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Home » Adventures » CDT » Journal » New Mexico » El Malpais National Monument

CDT: El Malpais (Grants to Pie Town)

October 8

I walked out of Zuni Canyon in the morning and over forest roads, heading for Ice Caves. I reached it in the early afternoon and first looked at the giant, now dormant Bandera Volcano. The cone must have been quite a sight to see when active many, many years ago. I also hiked down to the ice cave, which was refreshingly cool. It was not overly impressive visually, but the year round ice in the New Mexico desert was still interesting.

After grabbing a few snacks I headed back the way I came and road walked to El Malpais, large ancient lava fields. The trail crossed this area using ancient trade route and was rough underfoot, but I would probably be stumbling around a lot more tomorrow.

The Bandera Volcano crater
An old gas pump at the ice caves visitor center. It was no longer in use.

October 9 — El Malpais

Unfortunately my prediction about the terrain was accurate, and I had a trying day scrambling over lava. Walking through and above lava channels, seeing collapsed lava tubes, sink holes, and all other manner of craggy formations left over after the lava cooled was neat. Although definitely badlands, this area was not the lifeless expanse I had expected. Plants had done their best at overtaking every crack and crevasse.

Navigation through the expansive lava fields would have been impossible, save the cairns marking the ancient route. For the most part the trail was well cairned, but all too often the next marker would blend in with the naturally formed rock piles, and I had to search around for it.

The terrain was slow and did a good job of tearing up my shoes and feet. I had plenty of food though and was not in a great hurry to get to Pie Town, so I just took my time enjoying this unique landscape on the CDT. Still, it did wear on me after a while, and I was glad to eventually reach the highway and start the road walk. My march quickly led to the La Ventana Arch, a very large and impressive span along the cliff side. From there I detoured off the road and scrambled up to the Rim Trail, which provided an even better view of the arch than its official trail. The top of The Narrows also looked out over the enormous El Malpais lava fields.

A collapsed lava tunnel
The lava fields of El Malpais
Those are not tan lines, it’s all dirt
La Ventana Arch as seen from the Rim Trail
Sunset over El Malpais

October 10

A slow, but beautiful morning walk down the Rim Trail gave me my last glimpses of the massive El Malpais. From there the rest of the way to Pie Tow was mostly on roads. A few miles on the pavement led to much less busy jeep tracks. I was thankful for my cheap (both in price and quality) Chinese FM radio which usually picked up at least one station — I could not be too picky about my music choice though. The only other thing to do was watch the very ugly and numerous grasshoppers cannibalize their fallen comrades or try to reproduce. There was a short stretch through a Wilderness Area on roads so old they were basically single track, but I still finished the day with starlight gravel road walk. Tomorrow would be entirely along a dusty road into Pie Town, although I should be there for a lunch or dinner. At least water sources were reasonably spread out today.

The road running through the Narrows
One of the less interesting stretches of the CDT
Another less interesting stretch of the CDT, this one not even paved

October 11 — Pie Town

My plans for an early morning start were foiled when somehow my headlamp disappeared overnight. Since I arrived late the prior night and planned an early departure, I cowboy camped and swore I laid my headlamp next to my head when I went to bed. In the morning my watch and glasses were still there, but not my headlamp. I searched with the light from my cell phone, but to no avail. I combed the whole area, tore apart my pack, and even waited for sunlight to get a better look around, but nothing. Eventually I had to give up my search though and hope something might be in the hiker box at Pie Town or else not hike quite as late for a while. I had absolutely no idea where it went to. I did not get up during the night and an animal just bothering that seemed highly unlikely. While less emotionally distressing than misplacing my camera, this disappearance had a little more of a safety issue, and I might not be able to replace it until Silver City — almost 200 miles away.

The rest of the way to Pie Town was entirely on dirt roads, and the radio station options were limited — at least 50% of the time was commercials and 75% of the songs were still being recycled from before I started hiking almost four months ago.

My long walk along the road emerged at Pie Town, and I got my packages from the post office and had dinner, of course with great pie for dessert. As every CDT hiker or GDT rider must do, I stayed at Nita’s Toaster House — an institution on the trail. How many countless people have slumbered here? She no longer lives inside but still lets travelers stay. The house had much character, having been put together piece by piece and with nooks and crannies everywhere. It contained a collection of books and magazines that though old, held a wealth of information. Perusing these piles of knowledge were like discovering gold with every page turn.

I met Nita as well when she stopped by. She was a very loving and generous woman, who was great to talk with.

Welcome to Pie Town
The creepiest pie eater
The toaster house
The front gate, and where the Toaster House got its name

October 12 — Zero at Pie Town

I had not planned on zeroing in Pie Town, but the hospitality and iffy weather report convinced me to stay. I had breakfast before Nita gave me a personal tour of Pie Town — mostly what once was, but also the advanced radio telescope. I lazily spent the afternoon at the Toaster House, looking through the old books and magazines and taking a nap. I happened to be in town the one night a cafe served dinner, so of course I took advantage of that, naturally with pie for dessert. I ate with Nita, along with a few GDT bikers that arrived that afternoon. Nita also found an old headlamp for me to use after I had shared the tale of my disappearing one. It came in useful immediately too, as walking back to the Toaster House in a town with about two streetlights was very dark.

Although Pie Town’s heyday was behind it, I really enjoyed my stay. It had some of the warmest, friendliest people and the town actually had some unique personality, which was much more than can be said for the suburbia I had known most of my life.

Myself with a statue of an alien holding a pie outside the Top of the World store
The Stool Bus. This vehicle was very professionally painted and for a real company. One of the few in Pie Town
The large radio telescope just outside of Pie Town