An Interview with Kilauea Volcano

2018 marked the largest volcanic eruption Kilauea volcano has seen this century.  Two lava lakes suddenly drained, explosions rocked the summit crater, earthquakes rattled Hawaii island, and a massive fissure eruption took place in Puna.  Rivers of lava flooded the landscape and poured into the ocean in a 2 mile wide ocean entry. The fissure eruption finally ended in August, closing out a 35 year eruption on Kilauea volcano.

On the one year anniversary of the fissure eruptions, I thought it would be interesting to sit down with Kilauea volcano herself and get her perspective on life as a volcano, the eruption, and what she has up her sleeve next.

Volcano Hopper:  Hello!  Thank you for sitting down to talk with me today.

Kilauea: Aloha.  He mea iki.

Volcano Hopper:  How should I address you?  Do you like your given name?  

Kilauea: I have been known by many names, but “Kilauea” will do.  When humans first arrived on my slopes, they gifted me that name.  It means “much spreading” which is entirely accurate, given how much of the ‘aina I have created.  Others address me as if I am the spirit or embodiment of Pele.  But my true name?  The one that we volcanoes use amongst ourselves?  You couldn’t pronounce it. The syllables aren’t even within your audible range.  So, yes, little Hopper.  Kilauea will do.

Volcano Hopper:  Last year’s fissure eruptions on your Lower East Rift Zone were incredibly impressive from a volcanic standpoint.

Kilauea: I know.

Volcano Hopper:  As impressive as it was, there was so much destruction and even injuries.  Should people fear you?

Kilauea: Perhaps.  However, I prefer respect over fear.  It’s a tricky thing, this volcano-human relationship.  I am so much larger and expend more energy in a breath than you humans do in a year.  When I am active and erupting, I am in my element!  Sometimes I am so enraptured by the whole process that I do not even notice the humans on my slopes.  If a human is in the way when I erupt, they may be hurt.  It is inevitable.  Your bodies are so fragile.  But I do regret that it happens from time to time.  What about you, little Volcano Hopper?  Do you fear me?

Volcano Hopper:  I am not afraid of you, though I do have a very healthy respect for you.  I usually know when to keep my distance.

Kilauea:  A wise choice.

Volcano Hopper:  During your last eruption, the land, coast, and even underwater reefs were completely destroyed.  Is it correct to call your eruptions “destructive?”

Kilauea: That’s one point of view.  Yes, I can wipe out entire forests with a breath.  One shiver from me can level your towns.  But if I destroy anything, it’s only so that I can create!  (I live to create things!)  Think of the excitement you humans have when you paint your halea new color, or adorn it with new decorations.  Or the thrill you have of creating an artistic masterpiece. That is the same excitement I feel rearranging my landscape.  I splash lava around like paint.  I love to create more coastline (above andbelow water) for life to thrive on.  I clear out the kipukaslike a forest fire – I clean out the underbrush so that new life can take hold and thrive.  So, I’d call my eruptions more creative than destructive!  

Volcano Hopper:  What is a day in the life of a volcano like?

Kilauea: Days are a blink of an eye to us.  Most of us have thrived for thousands of years.  I, myself, am 23,000 years old.  Yet life is never boring.  Some days I am preparing for my next eruption. Others, I am launching lava into the sky.  Others yet, I sit quietly and observe the world around me: humans, animals, the curl of the plants as they unfurl their leaves, or watch the stars.  But most of all, I love to sing.  

Volcano Hopper:  What do you sing about?  Will you sing a song for us?

Kilauea: We volcanoes sing of everything.  This is how we share information with the world.  But if I were to sing to you, little Hopper, you would only be able to hear part of it.  Most of my vocal range is well below your range of hearing.  You might only interpret it as rumbles and not a song at all.  Unless you knew better, that is.

Volcano Hopper:  What are some of the subtle moments of your beauty that only a select few have observed?

Kilauea: First off, to observe anything I’m trying to share with you humans, you have to simmer down.  Be quiet and listen.  Sit with me and I’ll show you things.  So many people scamper over my slopes each day, frantically rushing here and there, trying to see all the “touristy” things.  In their haste to see it all, they often miss beauty right under their noses.  What a waste.  

Volcano Hopper:  So if one wereto be still and sit with you awhile, what might they observe?

Kilauea: I have a playful streak.  I’ll interact with you if you’re paying attention.  No, I’m not going to shoot a random jet of lava out of the ground simply for your amusement.  But I “lava” showing love by leaving hearts here and there for people to spot, whether it be in a lava flow or a puff of steam.  And that twisting and swirling steam you saw earlier?  I was dancing with you.  I love to dance.

Volcano Hopper:  What do you think of visitors?  Do you mind all the people that visit you each day? Or should humans admire you from afar?

Kilauea: They do not bother me.  I am aware of them, as you humans may be sometimes be aware of the hairs on your arm.  Sometimes I observe them, and find them entertaining.  But most often I am too absorbed in the work I am doing to prepare for my next creative streak.

Volcano Hopper:  Some volcanoes give no warning before they erupt, and others stretch out the signs for months.  Which are you?

Kilauea: I tend toward the quicker eruptions.  I get so impatient to dance!  The song is playing, and I need to move!  But those who know me best and who watch my every heartbeat are usually quick to know that I am moving.  

Volcano Hopper:  If you were to warn your human visitors about one thing, what would it be?

Kilauea: I’m unpredictable at best.  And I won’t change.  You’ll just have to love me as I am.  But you humans need to be on your toes.  And be smart about what you’re doing.  Don’t get cocky and thing that you won’t get burned if you get to close to the edge of a crater, or go romping off the beaten path. The rangers have marked places out of bounds for a reason.  They’re not fools and they know me.  And if I have a lava flow that oyu want to explore, be prepared. You’ll need to be in shape, and will need gear.  I recommend going with someone who knows the flows.  Because really, once the top of the lava has hardened, how are you going to tell if there’s a molten river running right under your feet?  Hmm?  But keep in mind that there are other factors at play too, particularly the weather.  And that I don’t control, as much as I’d enjoy that. 

Volcano Hopper:  Are there any other volcanoes you admire?  Why or why not?

Kilauea: A volcano’s gotta have a role model.  And have you seen my family?  Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are the biggest, most badass volcanoes on the planet.  Both stretch nearly 14,000 feet into the sky!  And their bases reach far to the depths of the ocean.  They are the biggest mountains on the planet.  I am small in comparison, but no less mighty. Someday I may choose to grow to their heights.  But I’m not in much rush, now, am I?  And I’d rather show my creative flare than my muscles. Most days anyway.

Volcano Hopper:  What makes you so special among volcanoes?

Kilauea: I’m the most active on the planet!  I am constantly at work, creating and reshaping the land.  I provide so many things for the planet. The gases I breathe keep the planet warm and replenish the atmosphere.  Nutrients and minerals that I release give fertile ground and minerals for you humans to use.  Really, you all would be lost without me.

