Day Trip to The Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway

MaryAnn White and Rose Marie Johnston carefully poke around the log cabin of an abandoned homestead along County Road 42 southwest of Grants.

In most places, even country roads seem to go somewhere. They connect town to town and farms to markets. Not necessarily so in New Mexico. We have lots of roads which wander through the countryside for no real reason — except the joy of backcountry travel.

The Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway is one of those happy trails. Southwest of Grants, it goes south from Bandera Crater and is marked as County Road 42. Bandera Crater itself is on State Road 53, a wonderful roadway called The Trail of the Ancients, and features the famous Ice Caves, El Morro National Monument, and passes near Zuni Pueblo.

County Road 42 travels south through some beautiful stands of ponderosa, piñon and juniper. The dirt road was good, but there was a sign warning us that the road gets worse as it goes along, and in wet weather forget about it. Our weather was dry and windy and we continued on without any problems. Vehicles with extremely low clearance might not want to chance it.

The “chain of craters” was off to the west in the distance, but we were having so much fun we didn’t even notice them. First was the chamisa or rabbitbush, with long rows of yellow flowers on the sides of the road waving to us in the wind. And then there were the piñon trees. The cones were opening and those wonderful little piñones were dropping onto the ground. Wow… so many memories of the family and piñon picking. (If you are new to the state, “picking” generally means picking them off the ground where they’ve fallen.)

Then came a side trip down the road to the big lava tube. It entailed a half-mile hike over uneven ground, but was worth it. Wear good shoes and take hiking poles. Next, we came across an abandoned homestead: the ruin of a log cabin, a feed trough made from planks and flattened tin tubs, broken dishes and bottles. It was paradise as we tried to piece together the history of this vanished family! We never remove anything.

County Road 42 eventually led through some flatter country and angled east, hooking up with State Road 117, one of the most beautiful highways in the state, with the lava flow on one side and colorful, soaring bluffs on the other, as well as La Ventana Arch. What a day!

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at

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