Friday, January 4, 2013

Hike extinct volcano in Southern California

Inside the cone of Amboy Crater,
an extinct volcano.

Amboy Crater formed about 4000 B.C.

Possibly one of the coolest hikes you can take in Southern California is this trek into the cinder cone of an extinct volcano. It’s a long drive from any major city, but your kids will remember the hike forever.

Amboy Crater looms on the horizon in the Mojave Desert about an hour southeast of Barstow, Calif. Drivers on the old Route 66 can see the volcano from miles away, and before the coming of the freeway, many cross-country drivers would stop and hike it. A parking lot sits off of what used to be a Route 66.

The trek to Amboy Crater heads through a lava field that is about 6,000 years old. About 24 square miles of lava flow - featuring lava lakes, spatter cones, basalt flows and collapsed lava tubes - surround the cinder cone.

The volcano's eruptions hurled huge boulders nearly a mile from the crater. Red-hot when they came out of the earth, today they're black, porous and lightweight.

Into the cinder cone
Look down at the ground, and you might wonder if you’re looking at a black and white photo of Mars? Interestingly, scientists are using Amboy Crater as an analog to better understand Martian volcanoes.

Amboy Crater hardly is devoid of life. In March, yellow wildflowers bloom across much of the lava field, finding niches in cracks between the basalt rocks and wherever wind had blown clay to cover the lava. Watch the sand, and you’re certain to see tracks of various birds and lizards and possibly even that of a mountain lion.

The trail enters the cinder cone's west side through the breach, where lava where lava broke through the cone as it was forming thousands of years ago. At the top of the breach, trails lead into the cinder cone and up to the rim. The crater's diameter is 1,508 feet and a mile in circumference.

The crater actually is made of four cinder cones that erupted in successive explosions. The interior of the cinder cone contains lava dams. Ash and cinders formed the cinder cone.

Up to the rim
Steep trails head up to the rim. From there, the vast stretch of lava fields about the cinder cone crater is visible through the breach.

Don’t try to head back to the trail by taking a shortcut down the cinder cone’s sides. It’s much too steep and with the scree is almost impossible to walk upon.

As the cone sits in the Mojave Desert, you’ll need to bring extra water, no matter the season. March, September and October tend to offer the best days for hiking the crater.

When done with the hike, drive about three miles east to Roy's Motel Café for some refreshments. It’s an iconic Route 66 stop. The motel/cafe/gas station and its sign in Amboy have been seen in a number of movies.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.