Volcano Hopper:  The question everyone is dying to know the answer to… will you erupt again?  When?  And where?

Kilauea: Of course I will erupt again!  I’m too young to retire.  As for where and when?  I shall leave you guessing.  It’s like Kalikimaka– it’s no fun to spoil the surprise.

Volcano Hopper:  Mahalo nui loa for speaking with me today.  It has been fascinating to learn more about you.

Kilauea: And mahalo to you for taking the time to sit with me and to learn.  Most people aren’t interested.  But if you find others who are like you, who love to learn and wish to know me more, they are welcome to come and sit with me too.

Happy International Day of Volcanoes!

Happy International Day of Volcanoes!  

So, if we’re getting “technical,” April 10 is the UNOFFICIALInternational Day of Volcanoes.  But that’s not stopping thousands of people around the world from celebrating the wild and wonderful volcanoes that rock our world.

What’s the big deal about volcanoes anyway?

Volcanoes are freaking awesome!  And for more reasons than one:  

The Greatest Show on Earth

Step aside, P.T. Barnum.  Volcanoes truly are the greatest show on earth.  Some volcanoes send rivers of 1,500 degree molten lava cascading down their slopes in shades of red and gold.  (Sometimes even blue!  Yes, I’m looking at you Kawah Ijen.)  Others launch boulders as big as a house into the sky within roiling pyroclastic clouds.  Lava lakes churn and splash.  Howling fumaroles emit gases and steam dances freely above the volcano’s slopes.  There is no feeling in the world quite like watching one of these volcanoes in action.  Especially if you are close enough to feel the ground vibrate beneath your feet.  Volcanoes are so incredibly powerful, and some so immense you are just a speck on their slopes. But they are packed full of spunk and energy, and endless creativity.

 Fertile Soil

We tend to forget that volcanoes do more than spew lava and destroy things.  Volcanoes are the land builders of this planet.  New islands appear all the time in the middle of the ocean, and existing ones grow.  Kilauea volcano constantly adds acreage to the island of Hawaii, and a new island, Loihi, is growing offshore.  

Landscapes near volcanoes can be reshapen by volcanic forces.  Think of how different the terrain around Mt. St. Helens in Washington looks since the 1980 eruption changed things.  And Laki has left a dramatic fissure across southern Iceland.  But this constant changing landscape is not necessarily a bad thing.  

Volcanic eruptions can have the same effect as forest fires, clearing out old brush and leaving space cleared for new growth.  Volcanic materials, once broken down and eroded, make incredibly fertile volcanic soil.  Given the right climate conditions, anything can grow, and grow extremely well.  Civilizations for thousands of years have fed their people because of the soil volcanoes produced.  

Need an example? Think of your favorite coffee. Chances are, it was grown on a volcano’s slopes somewhere in the world.  And with every sip, you can taste the rich earthiness of the soil it was grown in.  Cheers!

A Creature of Habitat

Volcanoes are also creators of fantastic habitats for all manner of creatures.  My favorite example is Yellowstone.  The caldera and surrounding area of this massive volcano is home to a wide array of animal and plant species, some not found anywhere else in the world.  Bears, elk, moose, and wolves, just to mention a few, thrive here.  But so do some of the most unexpected creatures you can imagine: thermophiles.  These tiny creatures absolutely relish the bubbling hot springs and the minerals that rise from them.  In a place where nothing else could possibly survive, this form of life is dominating.  

Healthy and Happy

Have you ever sat back and soaked in a natural hot spring?  The hot water and minerals wash away all your aches and stress as you sit watching the clouds float by.  That hot spring was created by volcanic forces.  Minerals harvested from volcanoes help in a plethora of heath and healing aids that we use in traditional and modern medicine. Volcanic minerals are are also used in products that we use every day.

Volcanoes also offer inspiration for the soul.  They are encouragers of the human nature to explore and learn.  Hikers that cover volcanic landscapes are often in for the workout of their lives, which keeps their bodies healthy and in shape. And many people are inspired to write songs, poetry, or create volcano-inspired artwork.  

An Interesting Climate

Volcanoes shape the climate of Earth with every eruption.  Gases emitted from volcanoes (such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, etc.) promote the greenhouse effect on our planet, which keeps it warm and cozy.  Without this continual refreshing of the atmosphere, Earth would go the way of Mars and become freezing cold and nothing could survive. 

But volcanoes can also have a negative effect on the climate.  A catastrophic eruption can cool the entire globe for years. The impact for humans can be disasterous.  When Laki erupted in Iceland in 1783, it created a year without a summer the following year. Crops failed, disease spread.  Scientists fear that even larger eruptions – such as Yellowstone or Campei Flegrei – could cause a worldwide disaster for years, even decades, if we are not prepared.

Wreaking Havoc

Volcanoes and humans have tried to co-exist for thousands of years.  Unfortunately, eruptions have been the cause of many human deaths and disasters over the years.  And this is where the heart of the International Day of Volcanoes proposal lies: raising awareness of volcanic hazards to help mitigate the human toll when the next eruption happens.

The International Day of Volcanoes is proposed for April 10.  On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded, releasing a scalding hot pyroclastic flows and massive tsunamis that killed 10,000 Indonesians instantly.  These people had no warning, and had no idea that such a threat existed in their backyards.  Gas and ash ejected into the atmosphere circled the globe in a matter of days.  Temperatures dropped.  Sunlight was blocked.  Crops failed, winters brutally cold, and disease ran rampant. In total, the Tambora eruption killed approximately 70,000 people.

Fast forward to today. What would happen if a volcano somewhere in the world erupted that violently?  Would we be prepared?  What would the human toll be?

The International Day of Volcanoes proposal seeks to answer that question by raising awareness. With raised awareness and understanding, comes better technology and more research into volcanoes and their behaviors.  With better insight and technology, scientists will be able to predict eruptions further ahead of time.  People living in the areas surrounding volcanoes can be educated about the dangers and what to do in the event of an eruption.  We can prepare globally for the impacts of an eruption, studying climate change, and hopefully prevent famine and disease from wreaking havoc.  In total, we can learn to mitigate the human impact of the wild volcanic eruptions that are certain to happen in the future. 

In honor of the April 10 Mount Tambora eruption, the petition aims to have 70,000 signatures – one for each life lost in the aftermath of the eruption.  You can read up on the proposal at the link below.  

While you’re there, help us make the International Day of Volcanoes official!  Sign the petition.  Help us celebrate and raise awareness for these incredible volcanoes. 

https://www.thepetitionsite.com/473/756/887/?fbclid=IwAR2acHOGq_-07Sc82U-n02dDlYMK1ctynG0xMWjpNj3ENfF4geYD2bVrfWQ

Happy Hopping!

Copyright © 2019 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Be encouraged.  Be bold.  Be badass.

Volcano Hopper hanging out with a lava flow on Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii.

Some of the most badass people I’ve ever met are women.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, think about some of the women you’ve met in your travels.  Mothers, wives, daughters.  Women who raise strong families, or who shatter glass ceilings. No matter the career, or stage in life, every woman around you is redefining the world around us.

