A trip to the “snow volcano”


Me and “Alex,” my trusty KLX:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hal and I set out on Sunday to ride, our last day in the White Mountains for this weekend, to explore on our dual sport motorcycles. We have been based in Alpine, AZ, and we rode north a couple of miles and turned onto forest road 249, an old favorite. Despite the signs warning of road construction and 30 minute delays (really? On a Sunday?) we found the road wide open and uncrowded. There were a few stragglers from Big Lake, usually pickups pulling giant RVs, evidence of the weekly exodus from that lovely spot, most campers turning toward the west, on the route toward Phoenix, the valley of the endless heat.

Our plan was to string together several forest roads, almost all of them “dirt super highways,” that would allow us to travel fast and far, and most importantly, get us up into the volcanic field that we drive through on the way here every time, but have never had the chance to explore in detail.

Forest management is always interesting. On FR249; I’ve always wanted to read what this sign says:

We took 249 past Big Lake, and then we were on 273, which becomes paved as it goes toward Sunrise Junction. Sunrise Ski Resort is a winter attraction in the area, and also a place where I used to ride mountain bikes. In fact, I even raced mountain bikes there a few times from 1997-2002. It is a beautiful place. Soon FR273 intersected with FR112, which was the next road that we planned to take as we worked our way northwest to the volcanic field.

FR112 was a strip of dirt with open high desert on either side as we started on it; we were coming off a high windswept plain. It was fun to travel fast on this easy gravel road, and then we came to the evergreens that make up most of the forests here. Soon we came to Hwy. 260, which is paved, and we rode it west for about a mile. At last, we saw FR 117!

As I mentioned earlier, we are very familiar with the other end of 117 where it intersects with Hwy. 60. It was a good surface, some big gravel on top, but a lot of it crushed and worked into the soil by many tires passing over it. The color was the red dirt we have been experiencing off and on, mixed with cinders in some areas. The colors seem to change from grey to red to black. The darker composition is usually basalt, an igneous rock. Soon we left the forest, and dropped into the Springerville volcanic field, which was our most anticipated destination of the day.

This volcanic field is made up of monogenetic cinder cones, about 450 of them. This field is the third largest in the continental U.S. The largest field is the San Francisco volcanic field, near Flagstaff, Arizona. We were finally going to ride into it via 117, then ride a short way on the 60 to a small road near one of my favorite cinder cones.

On the Snow Volcano:

I call it “Snow Volcano” because I once shot a photo of it just as a big snowstorm began to move into the area. At the time of the photo, it was covered in snow, and the approaching storm was ominous behind it. When we visited it last Sunday, the Snow Volcano weather was warm with partly cloudy skies. We rode right up to the mountain, and began to climb it on the short road that led part way up.

We came to the flat area where it looked like the cinders had been “mined.” Locally, the cinders are used for traction in snow, and that is the only thing I could think of as a reason why that part of the cinder cone had been gouged out. The gash in the side made it ideal for viewing the “innards” of the mountain.

We spent some time there, looking around at the amazing geology, and shooting photos. Geology is so fascinating because of the story it tells of prehistory. When the volcanoes were active here, it must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight. Frightening, but fascinating.

The volcanic field, St. John’s in the distance:

More fascinating cinders:

Plants growing in cinders:

Tiny green shoots struggle through the marble-size cinders:

After we’d been there for a while, Hal decided he wanted to try to ride up a short steep climb to … well, I don’t know why. Because it was there, I guess.

What worried me was that his tires were so worn out they were almost like racing slicks. He got about halfway up, and then decided it wasn’t a great idea, so he turned around and came back down, much to my relief. I didn’t want him to get hurt, and I also didn’t want to hike up there to help pick up the bike! Fortunately, neither of those things happened.

Coming back down:

It was time to move on. We consulted, and the plan formed to ride back to 117 (one mile west), then take it back to the intersection with FR118, which would take us back toward the 260. Once on that, we rode a short distance to 373, then into Greer. We knew how to get onto another little forest road, 87, that would take us back to 273, and then toward Big Lake. So, off we went.

We rode that route back to 249, and then we wanted to take a segment of 285 that we had discovered the last time we were here. So, despite being stuck behind four quads for a short (but dusty) while, we flew north on 285. The sky was darkening by this time with the usual afternoon thunderstorms. However, something I have noticed on this visit is that the intensity of the storms is less than it has been in years past, and also that the rain is less. However, it looked that we were riding right into it.

Once we turned onto FR88, we felt the first few drops of rain. We put on our rain jackets, but elected to leave the rain pants off. I was once again way too hot, and the idea of being in the cooling rain was a pleasant one. A few drops of rain fell, and for a few moments it grew heavy. My hopes for a good hard rain rose. But, almost as abruptly, the rain tapered off, then stopped. On we rode, from the gray dirt to the red dirt, through fields of waving green grasses, climbing up onto the mountain, and into the sun and clouds. As we turned to start the switchbacks down the other side, we stopped to photograph the scene below us, and then we shed the rain gear.

We wound down into the neighborhoods at the bottom of the mountain. At the stop sign near Hwy. 191, we consulted for a moment.

“Do you want to ride up 81, and then go over to 249?” Hal asked.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to get to pavement. I wanted to put it off for as long as possible

But, it was not to be. About a half mile up the road, Hal pulled over and said his bike “felt funny.” He was looking at the front end, and it didn’t look abnormal. He rode forward, and then I saw the problem – his rear tire was flat!

Fortunately, we were only about a mile, if that, from the intersection with 191. First, Hal tried to pump up the tire with a bicycle pump, but the air was coming out almost as fast as he could put it in. There was no obvious leak, so he thought maybe he messed up the tube when he made the sharp turn to go to FR81. The tire had slid as he’d turned, and he later said it felt weird.

So, we limped the bike back to where the pavement started about 500 feet off 191, Hal took my Kawasaki back to base camp in Alpine, which was only about 10 minutes away, left my bike there, and picked up the car and trailer, and was back within 23 minutes to rescue his disabled DR. That’s the mark of a “good” bike, in my opinion, if it only leaves you stranded where it can be easily rescued, or you are already at home when something happens! “Juliette,” Hal’s gorgeous blue DR, had proved herself to be a worthy bike! That was one reason why I always hated that DRZ400 of his – it would always wait until we were the farthest place from the car, or home, to break, and we’d have to somehow limp it home, or finagle a way to temporarily fix it. The DRZ is a great bike, but that particular one never seemed to be a good one.

While I waited for Hal to return with the car and trailer, I shot some photos for something to do (while trying to avoid sitting on an anthill, something I seem to do with astounding regularity). This little cow  in the photo came over to investigate why I was there. When he figured out I wasn’t going to feed him or do anything interesting, he realized he was by himself and began to “moo” plaintively for his friends, who were on the other side of the fence! Then, he ran over to join them. Ah, the drama.

At this point, since Juliette was already on the trailer, we left her there overnight because we had planned to load the bikes in the morning anyway. See how perfectly that worked out? When we returned to our base camp, my KLX was waiting, of course, and we covered the bikes to protect them from the incoming storm. It was the perfect ending to a great riding day – coffee on the porch, watching the rain, and wearing warm clothing because the weather had turned cool.

Monday would be our last day, but we had already done our last bike ride. I, however, was going to have one more ride on horseback, and then we would head home.

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4 thoughts on “A trip to the “snow volcano”

    • Yes, it was awesome. I’ve seen that volcano for so many years, and always wanted to get “up close and personal” with it. The snow photo I took of it ended up in a gallery show, too. 🙂

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