Chain of Craters WSAWelcome to Wilderness Wednesday, our weekly posting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

This week we are highlighting the Chain of Craters Wilderness Study Area (WSA).  The Chain of Craters WSA is located in west-central New Mexico within the El Malpais National Conservation Area.  Here, a line of more than 25 volcanic cinder cones exist where magma found a weak spot in the Earth’s crust long ago.  The lower elevations are dominated by piñon and juniper woodland and give way to forests of ponderosa pine at higher elevations.

Wilderness Study Areas are under consideration for preservation as wilderness, but are not managed under the Wilderness Act.  Consequently, some WSAs have routes in them that may be driven by vehicles.  You will find several of these routes in the Chain of Craters WSA.  Though vehicles are not allowed to be driven cross country, existing routes can continue to be driven as long as the condition of the route remains the same as when the area became a WSA.  If routes become more highly developed, or if routes become deteriorated, resulting in a greater impact to soil or vegetation, the new impact must be remedied.  For example, routes cannot be bypassed with new routes when they become too rough to drive.  WSAs are not managed to facilitate vehicle use, and consequently, a routes that is damaged will not be maintained but instead vehicle use may be restricted or discontinued to prevent impairment of wilderness characteristics.
From I-40 at the west end of Grants, turn south on Highway 53 (Exit 81) and drive about 26 miles.  Turn south on County Road 42, about one mile after the Bandera Crater Ice Caves turnoff.  County Road 42 passes through El Malpais National Monument for approximately 3 miles before entering BLM’s El Malpais National Conservation Area.  Continue approximately 15 miles to a Y intersection.  Turn right and continue another half mile to where the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail crosses the road.  Hike north on the trail into the WSA.  There is no trailhead; the trail is marked with rock cairns.  For more information, please visit the Chain of Craters WSA website.

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