Many careers and lifestyles were previously not available to women.  Over history, women have fought for the right to own property, to vote, to hold jobs. And one of the career fields that has seen a drastic rise in women over the last quarter century is the scientific community.

When I was a teenager, a friend of mine arranged a tour for me at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.  I loved every moment.  (What can I say?  I love nature at its spunkiest!)  The science and technology were fascinating, and the research being done was inspiring.  However, the entire day that I was there, I saw exactly one woman. And she was the receptionist.

Where were all the women?  When I do research on past volcanic eruptions, I am always curious about the scientists who did research on those particular events.  Who were they, and what unique ideas and perspectives did they bring to the table?  Searching through pages and pages of references for events such as Mt. St. Helens, or Mt. Pinatubo, I’m often hard pressed to find even one female volcanologist on the case.  Women volcanologists and geologists used to be extremely rare.

Fast forward to today.  Women are starting to make their mark in the scientific community. Geological surveys now staff many brilliant women volcanologists.   These ladies are writing fantastic papers about the amazing discoveries they are making.  They’re studying volcanic weather (such as lightning and hail).  They’re busy analyzing eruptions, volcanic sounds, and seismic patterns, and they’re assessing volcanic hazards.  So here’s a shout out to all the women in volcanology and geology.  You ladies rock!  And let’s not forget the rest of the women who are in the scientific community – you’re changing the world as we know it and are blowing the cosmos wide open.

As a writer, I’ve been blessed to talk to so many incredible men and women in the scientific community.  Listening to their stories and putting boots on the ground with them is nothing short of amazing!  But even breaking into writing as a woman has had its challenges – especially when you’re writing about science.

Working in a previously male-dominated arena has never been daunting to me.  Every person has their own unique personality and puts their own spin to the research being done. For me, the male/female debate has never mattered.  But apparently, for some people it does.

Think of some of today’s most popular authors, especially in the sci-fi arena.  Does J.D. Robb ring a bell?  How about J.K. Rowling?  There are a host of women authors out there who use male pseudonyms to publish their work, or who use their initials so that their gender can’t be defined.  They’re told that they’ll have better success publishing in these genres if they don’t show that they’re a woman.  The reasons?  There are many different theories.  Maybe some are true.  Others are hogwash.  But I believe that the quality of a person’s work should be determined by far different factors than whether they are a man or woman.

When I started writing as Volcano Hopper, I seriously debated whether I should share with the world that I am a woman.  Should I put some feminine flair in the logo?  Or should I keep everything gender neutral? I’ve been working on a new logo lately – which I will reveal to you all in the next few weeks – and the debate continued.  Should I write under a pseudonym?  Hashing all this out, for me, is more daunting than skipping across a barely-crusted-over lava flow.

This is what it has boiled down to for me:  I am not timid about who I am, or the passion I have for volcanoes.  I’m not going to hide it.  And somewhere out there is a young woman, who someday is going to need to decide if she should bust down the barriers and follow her passions.  I want to show her to be herself and be bold in her pursuit of whatever may be in her heart.  I want her to be another badass woman who is shattering the ceilings.

So women – don’t give up on your dreams and keep pushing until they’re a reality.  We are making the future that we want our children to have, and are setting the stage for our daughters to be successful.

And men – thank you to those of you who continually encourage the ladies in your life, and recognize the beautiful perspective they add to the world.

Be encouraged.  Be bold.  Be badass.

And as always, Happy Hopping!

Copyright © 2019 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

The Moon is Lava!

VITAL STATS
Name: Earth’s Moon
Eruption Status: Dormant? 
Last Eruption: Less than 100,000 years ago
Location: 238,900 miles out in space

2019 Lunar Eclipse

Do you remember playing “The Floor is Lava” when you were a kid?  If not, you should definitely start a game right now.  Wherever you are.  It’s a blast!  But let’s play a different game today…

The Moon is Lava!

It certainly looked as though this might be the case last Sunday evening during the lunar eclipse.  The usual pearly glow of the full moon (a super moon in this case) was replaced by a deep red glow as the Earth blocked the sun’s light. Lunar eclipses like this only happen when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are in a straight line.  Earth completely blocks the sunlight from the moon, and what light does refract around the Earth’s atmosphere gives the moon a bloody red appearance.  Phew!  So that’sall it was?  Good.  But let me tell you a little secret, my friend.  The moonIS lava.

When you look up at our moon, what do you see?  One of the first things you’ll likely point out is the patches of dark and light on its surface.  Does the Man on the Moon ring a bell?  Astronomers – before the advent of telescopes and moon landers – used to think that these dark patches were seas.  They named them “Mare” (Mahr-ray), which is the Latin name for “sea.”  Only recently did humankind discover there’s barely a drop of water on the Moon, and these Mare were something different entirely.

They are vast “seas” of hardened lava.

Can you imagine what it might look like from Earth to see red hot lava flows flooding across the surface of the moon? Would just the leading edges of the flows glow?  Or would it all be molten and leave huge swaths of glowing red across the moon’s face?  It’s breathtaking to imagine.

So here are a few things to know about Mare:

–  Most of them are on the side of the moon facing earth

–  There are a few on the back side of the moon, but they are considerably smaller than the ones on the near side.

–  They cover 15% of the total Moon’s surface, and 33% of the near side’s surface.

–  Mare are old – approximately 3-4 billion years old.

So how did these massive lava flows occur? Most Mare are circular in shape, which suggests that they are filled in impact craters.  The moon gets bombarded with meteors all the time. Some of the larger ones very likely fractured or weakened the crust of the moon, and molten lava rose through the cracks to fill in the craters.  Since the moon has much less gravity than the earth, the lava is able to flow much further, faster.  The moon’s lava is made of basalt – much like the Hawaiian volcanoes – and so the lava is more runny.  So when the lava started flowing, it created massive basalt plains on the moon. The closest thing we have here on Earth is called a Flood Basalt.

But why are most Mare found on the near side of the moon?  This is a question that scientists are currently studying and trying to find answers to. There are a lot of theories and some proven facts.  Scientists do know that the near side of the moon has a thinner crust than the far side, which would allow magma to rise to the surface easily. Earth’s gravity may have helped in the endeavor.

Aside from the Mare, there are fascinating volcanic features to be found on the Moon.  Sinuous Rilles cover the landscape.  From Earth, they look like riverbeds or canals.  In fact, they are lava channels and lava tubes where the fluid lava ran across the moon’s surface.  Cones and lava domes dot the surface.  While the moon’s lava is less explosive, due to a lack of water, it still erupted explosively from time to time.  With less gravity, exploded material was flung farther, and less material accumulated around the vent.  This is why you don’t have towering cinder cones like Capulin on the surface of the moon.

Will the moon ever erupt with active lava flows again?  It is possible. Scientists have recently discovered evidence for several smaller eruptions within the last 100 million years.  A vent they have named Ina was active as little as 10 million years ago.  They are discovering that the moon’s core has not cooled off as quickly as they once thought.  The potential for activity, while perhaps not in our lifetimes, is still there.

