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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Frozen fire shaped by cataclysmic forces and the footsteps of the ancient ones.

by: Buck Tilton

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Contact Information:

El Malpais National Monument National Park Service Box 939 Grants, NM 87020 505/285-4641 For information on the El Malpais Conservation Area, contact: Bureau of Land Management Box 846 Grants, NM 87020 505/285-5406.

El Malpais Information Center: 505/287-3407

Location: El Malpais is located in New Mexico, 70 miles west of Albuquerque and 10 miles south of Grants (800/748-2142).

Getting There: From Albuquerque, head west on I-40 to Grants. Drive 16 miles south on NM 53, then turn left and drive one and a half miles into the monument to the Zuni-Acoma trailhead. Signs mark the trailhead. Or turn off I-40 before Grants, onto NM 117, to find the visitor center, which is open all year.

Seasonal Information: The summer heat, although tempered by an average altitude of 7,000 feet, can be intense as it rises from the black lava in suffocating waves. In summer, temperatures get up to 90 degrees F. Mid-July through August brings monsoon rains.

Winter means freezing temperatures and snowfall, making spring and fall prime times to visit. In winter, temperatures are generally in the 30s. Snow, which falls from November through February, makes County Road 42 muddy and therefore impassable.

Wildlife: Most common are elk, deer, turkey, golden eagles, coyotes, badgers, black bears, mountain lions, chipmunks, squirrels, swallows, thrushes, snakes, and bats.

Insects: Contact park office for information.

Plant Life: Pinon, aspen, blue spruce, Douglas fir, and juniper join hardy grasses.

Facilities: Camping is primitive, but El Malpais officials will suggest some good sites.

Parking: Contact park office for information.

Permits: Free backcountry permits are required. They are available at the information center, from BLM, and by mail from either source.

Policies: El Malpais demands that you tread lightly, for it ranks among the youngest and most fragile of America's landforms. That means no campfires or handling of artifacts.

Hunting and trapping are permitted in the conservation area.


  • El Malpais provides no water, so bring lots. Carry one gallon of water per person per day.
  • Bring good shoes for walking on lava. Leather work gloves are also helpful on lava and in caves. Falls on lava can cause nasty cuts and abrasions.
  • Wear a hat and sunblock.
  • Watch for rattlesnakes at the base of lava.
  • The Park Service encourages "at your own risk" exploration in the caves.
  • El Malpais is home to poisonous rattlesnakes and scorpions, although they are seldom seen. Nonpoisonous bullsnakes sometimes act like rattlesnakes.
  • Avoid cactus spines and the sharp-edged leaves of yucca.

Leave No Trace:

  • Use fire rings.
  • Bring your own wood; there is no wood gathering.
  • Respect private land.
  • All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: The NPS Information Center and BLM Ranger Center sell the El Malpais Recreation Guide Map for $4. USGS topographic maps "Arossa Ranch" and "Los Pilares" cover the region.

Other Trip Options:

  • Bluewater Lake State Park (505/876-2391) is 30 miles west (off Interstate 40, exit 63).
  • There is also the Mining Museum (505/287-4802) in Grants ~ the only uranium mining museum in the world. The museum provides a remarkably accurate re-creation of an actual mine.
  • To find out about trails in the area, call Mt. Taylor Ranger District at 505/287-8833.

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Pat in NM
Mar 05, 2009

Junction Cave might be 300 feet long, but not 3000 feet. I've been there. There are some bats in this tube, and many more in another, nearby tube closed to the public.


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