The Volcanoes

Pencil sketch of the Three Sisters, the volcanic cinder cones, with boulders and native plants in the foreground.
Pencil sketch of the Three Sisters, the volcanic cinder cones.

Ray Kriese, park volunteer and artist.


A Sacred Landscape

At first glance this land looks barren, covered only by sparse clumps of grasses and scrawny sagebrush. Closer examination reveals much more. Volcanic cones and dark basalt rock tell us this landscape is volcanic in origin. Also visible is the variety of desert plant life which provides shelter, food, and refuge for small animals. It is what remains unseen that has attracted people to this landscape for centuries. This land is a place of spiritual meaning for generations of Native and Hispanic people who traveled to and visited these volcanic “sisters”as a sacred place of worship.

A Natural World

Known locally as the Albuquerque Volcanoes or the Three Sisters, they are a classic and rare example of a fissure eruption. In fissure eruptions magma rises along thin cracks in the Earth’s crust unlike most volcanoes in which magma rises through a vertical central vent. Here the fissure is over 5 miles (8km) long. Very long cracks like these may result in a row of aligned eruption craters—all active at the same time. Such eruptions create “curtains of fire” like those that occur today at Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Rio Grande Rift

The volcanoes are located near the middle of the Rio Grande Rift Valley. A rift valley is a zone of weakness and thinning in the Earth’s crust. As the crust is pulled apart, large blocks of land drop down forming the valley. Thin cracks open deep into the Earth releasing molten lava while blocks on one or both sides of the valley rise. The Sandia Mountains, just east of Albuquerque, formed by uplift along a major fault that marks the eastern edge of the valley. The Rio Grande Rift Valley extends from southern Colorado south to El Paso, Texas. It is one of only few active rifts. Others include the East African Rift, the Rhine Graben in Germany, and the Lake Baikal Rift in Russia.

Lava Flows and Volcanic Cones

The West Mesa, an area that includes lava flows and volcanic cones, formed about 150,000 years ago as liquid lava flowed from fissures in the Earth. There were six lava flows. The first two flows traveled the farthest creating the lava-covered plateau of the West Mesa and extended east to what is now the boulder-strewn volcanic escarpment. The boulders were later used by American Indians and settlers of mixed Spanish, Mexican and Indian background to create more than 20,000 petroglyphs. As the amount of lava production decreased, later eruptions did not flow far and created the volcanic cones we see today.

Human Activity

Over the centuries the quiet yet massive presence of the volcanoes has attracted many groups of people to the area. This is a sacred landscape to all Native people. Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley regard this place as one of the last remaining undestroyed sacred sites in the area. The Pueblo people believe the volcanoes and the petroglyphs pecked into the volcanic boulders provide a direct spiritual connection to both their ancestors and to the Spirit World, the place where time began.

Western Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches believe these landforms were created by spiritual beings who lived in the ancient past. These prominent landforms were also used as landmarks that helped guide people who traveled long distances to trade or perform religious pilgrimages.

Hispanics view the entire West Mesa and the volcanoes as an active site of religious ceremonials and as a living reminder of a cultural heritage based on powerful spiritual ties to the Earth.

We Learn From Our Past

Recent human activity in this so called “barren” landscape has been nearly as violent as the natural forces that created it. Ranching, open-pit rock quarries, military bombing, illegal dumping, and off-road vehicle use occurred prior to the volcanoes inclusion in the national monument. All of these destructive activities scarred the land. Today, we have the advantage of learning from past mistakes. Our every action causes a reaction and sometimes it is not easy to fix our mistakes. Keep this in mind while you are visiting the monument and leave the area as though you were never there.

The Trails

Several trails take you amongst the volcanoes however, not all are measured in distance nor degree of difficulty. The trails highlighted below take you as close as possible to the volcanic cones without causing further resource damage. Native Peoples believe that hiking to the top of the volcanic cones desecrates this sacred landscape. Please respect local cultural beliefs and also help protect these unique volcanoes by not hiking to their tops.

JA Volcano and the Albuquerque Overlook
Distance: One-mile round trip from parking lot to scenic overlook and back
Degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate
This main trail departs from the parking lot and heads east to a scenic view of the Rio Grande Valley, Albuquerque, and the Sandia Mountains. This trail has three shaded rest areas with benches and trash receptacles.

Black Volcano Loop
Distance: 0.8 mile round trip from scenic overlook back to JA Volcano
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
From the scenic overlook, follow trail north. At ‘Y’ intersection take left trail around base of Black Volcano. On the north side of Black Volcano you will come to another ‘Y’. Going right will take you north toward Vulcan Volcano and add 2 miles to your hike. Or you can turn around and make your way back to the parking lot.

Vulcan Volcano Loop
Distance: 2 miles from Black Volcano to parking lot
Degree of difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Follow trail north of Black Volcano to the largest of the cinder cones. The trail along the eastern base of Vulcan is difficult to find but do not give up. A gradual incline up the east side of Vulcan leads to a level, mini-volcanic valley on Vulcan’s north side. Continue on trail and go left (south) when you approach the ‘Y’ on the northwest side of Vulcan. At next ‘Y’ go left again for an up-close look at this well preserved cinder cone. Follow trail down, continuing south on old road which leads to the Volcanoes Day Use parking lot.

What You’ll See

In terms of mineralogy, the lava rock from the volcanoes is basalt. Basalt consists of the minerals olivine, plagioclase feldspar, pyroxene and magnetite. Various textures in the volcanic rock, from smooth to rough, as well as color variations are due to the lava’s mineral content, temperature, and exposure to oxygen. Red lava rock had higher iron content and exposure to oxygen than black or gray lava rock. Other volcanic features include:

Volcanic ash & cinders - small particles of dried lava that were blown high into the air then fell to the ground like a blizzard of hot, volcanic popcorn.

Spatter - thin sheets and blobs of magma that cooled rapidly and coat the sides of the cones with a hard crust.

Caliche - a white, calcium carbonate substance covering buried portions of rocks.

Lichen - a complex “plant” composed of an algae and a fungus that live symbiotically on rock surfaces. Colors vary from green, yellow, orange, to rust.

For Your Safety

Dress appropriately and always wear sturdy hiking boots with ankle support. Spring, fall, and winter winds are chilling. Layer clothing and wear a hat and a windbreaker or jacket. During spring and summer months apply sunscreen generously, wear sunglasses and a hat.


Dogs are permitted on the trails provided they are on a leash, no longer than 6 feet, at all times. Bring a bag to pick-up after your dog and dispose of it in the trash receptacle. Remember to bring plenty of water for your dog(s).

Enjoy your visit at the Volcanoes Day Use Area.

Last updated: January 30, 2018

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