So until the next lunar eruption – enjoy the lunar eclipses (next total eclipse will be May 26, 2021) and play a game or two of “The Floor is Lava.”  Happy Hopping!

Copyright © 2019 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Capulin: The Boca Trail

The Trailhead for Boca Trail

VITAL STATS
Name: Capulin 
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct
Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

We coasted down the volcano road, enjoying our descent from Capulin’s summit.  The clouds had finally lifted and myriad volcanoes now popped up from the dusty New Mexican landscape.  My partner in crime and I headed in to the Visitor Center for a quick break and a chat with the friendly and knowledgable park rangers. They offered us great information about how Capulin became a national monument in 1916 and how summit road was covertly created in 1925 so that the first Model T’s could putter to the top. Our ranger friends even were able to answer questions about the volcanism of the area.   They confirmed that what we spotted on the lava flow trail earlier in the day was indeed andesite – which gave this volcano its explosive past.

Itching to get back outside and explore the Boca Trail, we drove back to the same parking lot where the Lava Flow trail started.  Instead of heading South and sweeping through the volcano’s second lava flow, this trail heads north and winds between the cinder cone and the third lava flow.  But here, we found something special.  We found the vent from which each of these lava flows emerged.

The Boca Trail is a 2 mile loop trail and is considered to be strenuous.  I must confess – I have to hold back a chuckle.  This is a walk in the park compared to most other hikes I’ve done, volcanic or not.  Still, the trail does get narrow and uneven in places, and some short stretches are a good haul straight uphill.  The eroded lava can be a little loose in places, so you want to watch your step.  I definitely don’t recommend hiking this in flip flops.  Wear sturdy shoes and be sure to take some water along with you.  Don’t let the “strenuous” title scare you away.

The volume of lava erupted here is staggering – especially when you’re looking up from below. Photo credit: Volcano Hopper

Taking off from the trailhead, we instantly found ourselves in the heart of a lava flow.  When the lava was still fluid, its leading edges hardened first.  The liquid lava behind the hard edges pushed up behind it, creating pressure ridges.   (I describe these more in previous summit post).  When we were at the summit we could spot them easily.  Here, seeing them from the bottom up, was an entirely new and humbling perspective.  Mounds of black basalt towered hundreds of feet above our heads.

We wandered through a forest of pine and scrub oak.  Little lizards rustled through the undergrowth and scampered out across the chunks of lava that were strewn everywhere.  As my fingertips brushed against the ancient boulders to balance myself along the narrow path, I could still feel the energy that the eruption had created.  This place had once been vibrantly alive with volcanic energy, creating the dynamic landscape all around us.  Now, quiet and thriving with a different kind of life, the area echoes with songs of the past.  If only you stop long enough to listen for it.

The trail pops out of the trees and delivers you to the road.  Crossing the highway, the trail instantly begins to mount a golden, grassy knoll.  Now we were ascending to the tippy top of the volcano’s third lava flow. Coming to the top, we meandered along the western base of Capulin’s cone.  Bright orange scrub oak flooded the fields around us. Colors of the fall trees speckled the volcano’s slopes.  Off to our left, a small cinder cone rises out of the flow.

The Boca (mouth) is the vent where all the lava flows began. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

We wound along the volcano’s base until we reached a tremendous wall of lava so tall that Capulin herself barely peeks out from behind it.  There is a simple sign that reads “Collapsed Lava Tube.” You can see where lava once gushed through it like water in a pipe, the top half of the “tube” caved in.  The lava tube runs further downhill, most of it buried underground.  But this place is special.  This is the Boca – the mouth of the volcano.  This is the vent.

Lava along the Boca Trail. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

During Capulin’s eruption phase, material blasted from the volcano’s summit vent, creating the gorgeous cone we see today.  A second vent erupted later, here at the western edge of the cone, keeping the volcano intact.  The basaltic lava flowed from this lower vent and surrounded the mountain’s base.  Lava flows from Capulin cover 15.7 square miles and are hundreds of feet thick – even after years of erosion – in places.  Can you imagine the volume of lava that came out of here?  It’s more than enough to bury a city!

The trail continues north and then loops around to head west and south.  As we head further away from the volcano and vent, we are able to examine aspects of the lava flow.  The trail is strewn with basaltic rock that is full of holes. The lava was full of gases when it was erupted.  As the gases escaped, they tore holes and left pockets in the rock.  This makes the rock very light and very fascinating to look at.

As we get to the western edge of the trail, we can look back and see Capulin standing radiantly against the blue sky.  Between us and the mountain now is a flat, circular plain filled with golden grasses.  This once was a lava lake, similar to what you might see at Erta Ale or formerly on Kilauea. It has long since hardened over and been overgrown with grasses.  If you stripped away all the grasses, you possibly could still see the hardened ripples of the surface of the lake.

Deer grazing along the Boca Trail at Capulin.  Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

We curve back toward the volcano.  It’s completely quiet out here.  We haven’t seen another soul.  Until…  I turn.  There is a small family of mule deer who have been watching us make the trek through the wilderness.  We stop; watch each other for a few quiet minutes.  They are not afraid.  Only curious.  Then, they bound off through the trees in search of more lunch.

Coming up over the ridge and skirting the small cinder cone, we arrive back at the highway and return the way we began.  A huge lizard romps through the crunchy fall leaves and barrels out right in front of me.  He is dark green and black; different from his brown cousins down on the Lava Flow Trail.  Here, he is camoflagued in the basalt and pine trees.  He realizes he’s been spotted and scampers up a spruce.

So concludes our trip to Capulin Volcano.  Exhilerated from our expedition, we begin the long drive home and stop for a couple of cheeseburgers to celebrate.

For more pictures and videos, be sure to hop over to the Facebook page!

Happy Hopping!

Capulin National Monument
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Copyright © 2019 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Capulin: The Summit

A view into Capulin’s summit crater from the crater rim. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

VITAL STATS
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

The clouds that enshrouded Capulin’s cone finally began to break around mid-morning.  We raced to the summit to see what had been hidden behind the thick mist all morning.  What we found was breathtaking.

Capulin’s summit crater is perched over 1,300 feet above the surrounding plains, and the drive to reach it is nothing short of intimidating.  If you’re not driving, take a peek out the passenger side window.  There are no guardrails and the view is straight down.  This cone has virtually no slope.  Not intimidating…not at all…

Ash and cinder deposits that make up the Capulin cone. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

As you approach the summit, you can spot small cliffs of ash and cinder from the volcano’s last eruption.  The materials are packed tightly together but, because of their composition, easily erode. Over the years the cinder and ash have weathered and oxidized (like an old car rusting in your driveway) and have changed to a warm reddish hue.  You can still see the different layers of ash and cinder along these cliffs.

