trips & events next »Cabezon Peak and Xenolith Cave
18-19 June 2005
This weekend was really cool.
We loaded up the car and drove to Cabezon Peak, and climbed it. Cabezon is the solid-rock neck of a volcano that juts abruptly out of the plains about 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque. It is climbable without climbing gear, and is so huge that it is visible from the city on a clear day. It was great because we had it all to ourselves at 10 AM on a Saturday. There are several points along the route that, back when I climbed it in May 2004, I had found to be fairly difficult and bottomlessly terrifying. Since I've started rock climbing, though, I was way more confident on the climbing sections of the route and really enjoyed it. And, of course, the view from the top was wonderful.
The plan then was to drive to El Malpais, where the caves are. This is hard to do from Cabezon, as there is no highway that will take you through directly to I-40. I had allotted the rest of Saturday to finding our way through the maze of back roads through the plains and canyons south to the interstate. I did not, however, think to get us a very good map. I figured that, if we got lost, it would still be fun to drive around the area and check out ghost towns. Devin had forgotten to fill up his tank with gas before we left Albuquerque. Devin typically needs reminders; I have run out of gas while driving around with him before. However, when it came time to head south from Cabezon we decided to try our luck on the quarter tank we had, because the interstate was only 50 miles away.
Or so we thought: after going for 20 miles down an empty dirt road we arrived at a locked gate and a side road that led to a trailer surrounded by piles of junk, including several rusty cars, washing machines, an ATV with a flat tire, and a school bus. There were cows just lying around everywhere, some of them lounging in the shade from the school bus. All this junk was blocking what we thought was the road (it was actually this dude's driveway), so we went off the road and started to drive around the whole mess.
A man came out of the trailer and we asked him for directions, but his English was not very good. He told us to go back to the gate, ignore the no trespassing sign, open it up and tie it up "just like they have it now," and keep going. He looked at his watch and added, "the Indians probably won't see you this late in the afternoon." I hadn't even thought about trouble getting across the Indian Reservation, hadn't even noticed it on the map. I didn't quite care for the old man's idea, so we wound up going back the way we came, getting gas in San Ysidro, driving back to Albuquerque, and taking the interstate out to El Malpais. We arrived after the ranger station closed, but had managed to arrange a camping permit via cell phone. We camped out beside the Chain of Craters backcountry byway. Nobody else was there, the sky was completely clear, so we didn't bother using the tent.
Our first cave visitation the next day was Four Windows, which I had been in twice before. It's very large inside with spectacular holes in the cieling, but a little boring on the third run through. We drove back to the ranger station to ask about a cave that I hadn't been to before.
Xenolith is a cave that I didn't even know existed, much less that it was open to the public without a permit. Xenolith cave appears on no maps and there are no signs showing you the way to the entrance. It is only mentioned once in a 22-page PDF document on the National Park Service web site, to say that it is open for exploration by the general public. I had been reading this document the previous week and that was the first I'd heard of it. We stopped by the visitor center to ask where it was.
At the ranger station, they will initially direct you to Junction cave, which is popular and pretty simple for beginners. The word "Xenolith" was like a secret password: when I asked where Xenolith cave was, she seemed to get the idea that we had done our homework. The ranger admitted that they don't tell a lot of people about Xenolith, since it is easy to get it confused with the nearby Bat cave, which is off-limits to cavers. Devin, Jacob and I agreed that this must mean the cave is either too lame to bother mentioning, or cool enough to try to keep secret.
It was cool enough to keep secret. It wasn't especially huge inside, there weren't any grandiose holes in the ceiling, but it seemed to just keep on going every time we had found a dead end. Each time we reached a dead end, we would find a tiny crawl space, or a little hole in the floor, or a well-disguised hole in the ceiling leading on to the next room. It was very fun. At the very end we came to a small room where we snacked on bacon and made sure that it was really the end. Devin found a hole in the ceiling and monkeyed his way up only to find a vertical dead-end 10 feet above the floor of the room.
And since the Park Service rarely tells anyone about it, we had it all to ourselves.