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Backpacker Magazine – June 1999

BLM Hiking: Land of Opportunity

If you look beyond the occasional cow, you'll find the BLM has lots of ruggedly beautiful land to offer. No mining, no oil rigs, just lots of solitude.

by: Matt Purdue

El Malpais National

Conservation Area, New Mexico

El Malpais (Spanish for "the badlands") brings to mind a famous Mae West line, slightly altered: When it's good, it's very good, but when it's bad, this lava-and-sandstone region is even better.

Stretching across 263,000 acres of western New Mexico, El Malpais is arguably the most diverse public terrain in the Lower 48. The National Conservation Area (the less popular big brother of the adjacent El Malpais National Monument, run by the National Park Service) hides three separate and unique treasures. At 62,000 acres, the Cebolla Wilderness is the largest tract, replete with remote rimrock country, a 165-foot-high natural arch, and a rich Native American presence, both past and present. Residents of the nearby Acoma and Zui pueblos gather herbs and medicines here as they have for thousands of years. West Malpais Wilderness is home to the area's largest kipuka, a Hawaiian word for an island of vegetation encircled by a sea of black, jagged lava. Chain of Craters Wilderness Study Area is a 15,000-acre region boasting dozens of volcanic cinder cones, some reaching heights of up to 10 stories, set amid cool stands of piqon-juniper and ponderosa pine. The WSA is bisected by a stretch of the Continental Divide Trail.

Location: About 100 miles west of Albuquerque. To reach Cebolla Wilderness and West El Malpais, take I-40 west to NM 117 south. Homestead and Armijo Canyons, off County 41, are good launching points into Cebolla. Continue on NM 117 to dirt County 42 north to reach West El Malpais. Chain of Craters is south of Grants via NM 53 and County 42.

Hiking it: If your time is limited, head straight for Cebolla Wilderness. The region east of 16-story La Ventana natural arch is a breathtaking land of deep arroyos, forested mesas, and stunning petroglyphs, but no trails. Farther south in Armijo Canyon, near a Chacoan site that dates back to the 1200s, an unmarked path leads east to a spring and ascends a broad mesa separating Armijo and Homestead Canyons, making for a great 10-mile loop hike. Hiking into and out of Cebolla's narrow canyons can be strenuous, but at least the sandstone won't shred your boots (and skin) like West El Malpais' lava flows will. Be cautious when walking on the rough, ankle-twisting pahoehoe lava flows, and use a hiking staff. Chain of Craters and its rounded cinder cones are a bit easier on the feet. Regional elevations range between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, so be prepared for freezing weather in winter. Summers can be scorching. Carry all the water you'll need.

Resources: BLM, 435 Montano Rd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87101; (505) 761-8700. Call about appropriate topo maps for your specific trip, as well as detailed directions. Or contact the BLM visitor center on NM 117, 9 miles south of Grants: (505) 240-0300.

Silver Peak Wilderness Study Area, Nevada

In the parched alkali lowlands where summer temperatures commonly soar above 100ºF, the Silver Peak range is a naturally air-conditioned sky island that probably sees fewer visitors than Gilligan's Island ever did. Access to the high country is via a mazelike canyon with volcanic walls painted in shades of white, pink, and green. If you're looking for a different palette, visit nearby Silver Peak Caldera, a 4-by-8-mile collapsed magma chamber that's been repaved with lava flows and sprinkled with pieces of obsidian and petrified wood. The 34,000-acre WSA is topped by Piper Peak, a 3-mile-long plateau that reaches 9,450 feet toward the sky and offers dizzying views of the White Mountains and Sierra Nevada to the west.

Below the ridgelines lie cool, brushy stands of pion-juniper and at least seven year-round water sources. This ecosystem supports one of the largest desert bighorn herds in the region, an endangered species of spotted bat, and groups of feral horses.

Location: Near the Nevada-California border midway between Las Vegas and Reno. From US 95 just north of Goldfield, take Silver Peak Road west about 50 miles to Fish Lake Valley on the west side of the range. Hike into the WSA through Icehouse Canyon northeast of the village of Dyer.

Hiking it: Although topos might show springs and creeklets, don't count on them. Seeps have a way of drying up and getting fouled by livestock just when you need them most. In other words, carry all the water you'll need. Winter snows can blanket the Silver Peak Range, and flatlanders can't discount the threat of altitude sickness. There are no trails in the WSA, so route-finding and bushwhacking experience are required, and watch your ankles on the uneven volcanic terrain.

Resources: BLM, Building 102, Military Circle, Tonopah, NV 89049; (775) 482-7800. Ask for the 1:100,000-scale BLM maps Goldfield and Benton Range. The BLM recommendation to grant wilderness designation to only 56 of Nevada's 110 WSAs excludes Silver Peak. Fight for Nevada's backcountry with the Friends of Nevada Wilderness (

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