Capulin’s summit sits at 8,182 feet above sea level.  To your right as you pull into the parking lot are spectacular views of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field.  Old volcanoes pepper the landscape.  And those massive mesas in the distance?  They are massive lava flows that issued from the volcanic field thousands of years ago.  You can still spot their dark color beneath the wash of trees and grasses.

To your left (or rather – behind you – since you’ve gone running off to look at the views) is Capulin’s crater.  It stretches like a gigantic bowl in front of you, the edges of its rims rising another thousand feet higher than where you stand.  It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Adventurenovels that we read as kids: do you choose to walk the crater rim?  Or do you choose to go down into the depths of the crater?

I couldn’t contain my excitement.  I went bouncing like a billy goat down into the crater.  (And this is why I’m called Volcano Hopper…)

Inside the Crater

Sweeping lava flows fill Capulin’s crater. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

The path to the bottom of Capulin’s crater is paved with asphalt.  It’s an easy hike, but it is fairly steep with a 105 foot elevation drop.  The trail was lined on both sides with bright orange scrub oak and red chokecherry shrubs. The Spanish word for “chokecherry” is Capulin.  Spanish traders in the area gave the mountain its name because of these shrubs that used to grow all over the mountainside, giving off the sweet scent of roses.  Nowadays, capulin (chokecherries) are mostly found in the summit crater.  Other trees flood the crater with splashes of color for the oncoming autumn.

Suddenly, about halfway down, we burst from a cluster of scrub oak.  The crater opened up in front of us.  And, stretching across our path, is a massive lava flow. The basalt and cinder stretch up from the vent at the base of the crater.  You can see the direction of the last blast of lava from the vent; one side of the crater wall is strewn with ballistic basalt.

The trail spirals further down into the crater past this massive streak of lava.  It’s size is impressive in person: perhaps several football fields in length.  There are several fissures in the rock that could easily hide a puma.  We finally come to the end of the trail – right in front of the vent.  The entire bottom of the bowl-shaped crater is coated in black lava. This is the spot where the last of the explosive ash and cinder was thrown from the volcano.  This is the place where the eruption issued from; the place that built this entire mountain.

It’s eerily silent now.  But once, extremely powerful forces were at work here.  Everything you see here in this crater is a result of what happened at this vent.  The mountain was built by the explosion of lava, cinder, and ash.  These eroded over time into extremely fertile soil, which now has all manner of plants growing in it. These rocks and plants have created an inviting ecosystem for many different types of animal and insect.  Mountain lions prowl the mountain looking for a dinner of mule deer.  Birds flock in, making nests and dining on berries and insects.  Ladybugs flood the slopes every summer.  And all this started with a single volcanic vent.

The Crater Rim

Not only is there a trail going down into the heart of the volcano, but there is one that circles Capulin’s crater rim.  There is a 305 foot elevation gain from the parking lot, and you’re about a mile above sea level here, so there is no shame in stopping to catch your breath every 100 feet.  Besides, the views from up here are spectacular.

There is an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding plains from up here.  To the northwest, you can spy Colorado’s East Spanish Peak and Johnson Mesa.  To the east, you can see Black Mesa in Oklahoma.  Baby Capulin – a much smaller cinder cone – pops out of the prairie nearby.  Ten miles to the Southeast is the towering Sierra Grande shield volcano – the largest volcano in the volcanic field.  Numerous other volcanoes dot the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Trees bravely cling to the cinder cone’s steep edges and, in places, are so thick you can’t see the drop into the crater.  The huge flow of lava from the crater’s vent reaches all the way up to the crater rim, and lava bombs can be found scattered everywhere.  Plants have taken root in cracks in the lava, and amazingly grow straight up out of boulders.

Pressure ridges and a lava flow stretch for miles away from Capulin volcano. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

As we came down around the southern side of the volcano’s rim, we looked down to the plains below and spotted an amazing feature. Remember the lava flow that we had hiked through earlier?  From here, we had a bird’s eye view of Capulin’s lava flows and the pressure ridges hidden throughout.

Pressure ridges form in a lava flow when the lava at the leading edge of the flow hardens, but the lava behind it is still fluid.  The fluid lava pushes forward and will do one of two things:

  • It will dislocate the hardened lava in front of it, pushing it up into ridges (like when you’re shoveling your driveway after a snowstorm and you push it all onto the side of the drive).
  • It will run right up and over the hardened lava. The lava piles up on itself, creating these mounds and ridges.

It’s amazing how massive these lava flows really are.  Hiking through one of them earlier in the day gave me an appreciation for how thick the formations were, and how large each of these ridges really was. Seeing them from this vantage point made me appreciate their scale, and how far down the landscape they ran. Some of these flows were several miles long and hundreds of feet deep.  Impressive!

Seeing the flows from this height makes me want to go explore another lava flow trail: The Boca Trail.  This trail wanders past the separate vent that spewed these lava flows onto the prairie floor, leaving Capulin’s magnificent cone intact.  And I’m itching to find out what secrets it holds.

Check out our Facebook page for more pictures and some exclusive videos from our hike into the summit crater and around Capulin’s rim!

Up Next: Join us on an adventure through Capulin’s Boca Trail!

Copyright © 2018 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Capulin: The Lava Flow Trail

Capulin’s cone peeks out from behind a massive lava flow. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Vital Stats
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

Capulin volcano has 4 lava flows – three of which are absolutely massive.  They each started from a vent at the base of the volcano, which has left the stunning cone shape intact.  As we waited for the clouds at the summit to lift, we decided to take a hop down the Lava Flow Trail.

This trail is a 1 mile loop through the second lava flow.  It only scratches the surface; this flow extends over 2 miles down toward Highway 87!  We were anxious to get our boots on the ground and go exploring.  So off into the silent, misty morning we went.

Most cinder cones are formed when ground water trickles down and mixes with the basaltic magma below. It turns into a type of lava soup: liquid and runny.  As the new soup travels further down into the earth, it gets closer to the mantle.  It heats up in the blink of an eye and – whoosh! – flashes into steam.  The steam expands and explodes, blowing a hole into the rock above it.  The lava soup splashes out of the new hole. As it cools, the lava forms cinders that pile on top of each other to form a cone.  Since the explosion has opened some new holes in the ground, that creates a way for the magma to bubble up and ooze out over the ground in some pretty spectacular lava flows.

Basalt is usually what I’d expect to see on a hike like this one.  And we come across vast stretches of the black lava, bunched up into towering hills in places.  But over the years the lava has oxidized, similar to the way an old car rusts.  So along with the black chunks of lava, we saw all manner of reds, browns, and golds.  It was stunning.

Some very shredded looking pumice which tells the story of Capulin’s explosive past. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

What did stop me dead in my tracks was a chunk of andesite right off the side of the trail. Andesite is much less runny than basalt (think peanut butter versus honey), and that usually causes it to be much more explosive.  The sheild volcano just to the south of Capulin has quite a bit of andesite on its slopes.  This was very surprising to learn.  We think of sheild volcanoes as having more effusive eruptions with their basaltic magma. But this andesite showed us that Capulin and the surrounding mountains may have had an ornery streak; their eruptions may have packed more of a punch than your typical cinder cone eruption. Volcanoes are always full of surprises!  And I love how they’ll tell you their stories if you have your eyes open.

