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Snow-covered lettering: the sign-painter's shorthand for frigid fun.
Snow-covered lettering: the sign-painter's shorthand for frigid fun.

Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

Field review by the editors.

Grants, New Mexico

Open every day from March through October, the privately-owned Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano adjoins the El Malpais National Monument, and has been a stop for tourists traveling the nearby stretch of Route 66 since the roads out here were made of dirt.

Wax Apache and his buzzard pal.
Wax Apache and his buzzard pal.

Other frosty-thrills ice caves attract tourists in America, particularly in Idaho, and the U.S. has other volcanos as well. The Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, however, is the only attraction offering a two-for-one fire-and-ice combo.

Straddling the continental divide in the Zuni Mountains, 8,000 feet above sea level, the volcano and cave are geological siblings. Ten thousand years ago molten lava erupted and, like a hot straw through a butter cow, carved a miles-long underground tube, with the ice cave at the end of it. When the lava cooled it trapped air bubbles, forming a layer of insulation. Coupled with an opening shaped just right to catch cold air, and water that seeped in over many centuries, it created ice. A lot of ice.

This natural ice-maker has a commercial legacy, with owners of the property mining blocks of the frozen gold to sell to the Union Army (Bandera Volcano was named for the Federal soldier who planted Old Glory at its summit) or using it to chill the beer in their saloon (It was one of the few places in the Old West with cold beer).

Signs like this caution careless visitors not to tempt the volcano.
Signs like this caution careless visitors not to tempt the volcano.

Some of the attraction's original mascot iconography -- a grizzled prospector chopping away at the volcano -- can be found on the welcome sign off of the highway, but for the most part the site has shifted toward becoming a natural retreat. The Trading Post entrance has a National Park feel to it -- true field trip fodder -- with plenty of extracurricular additions for team-building exercises and packed lunches. The docents are cheery and welcoming, the trail map well-designed. An Apache dummy guards the bathroom entrance.

The decent to the Ice Cave.
The decent to the Ice Cave.

You are invited to hike to the volcano and then to the ice cave, the recommended order being fire first, then ice. But if you were hoping for a jarring contrast, be reminded that the volcano is very dormant, and any fire is theoretical.

It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the volcano, with numbered signs offering information on the local flora and fauna. Because this is a volcano, the terrain is somewhat alien, with weirdly twisted and stunted trees growing in the old lava field. The cinder cone, 1,400 feet across and 800 feet deep, looks more like an open-pit mine than something a school kid would fill with baking soda and vinegar.

The hike to the ice cave offers more of the same alien landscape. Any human hand has been minimized to preserve nature, and the trail leading to the ice cave could easily be missed if not for the few wooden signs embossed with yellow lettering instructing "Ice Cave" with a helpful arrow.

Given this region's long history of uranium mining, it's understandable to be leery upon first glimpse of the glowing, otherworldly blue-green floor of the ice cave. But if you hadn't gotten the message from the Trading Post, or the numerous signs posted along the 1.5-mile trail, what you are seeing is nothing but harmless ice. The radioactive hue is caused by algae.

Weird greenish ice in the cave never melts, and is rising closer to the surface every year.
Weird greenish ice in the cave never melts, and is rising closer to the surface every year.

The infrastructure of the ice cave lookout is old, and appears to date to the 1940s -- the attraction's early days. A tin roof over the viewing deck keeps its 70 steps dry; they were safe to descend even during the downpour that hit during our visit (Weather here is famously unpredictable). Old postcards in the Trading Post show early visitors drinking and sliding on the ice, and in the 1950s vacationers came here to cool their feet and to make ice cream, algae and all.

Modern tourists are removed from that kind of interactive fun; the viewing deck is suspended about twenty feet above the ice, certainly not within ice-cream-making range. But you still get to shiver in the chilled wind that keeps the ice frozen. The attraction owners estimate that the ice at the bottom of the cave is 20 feet thick, and that it increases an inch or two every year. In the 23nd century they'll have to raise the viewing deck.

Although you can't slide around on the ice any more, the eerie landscape and flukey phenomenon make the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano a fruitful pilgrimage -- and pilgrimage is not too strong of a word, for if your A-to-B route involves any vestige of cities, this attraction is out of the way. Cell service is nonexistent. The folks in the Trading Post said that if you don't come back, they will send a search party.

Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

12000 Ice Caves Rd, Grants, NM
From Route 66 (or I-40 exits 81 or 81A), on the west edge of Grants, turn south at the stoplight (McDonald's) onto NM-53. Drive 25 miles. Turn left (no stoplight) at the Ice Cave sign and drive a half-mile to the entrance.
March-Oct. daily 9-6 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $12.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Route 66 Neon Drive-ThruRoute 66 Neon Drive-Thru, Grants, NM - 17 mi.
Replica Uranium MineReplica Uranium Mine, Grants, NM - 17 mi.
Wild Spirit Wolf SanctuaryWild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Candy Kitchen, NM - 26 mi.
In the region:
Indian Kachina Statue, Gallup, NM - 53 mi.

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