Halfway between Rocky Point and the Arizona border lies a vast volcanic field of over 400 cinder cones created from fiery eruptions 2,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. Magma still roils deep below dormant volcanoes and cooled lava slopes in this moon-like landscape of sunken craters, jagged rocks, spatter cones and lava tubes.
Gnarly half-dead desert plants add an eerie, otherworldly feel to the surroundings. Across the 600 square mile Picante, vegetation changes as plants thrive or die depending on the moisture content of composite soils. Few species survive the sandy plains at low elevations like creosotebush does. Driving across the arid core of the Sonoran desert we couldn't help but notice the low-lying creosotebushes lining the sandy road as we bumped along toward the Cerro Colorado crater. Perfectly spaced, they looked like green landscaped shrubs bordering someone's narrow driveway.
Soft mounds of thick sand suddenly clogged our speed, redirecting our attention to our vehicle which we quickly floored to keep momentum. A guide at the park entrance had warned us about the roads, which are not signed, maintained or monitored. All are sand, volcanic ash or cinder, and only a few are passable with a two-wheel drive. If you get stuck, good luck. It's a remote place with few visitors. Those who do venture here are expected to bring their own shovels and auto parts should breakdowns occur. No fear here, we were driving a van! And I'm sure we could scrounge up our daughter's plastic sand shovels should the need arise...
Creosotes gave way to chollas. Their dark scraggly trunks branching upward–some void of prickly tops–looked rather creepy contrasted against the light sand and shadowy mountains in the background. Skies were gloomy and gray, and the air tasted dusty.
Twenty minutes later we reached Cerro Colorado, one of nine giant "maar" volcanoes that draws volcanologists here to study their perplexing origin. Formed by violent steam explosions, rather than a fiery fountain, the crater rim has a ring of rock carved into older lava rock which is topped by tuff, or compressed volcanic ash. Scientists are trying to determine why these cinder cone eruptions changed into steam explosions. We stood on the tuff and peered in. Hiking down into the craters is not allowed as the biosphere is highly protected.
Heading toward another crater, the sandy road changed to cinder. Fine black cinder covered the soil which supports palo verde, ocotillo, senita and saguaro plant life. Rainfall is sparse, maybe five inches a year, but cinder soil retains moisture well. We came across a jumbled mass of black rocks and stopped to explore the massive lava flow wall.
Ill-prepared to hike lava rocks in walking sandals, I cautiously followed Scott's lead but climbed a gentler slope up the rubble. The surface texture felt extremely rough, porous and sharp against my skin. And sandals! The rubbery soles gave way to the rocks, shredding bit by bit. Later that night, I sadly realized it was time to retire the sandals that had endured the Inca Trail, the Routeburn, ten years of hiking...
I couldn't tell if the lava was old or young, but it certainly matched the description of what's called "aa" lava, a crusty mass of jagged rocks that date from younger flows. I didn't see any "pahoehoe," the other type of lava at Picante which is smooth, swirly and resembles fudge frosting. Instead the lava felt like pointy limestone, it's surface covered in tiny bubbles that had splattered and froze in flash time.
Back down on cinder soil, I wandered around the cactus filled terrain. An organ pipe, a mass of prickly arms that resembled jumbled arms and legs interlocked in Twister, dwarfed my daughter. And nearby, a large bird, judging from the size of the nest, had built a home in the arms of a saguaro.
We drove onward to Elegante crater, another giant maar volcano. The winds picked up as we walked up to the rim. The impressive crater was impossible to capture on film even with a wide angle lens. We followed a trail along the rim and passed a worn cross dedicated to the memory of Father Kino, a Jesuit priest who visited the hardy Pinacatenos inhabitants back in 1698 and climbed Pinacate Peak twice during his stay.
According to historical records, the Pinacatenos, lived in this volcanic field for 7,000 years. They lived through volcanic eruptions but met their demise in 1890 when an organized posse attacked them on the Camino del Diablo. Archeological artifacts indicate that an earlier hunter-gatherer group, known as the San Dieguitos, lived here for 12,000 years. They left stone tools, sleeping circles, petroglyph-like geometric figures called intaglios, and trail shrines behind when they fled from a severe drought. These traces are visible to the public, but we did not get to see any of them as they are located on routes that necessitate rugged four-wheel drives. Next time...
Teddybear chollas, limber bushes and spindly ocotillos lined the rim trail around Elegante. As we made our way back toward our van we heard the distinctive high-pitched warning shake of a rattler. My four-year-old jumped into daddy's arms and clung to his neck while the rest of us inched closer toward the hissing noise. There he was!
Coiled under a limber bush, the Arizona black stared at us from behind scraggly branches with beady gold eyes. His rattler was a blur. I had never seen a rattlesnake in the wild. When I bent down to see if I could take a photo, my daughter cried out, "Mama, don't let him strike you!" But we stayed a safe distance away and just watched him. He looked more afraid of us and never made a move.
Winding back to the park entrance, it began to rain. Rain! Big drops plopped against our windshield, then developed into a steady horizontal stream for a good thirty minutes. Some parts of the Picante hadn't seen rain in seven years, and we hurried through the desert, wary of what water would do to the sand. There was definite risk of encountering impassable roads. We could easily get stuck in muck. An intense smell filled the air. Burning rubber. Now what had we done to the van?
Scott laughed. Nothing. The burning rubber smell was coming from the creosotebush. We were experiencing something rather rare. The distinctive desert odor--wet creosotebush--is produced only when it rains.
To get here: The main entry point for cars is the southeast entrance located 32 miles southwest of the border town Lukeville, off Route 8. A park ranger in the Centro Ecologico of Sonora building will provide maps and information about the region, including advice about which roads your vehicle can handle safely. Admission is $3. You must sign in and out of the park.