We continued down the trail and came across huge pieces of pumice.  They were extremely light if you picked one up.  And they were scarred with incredible holes where gas in the magma had escaped from them.  They looked as if they had been shredded.  Confirmation that this volcano had some serious spunk.

Volcano Hopper with a cloud-shrouded Sierra Grande in the background.

Coming around the bottom of the loop, we paused at the Sierra Grande overlook.  Sierra Grande is the shield volcano I previously mentioned.  It sits 10 miles to the south of Capulin.  That morning, its summit was hidden in the clouds.  But we could see the gently sloping shape like an upside down shield or bowl.  With the clouds, it reminded me of Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

This trail is not only packed with amazing geological formations, but with life.  We spotted deer tracks and mountain lion prints in the mud.  A lizard darted back and forth between the rocks.  Trees and wildflowers covered everything and most were starting to turn vivid shades of color with the encroaching autumn.  In some places, the foliage was so thick that you’d never know you were walking on an ancient lava flow.

My dad and I have gone on a lot of backcountry hikes together.  The most important thing I think he ever taught me is that it’s important to be aware of your surroundings, but it’s also important to look where you’re stepping.  You might find the most amazing things at the toe of your hiking boots. And we had a few amazing finds!

Volcanoes are masters of creation.  Not only do they have a knack for creating land, magnficient formations, fertile ground, etc. but they will occasionally create gemstones!  Olivine – also known as peridot – is one of the most common.  As we walked, I spotted an unusual piece of lava. As I picked it up and examined it, I realized that there was a garnet embedded in the heart of the lava. A few steps later, and my partner in crime found a piece of lava with green olivine crystals glittering inside of it. Stunning!

But the clouds have broken at the summit.  Now’s our chance!  We wrap up our hike and hop in the car.  It’s time to head to the summit!

Want pictures and videos?  Hop over to our Facebook page to see more!

Next Up: Capulin’s Summit Crater

Copyright © 2018 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Capulin Volcano

Vital Stats
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

The drive east through Northern New Mexico can be a pretty boring one.  The landscape is flat and brown, minus a few hills popping up here and there.  Major yawn factor – until you see the unmistakable cone of a volcano standing majestically next to the highway.  And then you realize exactly what you’re driving through.

The Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field stretches from southern Colorado to the western border of Oklahoma and Texas, near the town of Clayton, NM.  This volcanic field is a bit of an anomoly in the volcano world. Most volcanoes form on hot spots (like Hawaii) or along plate boundaries (Cascade Range).  New Mexico doesn’t sit on either one.  However, a continental rift does run though the area where the land is pulling apart and much thinner than the surrounding crust. This is what allowed magma to rise to the surface, creating some spectacular volcanic activity.

The volcanic field was active as long as 9 million years ago, forming all manner of lava flows and volcanoes.  And if you know what you’re looking for, you can see evidence of these everywhere. Enormous mesas line the north side of Highway 87.  These are massive lava flows!  Eroded and covered in trees, they’re a little tough to recognize after thousands of years.  Those hills dotting the landscape?  All of them are volcanoes.  Most are cinder cones, but the largest volcano in the area – Sierra Grande – is a shield volcano like you’d see in Hawaii.  The diversity here is amazing and the views are incredible.  And one of the most beautiful sights is mighty Capulin, standing watch over the highway.

Capulin is one of the youngest of these volcanoes, and the easternmost in North America.  She stands more than 1,300 feet above the plains, topping off at 8,182 feet above sea level.  Capulin is known as the Sentinel of the Plains, and she’s breathtaking as she watches over the vast stretches of prairie.

A cloud-wrapped Capulin rises behind the monument sign. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

I’d seen her many times as a kid – keeping a sharp eye for the volcano’s cone on long road trips through the area.  This morning, as we approached, clouds wrapped around the volcano’s slopes like a misty veil.  Every now and again, we’d catch a glimpse of the steep cone through the clouds as we approached.  But the thick clouds didn’t stop us – we darted straight for the summit!

Walls of compacted cinder and ash make up the volcanic cone.

Capulin was made a National Monument in 1916, and the volcano has been meticulously cared for and preserved because of it.  I’ve seen volcanoes that are much younger, and in a far worse state of deterioriation.  In the 1920’s, with the advent of motor cars, the park warden requested a road be put in to the summit of the volcano.  The National Park Service denied the request, but that didn’t stop him. And to this day, the road still exists.

It’s easy to get turned around on the spiral that leads to the summit.  On our left were magnificent banks of cinder and ash that made up the volcano’s base; on the right was a sheer drop 1,000 feet down to the prairie below.

A misty summit crater. Photo credit: Volcano Hopper

Then, suddenly, you come into a small parking area.  I ran right to the wall overlooking the summit crater. A freezing wind met me and clouds swirled down into the crater.  It was completely silent.  I could hear my own heart beating.  It gave the volcano a fascinating, almost mystical, dimension to it.  And the 30 degree weather gave it a dimension that was FREEZING!

Already seeing a patch of blue sky trying to burn through above, we headed back down to the base of the volcano.  One of the reasons Capulin is so well preserved is because the vents that issued the four lava flows are at the base of the cone.  We tugged on our hiking shoes and set off to explore the Lava Flow Trail.  The things that we found were amazing, unexpected, and shed a lot of light on the personality of Capulin volcano.

Up Next:  Come join us on our Lava Flow Trail adventure!

Volcano Hopper and her partner in crime – ready to tackle the Lava Flow Trail!

Copyright © 2018 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Have adventures, but don’t get injured!

Feeling your knee pop ranks on the list of Top 10 Terrifying Moments, right next to feeling the lava give way beneath your boots, or facing a starving tiger. In that split second after it pops, all sorts of frenzied things race through your mind.  “That’s it! I’m done for! I’ll never walk again!”

Lucky for me, I wasn’t 12 miles up a lava field when it happened. I was just standing around, talking story. Yes, I am talented enough to hurt myself while standing still. It takes real skill to do that. But the truth is, this injury was a long time coming.

The pain made an appearance in my right knee a full year before the pop!  It was uncomfortable when I hiked or ran, but it wasn’t the worst pain I’d ever felt.  I hiked 100 miles over volcanic terrain last year, but never got it checked out.  Despite my best efforts, my IT Band (the muscle that runs along the outside of your thigh) kept getting tighter and tighter. The muscles on the insides of my legs that balance it out just couldn’t keep up. So, this February – Pop! My IT Band ripped my kneecap right out of joint.

