Traveling down I-40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, I never would have expected to find a volcano. Or an ice cave, for that matter.
As far as attractions in New Mexico go, such a place hadn’t even crossed my mind.
I spotted the invitation as I was staring out the window at billboards.
We were in the midst of our road trip to Los Angeles, and my mom and I had just spent a day exploring Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we were now on our way to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was mom’s turn to drive, so I was passing the time watching the signs as we passed.
Billed as New Mexico’s Land of Fire & Ice, the Bandera volcano and ice cave sounded downright improbable. We had to see it for ourselves.
The signs looked like they were ancient.
And, as luck would have it, the site was still open to visitors.
Volcanoes in New Mexico
As it turns out, there are a number of volcanoes in the USA — and not just at Yellowstone National Park. Once, much of the U.S. (particularly the far west and the southwest) was incredibly active. New Mexico falls in this line of activity.
Just 25 minutes off the interstate, the Bandera volcano is part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, and is one of a series of extinct volcanoes that make up this portion of the New Mexico countryside.
What’s special about the Bandera volcano, which last erupted over 10,000 years ago, is that, in addition to a lava field and the remnants of its caldera, it is also home to an ice cave.
This perpetually frozen cave is actually the remnants of a collapsed lava tube. These tubes, like the ones Tara and I explored in Iceland, are formed when cooled lava hardens, forming a “straw” through which liquid lava flows. Eventually, the liquid lava runs out, leaving a hard shell and a hollow interior.
When the lava hardens, it becomes igneous rock known as basalt. This rock can be very porous, and acts as a strong insulator. Under the right circumstances, the insulation traps cold air and can freeze collecting water. Over time, a lake of ice results.
The Trading Post
This geologically unique area has drawn attention for hundreds of years, from the Native American tribes who called the area home to a 1930s saloon and dance hall. This former saloon is now the official trading post that welcomes you when you arrive.
My mom and I were immediately drawn to the building, which has been around for nearly 100 years and is absolutely full of history. You can even see the place where the bar stools once stood.
Back in those days, there were no refrigerators. An ice cave was the perfect solution to keeping the beer cold and the festivities going.
These days, the building is where you pay your admission ($12) and can shop for a variety of different local goods. The bar area has been turned into a small museum store. There are also a number of Native American artifacts on display which have been recovered by archaeologists exploring the area.
Adding to its charm, this area has been in the hands of the same family for generations. The Candelaria family leased the land for a number of years, until, in 1946, David Candelaria came at the request of his mother to assist in the management of the land. He decided to use the land to promote tourism in the area, and would become known locally as “the man who owned a volcano.”
To this day, the land remains in the Candelaria family, and it continues to draw visitors.
The Bandera Volcano Hike
From the trading post, its hard to imagine a volcano or an ice cave are nearby. As my mom and I looked around, all we saw were trees — nothing unique.
Both of the attractions are more or less hidden from view, giving visitors two short hikes to complete. It was recommended that the volcano hike went first on our list, since it is the longer and more strenuous of the two. Eager to stretch our legs after hours on the road, my mom and I set off, an interpretive guide in hand.
Along the way, signposts guided our inexperienced eyes to the story of the forest around us, and the once-violent volcano that now lay extinct beneath our feet.
Above, you can see the hardened remnants of a spatter cone.
The hike wound around Bandera volcano, and as we ascended we were treated to a growing number of Ponderosa pines and Aspen trees. The air was clear and crisp, a welcome change from the desert heat. The trail itself ascended steadily, but it was wide and smooth and we had no difficulty.
As we ascended, the forest gave way to lava fields that reminded me of my time exploring lava tubes in Iceland. It was a little eerie, how similar it was. The basalt field is littered with holes, sharp edges, and secret entrances into the lava tubes.
When we finally reached the top, I was reminded of a different experience. The crater left by Bandera’s last eruption was strikingly similar to that of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.
The Ice Cave
After ascending to the top of Bandera volcano, we made our way back to the trading post to head in the opposite direction — where the ice cave waited.
It’s hard to imagine an ice cave when standing in the middle of New Mexico, battling 90-degree temperatures. Still, I know from experience that geology is capable of producing some pretty fantastic oddities (like this watering hole in Texas that was formed when a cave collapsed).
This trek was a lot shorter than the volcano hike, meandering on relatively flat ground for maybe a little over a quarter mile. As with the volcano hike, we were provided with an interpretive trail guide pamphlet, so every few paces we had an opportunity to learn more about the areas ecology, geology, and history.
The ice cave itself is only accessible by descending a long, steep staircase.
As my mom and I went deeper and deeper, toward the mouth of the cave, we could feel the air begin to grow colder. I couldn’t help but think of the final Canto of Dante’s Inferno, when the Dante descends to the lowest, iciest level of hell.
Luckily, we were not met by a fallen angel at the bottom. Instead, a platform gave us the opportunity to peek into the cave without damaging it. The ice here, according to our handy guide, is 24 feet thick in places, with the cave’s temperature never going above 31 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our guide also told us that the green color of the ice was due to algae mixing with the water, and that once the ice extended much further back. Years of mining the ice have depleted much of it, but to this day the cave gains layers of new ice every winter.
Tips for visiting the Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave
Altogether, this is an incredibly cool spot (pun intended), not too far off the main highway, and a welcome break stopping point along I-40. Less than two hours away from the city, Bandera Volcano is an easy day trip from Albuquerque and, as parks in New Mexico go, this privately owned area is truly unique.
If you do decide to visit New Mexico’s volcano and ice cave, here are a few tips for the road:
- Plan on it taking about a half hour total to get there once you exit I-40.
- You’ll still be on a main road for most of the time, but it’s a main country road, so be on the lookout for tractors and bicyclists.
- The road ascends into the mountains quite a bit, so drive safely and don’t be alarmed if your ears pop!
- Good shoes are a must. Neither of the hikes are very long, but the volcano hike in particular includes uphill walking, as well as walking over dirt and ash. This wasn’t nearly as difficult as my attempt at scaling Mount Vesuvius in Italy with Tara, but it’s still a factor.
- My mom and I visited in September, on a Monday, so it was relatively quiet. During the summer months and on the weekends it may be a bit more crowded, so be prepared.
- When you’re hiking, please use proper precautions. There are wild animals in the forest, and they don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. It still happens from time to time, though. Be on alert.
- Don’t go off the trail. Geology is fickle, and the terrain can be quite dangerous off of the path.
Have you visited Bandera volcano, or another volcano in the USA? Let us know about your experience in the comments!