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Stepping onto the lava

The Valley of Fires in central New Mexico is a stunning, 125-square-mile lava bed with ample animal and plant life.

The Valley of Fires Recreation Area in central New Mexico is a 125-square-mile lava bed.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CARRIZOZO, N.M.--One of the great things about being on a lengthy road trip is that you tend to have time to pull off the road to check out some of the interesting things along the way.

Well, on Road Trip 2007, my adventure to discover the best science- and technology-related sites in the Southwest, I've been so busy I haven't had much of that kind of time.

But on Monday, as I was driving toward Roswell, N.M.--UFO Capital of the World, as it's known--after visiting the Very Large Array, I saw something I couldn't resist stopping to investigate.

What I saw, as I crested a hill, driving east, was a plain with a great swath of black carving through the middle.

And as I got closer to it--the road cut right through it--I saw that it was some of the most gnarled rock formations I've seen in quite some time. So, I turned off, paid my $3 entry fee (it was a U.S. Bureau of Land Management area) and went to take a look.

This was the Valley of Fires, 125 square miles of lava flow that was awesome to behold.

At various points, the lava flow is between 4 and 6 miles wide, and can be as much as 160 feet deep.

What really got me, beyond the simplicity of such a place, was that there was a plethora of plant and animal life flourishing there. Now, I didn't see any of these animals--such as meadow larks, mockingbirds, great horned owls or cave bats--but I do think I heard a rattlesnake.

I did, however, see an abundance of the plants. They included soaptree yucca, prickly pears, mesquite and much more.

I have to say, New Mexico is truly a magical place. I was here 14 years ago, and it's everything I remember. And the Valley of Fires is just one piece of why.

The Valley of Fires is home to an abundance of plant and animal life. Daniel Terdiman/CNET