The symptoms masked themselves as a miniscus injury, so it took 6 months to figure out what acutally went wrong. Finally, in July, I had a patellofemoral realignment surgery. What a mouthful, right?  The short of it is that the doctor had to cut a slice of bone out to rebalance my leg, reset my knee, and then he screwed the pieces down.  It sucked.  I was on crutches for 8 weeks (my upper body strength can now rival that of the Hulk!) and in a brace for 10. I still have 8 weeks of physical therapy to tackle. Needless to say, no volcano hopping for me this summer. And that in itself has been worse than all the pain.

But it gave me a long time to think about injuries. How many of you, my friends, have suffered something similar? Or might battle this in the future? And how many of those injuries might be prevented?

I sat down with my physical therapist and asked what a person who does a lot of running and/or hiking could do to prevent an injury like this.  Together, we compiled a list of helpful hints that might prevent an injury like what I’ve experienced from happening to you.

Now, keep in mind that I am not a doctor, nor am I a physical therapist. I’m just a volcano enthusiast. If you have questions or concerns about your own health, please call your doctor. But hopefully, these tips will start you down a positive path to staying healthy and injury free on your adventures!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:  There are a zillion different stretches and exercises for each of the tips and tricks below. I’ll list a few of my faves, but jump on Google and do some additional research.  Talk to your own physical therapist, or the personal trainer down at your gym.  Start a routine and stick to it!

Before Your Boots Hit the Ground

On your off days (days that you’re not on the trail), you need to be stretching and strengthening your entire body! Your legs do not work alone when you’re out on a trek, and if your whole body is strong and in sync, it will make the hike easier and hopefully reduce any injuries you might experience

1.  Balance Exercises

It is critical for you to do balance exercises, especially if you’re going to hike over tricky landscapes. I’ve found these are critical for hiking over lava flows. Lava is wickedly uneven and one tip to the right or left can result in a twisted ankle or bloodied limbs. But these exercises will also strengthen and activate muscles you didn’t even know you had.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite balance exercises:

– Stand with one foot on the ground. Keep the second foot off the ground but in a “kickstand” position in case you wobble and need some extra support. Keep your hands around belly-level. Look to your right, then to your left like you’re window shopping. Too easy? To make it harder, stand on a pillow or a sofa cushion.

– Stand on one foot. Lift up onto the ball of that foot. This stretches your calf muscles like you wouldn’t believe.

– If you have one of those Bosu balance trainers (they look like ½ of an exercise ball), you can use it for a million different balance exercises. You can even do squats on it. This is a great tool to simulate uneven ground. If you don’t want to buy one, your local gym will usually have one that you can borrow during your workout routine.

2.   Strengthening Exercises

It’s super-critical that you strengthen your whole body on days when you’re not hitting the trail. I’ve found time and again that I do better on a run or hike if I’ve been following my routine, especially my core work.

During these exercises, you can do a lot of work to ensure that all of your muscles are strengthened equally. If one becomes stronger than the other (like my IT Band did), it can cause injuries. Make sure to work your feet, calves, glutes, hips, and core. Mix up your routine to keep it exciting. And be sure to look up online or talk to your gym’s trainer to find the best fit for you.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite strengthening exercises:

– Using an elastic band for resistance, lie on one side and open your legs from the hip like a clamshell. This helps strengthen the hips.

– Keeping the elastic band on, do crab walks back and forth across the room. Keep your knees bent as you step. You can also do this on a treadmill that is steeply inclined for more resistance.

– Exercise balls can be used for a plethora of strengthening exercises too, especially core. Lie on your back, with both feet up on the exercise ball. Raise your hips as high as you can, roll the ball in toward you with your feet, then push it back out. Repeat. Want to make it harder? Cross one ankle over the other so that all your balance is on one leg.

– The treadmill is a great tool as well. You can incline it steeply to do slow crab walks (you turn to the side for this and hold on!) or you can walk backward while keeping it at an incline. This will work different parts of your lower body.

– Agility exercises are a fun and important way to keep yourself on your toes. Turn up the music and do some dance moves like the Ickey shuffle. My physical therapist has what looks like a rope ladder that he puts out on the floor. I do all sorts of complicated footwork through it, forward and back. Do it as slowly or as quickly as you are comfortable with.

– Plyometrics are training while incorporating jumps. I’m not doing many of these right yet with my legs, but a favorite is the leg press. I can do a very slow, controlled jump while strengthening my leg muslces. Do some research to find out which ones will be most beneficial for your routine.

Getting out on the Trail

1. Dynamic Stretching

So you’ve been strengthening your muscles all week and you’re ready to hit the trail! You get out of the car and are itching to run to the trailhead. But there’s something you must do first: warm up! Cold muscles are prone to injury.

The best way to get your body ready to move is to move it! Dynamic stretching is moving your muscles into a good stretch, but not holding them in place. Remember those static stretches you used to do in gym class? The ones where you stretch and hold it for 30 seconds? The days of stretching like this before a workout are dead and gone. Doing this before a run or a hike can actually hinder you. Save those static stretches for afterward.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite dynamic stretches:

– Lunges: Do a lunge with one leg forward, the other behind. Bend your knees. Twist from left to right at the waist, then stand up, bringing your feet together. Switch legs. Repeat.  You can even make this a fun game of red light/green light if you’re with some pals on your way to the trailhead.

– Front kicks with hand reaches: Kick your leg up straight out in front of you. Try to touch the palm of your hand to your toes. Switch legs and repeat.

– Squats

– Rotate ankles/toe taps: A little trick I learned in Irish dance to prevent shin splints. Rotate your ankles by drawing circles with your toes clockwise, then counter clockwise. Tapping your toes side to side can also help reduce the likelihood of shin splints.

4.  Post-Hike

It’s so tempting after a long hike to sit down on the nearest available object. Your feet hurt, your body hurts, and you’re just flat out pooped. Don’t yield to the temptation or you’ll be sitting on that object until someone comes to pry you off of it. Your muscles will cool down and freeze in position. You need to let them down gently.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite post-hike stretches:

– Static stretches:  Find a stretch position and hold it for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

– Yoga stretches:  I like to incorporate some yoga stretches at the end of a hike, especially for my lower back.  Downward dog and Child’s Pose are two of my favorites.

– Foam Roller:  If you’re able to get onto a foam roller (I heard that groan!), definitely do.  Or find one of the hand-held rollers that creates the same effect.  I know that foam rolling can be mighty painful, but it’s critical to release some of that tightness in your muscles.  Especially that IT band of yours.  Make it hurt so good.

Remember, this is a super-brief summary of everything you can do to strengthen your body and prevent injuries on your adventures. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there on this topic, so please do some research!

Stay happy, healthy, and safe out there.  Happy Hopping!

Copyright © 2018 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

Yellowstone: Norris Geyser Basin

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Lower Geyser Basin
Approx.
44.7262° N, 110.7043° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Norris Geyser Basin Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 Having a blast with Yellowstone’s geyser eruptions and thermal features? So am I!  But we’re just getting started. Now we’re off to the oldest, hottest, and most active geyser basin in the park: Norris Geyser Basin.

