Located in the high-desert country between lands belonging to the Zuni, Ramah Navajo, Laguna, and Acoma nations, El Malpais National Monument is a relative newcomer to the National Park System. Known as “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.
There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites. Finally, don’t miss La Ventana Natural Arch, one of the largest in New Mexico.
Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas (lava formations are referred to in Hawaiian terms).
There are many ways to see El Malpais, depending on how much time you have and whether you want to hike or go off-road.
Many points of interest are accessible from State Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point.
You can look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route, which crosses four of the five major lava flows.
La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.
East of the highway are some 62,000 acres of lush, pine-covered rimrock called the Cebola Wilderness. Exploration of this area of the park will reward visitors with prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.
Continuing down the highway, you’ll drive through The Narrows; here lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here, and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find.
At the Lava Falls Area, you can explore the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marvel at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava.
If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive to the Big Tubes Area, where you can explore two of the network of gigantic caves formed by the flowing lava: Big Skylight and Four Windows.
In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape.
El Malpais will astonish you with its diversity, which encompasses grassland, piñon-juniper forests, ponderosa pine woodlands, and basalt fields.
The best time for photos from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook is at sunset when you can take advantage of late afternoon light and the New Mexico sky colors. For best results use a circular polarizing filter and a tripod. Keep in mind that this is often a high wind location. I don’t recommend changing lenses in the field while shooting in the area, since dust can be a problem and leave your digital sensor spotted. Autumn bring changing leaf colors.
Did You Know?
When people say that El Malpais lava country looks like a “moonscape” they aren’t far from the truth. Much of the moon is covered with basalt lava flows which form the “maria” or lunar seas. Astronauts trained on lava flows in preparation for walking on the moon.
El Malpais National Monument
Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day
Admission: No fees charged at El Malpais National Monument
Pets: Not allowed on any hiking trails or anywhere in the backcountry
Location: From I-40 east of Grants, take Exit 89 south on Highway 117 which forms the eastern boundary; take Exit 81, west of Grants south on Highway 53 which forms the northwestern boundary. NPS’s El Malpais Information Center is located 23 miles south of this exit.
Camping: NO camping facilities
Address: 123 East Roosevelt Avenue, Grants, NM 87020
Web site: nps.gov/elma
We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.