulder formations of Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas, Nevada, where many car commercials are filmed. Here at the Carrizozo Lava Flow, we found a vastly different landscape of 44 square miles of black lava deposited from many extrusions in the Earth’s thin crust when the hot lava pushed through these cracks and flowed over the landscape and then cooled and solidified. This occurred from 2,000 – 5,000 years ago, and it remains the newest volcanic eruption in the continental US, except for Mt. St. Helens in 1980, which left no surface lava flow but is building a lava dome instead. The landscape here in New Mexico is dotted with green, healthy desert vegetation, and our government has made this a well-planned informative, easy hike. In addition to learning from the brochure guide we could identify varieties of the lily family, mesquite trees, and other plants. Surprises await visitors in spring when many desert plants bloom in a variety of colors. We found a sighting tube pointing to Little Black Peak miles away to the North, which was likely the last vent to open in this area and is higher than the rest of the black lava.

There are many different kinds of lava formations, given Hawaiian names since Hawaii has many older and newer volcanic eruptions and lava types have already been named. Many collapsed areas of jagged pieces of lava were visible throughout and are called a’a. Ropey looking lava flows are called pahoehoe. Large holes in places throughout the black crust are where gas bubbles in the hot surface burst during the cooling period. In other places we saw pressure ridges, large cracks where lava surface cooled and hardened while the hot flow continued beneath the surface, pushing against the hardened area above and making it crack. Determined plants have been able to grow in this forbidding looking black lava. Prickly pear cacti and banana yucca are throughout the area, as are creosote, mesquite, sotol, bae grass and hedgehog cactus along with walking stick cholla. Weathered lava particles and dust blown into the cracks in the lava have created soil where the plant seeds can germinate. Other plants which have made it here are algerita with small holly-like leaves. Some gray-green four-winged salt bushes are here, along with apache plume, little leaf sumac, and one-seed juniper. We were delighted to find signs identifying some of these desert plants, as few places where we have hiked have been so informative of local vegetation.

Although it seems impossible to people of our world today, prehistoric people were able to live here, discover which plants provided food and fiber, hunt the small animals who have learned to survive their habitat here. Several kinds of bats, many small birds, and insects live in this area also.

As with all our national monuments and protected lands this place is extremely well planned and has a very good one-mile nature trail loop with handicap accessible paved walkway, mostly level and with the desert plants named. A brochure explains what to watch for to have a lovely learning experience identifying the plants native to the unusual landscape of the high Chihuahuan Desert where the dinosaurs surely must have roamed. We were glad we had arrived in early morning while the summer temperatures were still below 90 degrees and there were cool breezes.

Back thousands of years before the volcanic eruption until just after the Ice Age ended, prehistoric humans had sheltered here, where the scientists have concluded there were plants and animals on which the Native populations could subsist. A later people, the Jornada branch of the Mogollon Culture, left pottery shards and stones they had used as tools, which reveal that they visited here. The Jornada peoples were an early branch of the Apaches, and this land became part of the vast area of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Immigrant settlers from Europe and Mexico were not welcome here, and the desperate attacks by the natives defending the place they had long lived led to the establishment of Fort Stanton in 1855 near here.