Norris is unlike the other geyser basins in a few aspects:

1) It’s freaking hot. How hot? Scientists drilled a hole 265 feet into the rock a few years back and measured a temperature of 401 degrees Fahrenheit. That’ll toast your marshmallows!

2) Norris sits at the junction of 2 major fault lines and a slew of fractures and fissures. All these cracks in the ground cause earthquakes, which shake up the plumbing systems that cause geyser eruptions. The cracks also allow more heat from the volcanic hot spot to rise to the surface, fueling the geyser basin’s thermal features.

3) Generally, we think of most places on Earth as having characteristics that are friendly to supporting human life. Not here. Dig around a little and you’ll find that arsenic, mercury, and other toxic metals are prevalent in the soil and water. Echinus Geyser (which we will visit in a few minutes) has the pH of a can of Coke. Remember that Coca Cola will dissolve a penny if it’s left in the liquid for long enough.

Yet, despite these toxic metals, life thrives here. One organism in particular thrives on arsenic! Organisms like this, who thrive in extreme conditions and on compounds that would knock you and I over, are called “extremophiles.” Since their discovery, these organisms have been attracting a lot of study from the scientific community.

4) Disturbances! Norris Geyser Basin is the only place in the park where normal thermal features will undergo dramatic changes overnight. Clear blue pools will turn a mucky brown and boil vigorously while others explode as geysers. These wild parties that the basin throws last from days to a week and then everything reverts to normal behavior. Why? Scientists don’t really know. If I had to make a logical guess, I’d suspect it has something to do with item #2 above. With all the extra heat that is allowed up from the magma chamber and the frequent earthquakes that make things shake, rattle, and roll, I could see how dramatic changes might occur here.

But enough chatter. Let’s go exploring!

Porcelain Basin:

Porcelain Basin looks like a moonscape with splotches of bright color. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Once we’ve parked the car and explored the museum (which is a great place to learn more about Norris), we headed north along the trail. Coming out from the thick pine trees, we emerged into the Porcelain Basin. It felt akin to stepping out onto the Moon. Everything in the basin below us is an ashy gray, made so by the layers of geyserite and acid-bleached rhylolite lava. Amid the shimmery gray landscape are vibrant pops of color: bright blue pools of boiling water and rainbows of color where algae and bacteria have set up shop. Reds, oranges, yellows, greens… they’re all here. The drastic changes in color show the diversity of temperatures and pH levels in the water here.

Since this place is so stinkin’ hot, make sure you keep your boots on the boardwalk! Geyserite is fragile and if you step in the wrong spot and break through, you are toast. Stay safe.

Black Growler is a noisy little steam vent – you can hear it halfway across the Porcelain Basin! Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Black Growler: This little guy is one of my favorite, and perhaps one of the most memorable, features of Porcelain Basin. It is one of the hottest thermal features in Yellowstone at a whopping 284 degrees Fahrenheit. This steam vent vaporizes water and jets the steam out of its opening. It sounds like a jet engine or a howling dragon. And it just won’t quit. Imagine having him for a next door neighbor. Goodbye, sleep!

Whirligig Geyser: This geyser is a spectacular rainbow of colors where extremophiles have set up their homes. “Rivers” of reds and orange pours from the center of the geyser while emerald green algae has made thick mats a little further away. This geyser is a great addition to the party – it has rhythm! When it erupts, the water pulsates like a drumbeat.

Back Basin:

Once we’ve done the loop through Porcelain Basin, we head South past the musuem into Back Basin where the thermal features don’t get any less tame.

Minute Geyser: Our first stop is Minute Geyser. It’s sort of a sad sight, really. This geyser used to frequently shoot water 60 feet into the air. People tossed so much junk into it (coins, trash, etc.) that it has clogged the vent. Now when it erupts, it’s only 1-2 feet in the air. A perfect example of what NOT to do to a geyser. Don’t vandalize them and if you see it happening, report it.

Porkchop Geyser exploded in 1989. You can still see the wreckage around the geyser’s vent. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Porkchop Geyser: This geyer packs more of a punch than you’d think. It was a glittering hot spring until 1985 when it suddenly turned into a geyser. Silica deposits started to congeal in the vent, which constricted the passage and made the water fountains triple in height. Finally, the silica clogged the vent completely. In 1989, Porkchop exploded, launching rocks and water 200 feet into the air. Yes, there were tourists nearby (yikes!). Thankfully, it was a near miss and nobody was injured. You can still see the blast zone today.

Emerald Spring: Many of the hot springs you’ll find at Yellowstone have a crystal clear blue color to them. What makes Emerald Spring gleam like a green gem? You’ll smell your first clue when you walk up to it: sulphur. It stinks like rotten eggs and, ironically, is the color of egg yolk. When this yellow sulphur at the spring’s edge mixes with the blue water, it creates the gorgeous green tint that you see.

Volcano Hopper enjoying the warm steam and being in the heart of a super volcano!

Green Dragon Spring and Puff N’ Stuff Geyser: Green Dragon Spring is a great place to cool your heels for a few minutes as you gaze over the greenish pool. I love the name of Puff N’ Stuff – a geyser right next door that huffs and puffs like an old school locomotive. In the freezing fall weather, it was nice to be enveloped by the warm clouds of steam for a few minutes.

Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest geyser. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Steamboat Geyser: As you climb the hill, you’ll notice to your right a massive red and white mound of a geyser base. This is Steamboat Geyser – the tallest active geyser on the planet! It shoots water up to 380 feet in the air when it erupts. This is three times bigger than Old Faithful’s eruptions! And the steam phase afterward is equally as impressive, lasting up to 12 hours. But if you get to see one of these eruptions, consider yourself lucky. Times between eruptions can range from a week up to 50 years. The last eruption was on March 15, 2018 and before that it erupted on September 3, 2014. Steamboat will regularly do mini-performances with eruptions from 10-40 feet in the air. We were lucky to see a 60 footer as we explored the area.

Cistern Spring: Near Steamboat Geyser is a beautiful blue spring named Cistern Spring. And it’s aptly named: when Steamboat erupts, this spring completely drains. Think of what happens when you flush your toilet. The water tank at the back of the toilet completely empties at the same time the bowl does. This phenomenon means that Steamboat and Cistern are sharing the same plumbing system. A few days after a Steamboat eruption, the spring refills and regularly overflows onto the surrounding landscape.

Echinus Geyser: Echinus Geyser (pronounced e-KI-nus) was named because it once resembled the spiny spikes of sea urchins known as echinoderms. Echinus formerly erupted every 30-70 minutes, but has slowed to a few times a day. That doesn’t mean that it’s eruptions are puny. In fact, Echinus will shoot water up to 125 feet in the air. It also has a pH of 3.3, which is as acidic as vinegar or as a bottle of Coca Cola. The acidity and height of the eruptions make Echinus Geyser the largest acid-water geyser in the world. In fact, most of the world’s acid-water geysers can be found right here at Norris Geyser Basin.

Up Next: A little less explosive, but no less impressive! Mammoth Hot Springs.

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