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polar vortex

As the polar vortex dipped down from the Arctic and a deep chill enveloped the District a couple of weeks ago, we were a lot better prepared to keep warm than the previous month when a pair of snowstorms caught us off guard in the Southwest.

After a blustery night at an AirBnB in Santa Fe during which our car was completely buried by a snowstorm, we woke up to sunshine and clear skies. We met up with a friend from Los Alamos for a couple of hours before hitting the road again, all too aware that we had a long drive ahead of us and that another snowstorm was expected to pummel the region before nightfall.

The most direct route from Santa Fe, NM to Winslow, AZ traces historic Route 66. It also takes four-and-a-half hours to navigate, so we decided to break up the drive with some sightseeing. Due to the government shutdown our options were somewhat limited. We opted for a detour to El Malpais National Monument, which straddles several Native American reservations immediately to the south of the historic highway.

El Malpais – New Mexico’s badlands – feels like more of a wilderness area than an actual park. That its main attractions are scattered along two different roads, with no easy way to connect the dots, adds to this feeling of disjointedness. There are sandstone cliffs, lava flows, canyons, and an impressive natural arch, where we stopped first.

The skies were still clear when we took the turnoff for Route 117 and drove south to La Ventana Arch, but the weather turned almost as soon as we reached it. We took the quarter-mile trail to a lookout point, marveling at the sight of cacti buried in snow. By the time we got back to the car snow flurries were swirling.

Back at the junction to I-40 we faced a decision: cut short the visit to El Malpais and take the main highway or press on with our plans, tempting the weather gods. We chose the latter, taking the turnoff for Route 53. We had noted a number of potential attractions, but in light of the approaching snowstorm scaled back our ambitions and made just one stop at a site that offered two short trails: one to an ice cave and another to a crater.

The ice cave, which maintains a constant sub-zero temperature year round, is probably more impressive during a summer heat wave than a blizzard. The crater, in and of itself, is also not much to write home about. What made the visit memorable, however, was the striking contrast of the falling snow on vast fields of lava. Where once red-hot lava flowed now stood spatter-cones enveloped in fresh powder – a scorched landscape under a deep freeze. The forbidding terrain made for a photographer’s paradise.

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