Watching Over Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Three Sisters Volcanoes

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

The Three Sisters, the largest of the five volcanoes on Albuquerque’s West Mesa

You can’t miss them when gazing westward from anywhere in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are the five extinct volcanoes piercing the western landscape. Actually, two are quite small, and Native Americans call the three largest volcanoes the Three Sisters. After over 20 years of living in Albuquerque, they no longer stand out in my view as I scan the western horizon, but they are there none-the-less. I imagine they will outlast me in their staying power.

I first hiked the volcanoes when I moved to Albuquerque. I remember it well. It was an unusually hot, dry, spring day and the sun was merciless as it beat down on me, a pale Midwesterner unaccustomed to searing heat. I thought, “I wonder if I made the right decision to move to Albuquerque, the sun is lethal.” But after another application of sunscreen and adjusting my hat, I journeyed on. After climbing to the top of one of the volcanoes, I realized it was a good decision to move, the views were ethereal. I had entered a magical land, enchanted as the motto of New Mexico claims.

Volcanoes, photo Denise Ames

I decided to hike to the volcanoes about the same time of year as it was 22 years ago when I first scrambled up the rocky inclines. I wanted to see them again with fresh eyes and an open mind. Driving northward from Interstate I-40, I marveled at the high desert flora dotting the landscape: sparse clumps of grasses and scrawny sagebrush. I imagined a plethora of fauna lived a precarious existence in this arid and hostile environment.

I turned into the parking lot at the base of the volcanoes and sat there a few minutes to meditate on them and their history.

photo Denise Ames

The volcanoes 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. The Albuquerque 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—hence the five extinct volcanoes. Such eruptions create “curtains of fire.”

The Petroglyph/Volcanoes National Monument brochure gave a succinct description of the volcanoes I was about ready to hike. “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.

Sandia Mountains background, photo Denise Ames

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 in the world. Others include the East African Rift, the Rhine Graben in Germany, and the Lake Baikal Rift in Russia.”

Petroglyphs, photo Denise Ames

The area that includes lava flows and volcanic cones formed about 150,000 years ago as liquid lava flowed from fissures in the Earth. Two flows traveled the farthest creating the lava-covered plateau of the West Mesa (west of Albuquerque) 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.

The volcanoes are a sacred landscape to the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley. They believe the volcanoes and the petroglyphs pecked into the volcanic boulders (see previous blogs) provide a direct spiritual connection to both their ancestors and to the Spirit World, the place where time began.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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