The National Park Service isn’t the only branch of Federal Government that protects awesome places. Near Flagstaff there are two really cool sites managed by the Forest Service that are not only interesting but tell stories of a volcanic past.
“All Nature’s wildness tells the same story: the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort, each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.” – John Muir
While visiting with a friend in Prescott (more about that in a future post) he found out that I was headed to Flagstaff for the day to meet up with Brent he suggested that I check out a place called Red Mountain. Always up for a new and interesting adventure I met up with Brent in Flagstaff and I was in.
Located about 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Red Mountain is one of several hundred cinder cones within a swath of volcanic landscape that extends 50 miles eastward from Williams, Arizona, through Flagstaff to the canyon of the Little Colorado River.
Geologists call this belt of volcanoes the San Francisco Volcanic Field, named for San Francisco Mountain, whose tallest peak is 12,633 feet above sea level, the highest elevation in Arizona. Red Mountain rises about 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, and its crest is at 7,965 feet elevation. The San Francisco Volcanic Field has been active for about 6 million years, and Red Mountain is roughly 740,000 years old.
“And many a fire there burns beneath the ground.” – Empedocles
This cinder cone is unusual in that it lacks the symmetrical shape of most cinder cones instead it is in the shape of a “U,” open to the west with a large natural amphitheater that cuts into the cone’s north- east flank.
The amphitheater opening has been enlarged by normal surface-water and wind erosion during the approximately 740,000 years since it formed. Much of the amphitheater is decorated with hoodoos and other odd-looking spires, ridges, and ribs, all of which were almost certainly sculpted by water and wind erosion. Hoodoos (also found in other places such as Bryce National Park) at Red Mountain are interesting formations 10- to 20-foot-tall, upward-tapering pinnacles of cinders capped by 1- to 3-foot-wide boulders of dense lava. The boulder “sombrero” capping each pinnacle protects the underlying cinders from erosion and helps to protect the unique formation from erosion.
It was a couple mile easy hike from the parking area to middle of the amphitheater where we poked around a little on the rocks, taking photos and enjoying the views before heading back to the parking lot.
“At the same time, there’s something magnificent about volcanoes; they created the atmosphere that we need for breathing.” – Werner Herzog
We were lucky to find on our way back to Flagstaff from red Mountain that the forest road to Lava River Cave was in fact open (the USFS website reported that it was still closed for the season due to conditions).
Lava River Cave is a unique kind of cave known as a “lava tube” (I have also seen some of these in Hawaii). It is the longest cave of this kind in Arizona. Geologists believe Lava River Cave was formed sometime between 650,000 and 700,000 years ago when molten lava erupted from a volcanic vent near the site. When the lava came to the surface its temperature was hotter than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Lava River Cave probably formed within a few hours after a brief volcanic eruption. In comparison to other geologic events, like the cutting of a canyon or the movement of a glacier, Lava River Cave formed in the briefest of moments.
Cooling cracks are long cracks in the floor, ceiling and walls. Some of these are six inches wide, three feet deep and over twenty feet long. These cracks formed as the lava cooled and hardened because lava shrinks when it cools.
The top, sides and bottom of the flow cooled and solidified first, after which the insides of the lava river continued to flow emptying out the present cave. Small wave-like undulations in the floor are the remains of ripples frozen in the last trickle of lava, which flowed through the cave shortly after the walls and ceiling hardened. Since the cave appears today much as it did shortly after its formation, it is indeed a “frozen moment” in geologic time.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”― Joseph Campbell
Entering the lava tube was an experience – very cold air seemed to pour from the crack in the ground that was the opening. Just inside the mouth there was an amazing frozen “waterfall” of ice seemingly guarding the entrance. After making our way around the ice (and almost sliding down the ice covered rocks into the darkness) the cave leveled out. Some places the ceiling was 40’ above our heads and in others we had to crawl on our hands and knees. Nearly half a mile into the hike and that same distance from any natural light source (at my insistence) we turned off our lights and experienced the uncomfortable feeling of total darkness.
“In the dark, they understood what he meant. All the familiar noises of the upper world were gone: the wind, the rustle of branches or leaves, the chirping of birds, the sounds of automobiles and doors slamming, and people laughing. There was nothing but the faint tinkle of droplets of water, each drop like a distant musical chime, and each one pursued by tiny echoes. Then, after such a note had sounded there would be a long and empty quiet in which they could hear their own breathing and the steady beating of their hearts. They found themselves straining their eyes to see something, anything — the slightest sign of light, but they could not even tell the difference between opening their eyes and shutting them.” ― Jay Williams, Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave
Both Red Mountain and the Lava Cave are places that I would highly recommend visiting when in the Flagstaff area. Forest Service sites often suffer from much more use and abuse than other better protected areas but the agency has dome a fine job of helping to protect and interpret these important areas.
There was no better way to wrap up the days adventures than a trip to a favorite Flagstaff brewery. Mother Road Brewing Company has outside tables that welcome dogs and great beer for us adventure weary humans. While we enjoyed the microbrew Cory took advantage of the heat by the fire to rest from his day of hiking.
I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention our last trip to Flagstaff where Brent made sure that we visited Wanderlust Brewing Company in honor of my blog. While their beer wasn’t my favorite (Mother Road is much more to my liking) their logo and the cool swag that was available made the stop worthwhile.