Albuquerque, NM: El Malpais Big Tubes

Be prepared, you might spend all day exploring tubes and cave entrances in this cairn-laden route in El Malpais National Monument's Bandara Lava Flow.
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Be prepared, you might spend all day exploring tubes and cave entrances in this cairn-laden route in El Malpais National Monument's Bandara Lava Flow.

Few trails exist in the rugged volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument. Though cairns (and occasional signs) mark the highlights of this route, pick up a brochure at the trailhead, be prepared to practice route-finding skills, and pay attention to trailside features to avoid getting lost. If you plan to venture into any of the caves, be careful to avoid damaging microclimate mosses near the cave entrances and bring 3 sources of light.
This loop begins heading west from the Big Tubes Trailhead 0.3 miles to a junction that marks the beginning of the main cave and collapse area. There are three main branches of the trail and this route heads out-and-back on the middle branch and then makes a clockwise loop connecting the north and south branches with a southbound 0.5-mile cross-country trek.
Four Windows (on the middle branch) is the most easily explored of Big Tubes’ cave entrances, but there are easy-access points to Big Skylight (near the trail junction), Catepillar Collapse (on the north branch), Seven Bridges Collapse (on the south branch) and many of the smaller trenches flanking this route.
-Mapped by Christina Frain

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 3.6

Waypoints

MAL001

Location: 34.94438, -108.1069

Just past the signs in the toilet-equipped parking area, start following rock cairns, man-made rock piles that mark much of this route.

MAL002

Location: 34.94494, -108.1046

The sharp edges of the lava rocks can tear through shoes, clothes--and dog's feet. Wear rugged boots and leave your dogs at home if you're tackling this hike.

MAL003

Location: 34.9450597, -108.1015742

About 0.3 miles west of the trailhead, turn left at this signed junction toward Four Windows Cave.

MAL004

Location: 34.94574, -108.1013

This mapped route bears right and crosses a natural bridge at this signed junction. This 0.4-mile out-and-back leg takes you to the far side of this route's mapped loop, so if you'd like to shave time and distance from this route, continue north at this signed junction instead. You'll still pass Four Windows Cave on the cross-country section of this route.

MAL005

Location: 34.9455654, -108.0988115

Follow the edge of the collapse to the left. Look for a cairn and sign marking the easiest path to the 50-foot entrance of Four Windows Cave. Small "windows" above the cave entrance create micro climates of delicate green mosses in the damp overhang. After exploring Four Windows, backtrack from here to the trail junction Near Big Skylight's entrance.

MAL006

Location: 34.9460359, -108.1011128

After the detour to Four Windows Cave, turn right to follow the trail along the south side of this large collapse. Within 100 yards, you'll hit this spot offering relatively easy-access to the Big Skylight Cave entrance. Large blocks from the cave ceiling make this a more difficult cave to penetrate. Continue north from here 0.2 miles to Caterpillar Collapse.

MAL007

Location: 34.94871, -108.0989

There's a sign marking the boulder-filled depression of Caterpillar Collapse that formed when a tube ceiling gave way. This route follows the edge of the collapse south from this point.

MAL008

Location: 34.94738, -108.0991

Reaching the southern end of the Caterpillar Collapse, you'll begin following cairns south toward Four Windows and eventually Seven Bridges. It is easy to loose the trail, be prepared to do a little extra walking as you pick your way across the lava fields.

MAL009

Location: 34.94584, -108.0986

The southbound leg of this loop skirts Four Windows. If you already visited the cave continue heading south along the cairn-marked edge of the collapse. If you skipped the out-and-back earlier, turn right, cross the natural bridge and explore the cave before continuing.

MAL010

Location: 34.94263, -108.0976

This loop's southernmost point is the edge of a large collapse called Seven Bridges--a series of natural bridges span the trench and give the feature its name. This point is also the end of the southern branch trail, turn right and follow cairns along Seven Bridges back toward the end of this route's 1-mile loop. The trail to the parking area turns left 0.25 miles from this point.

Dawn

Location: 34.9448047, -108.1047177

Dawn is the best time for a summer hike in any of the lava fields.

Lava Rocks

Location: 34.9450861, -108.1045246

If possible, wear high top boots. The entire trail is covered with sharp, unstable lava rocks. Dogs are not recommended on this trail unless they have heavy-duty booties.

Sign

Location: 34.9450333, -108.1016064

Cairn

Location: 34.9456138, -108.0997664

The trail is marked by cairns, but they can be difficult to spot in this rocky terrain.

Four Windows

Location: 34.9456973, -108.1013274

Moss

Location: 34.9460183, -108.0987096

Climb down into the cave to find a large patch of moss growing below the windows or holes in the cave roof.

Moss

Location: 34.9459831, -108.0988383

Climb down into the cave to find a large patch of moss growing below the "windows" or holes in the cave roof. Climb around it to go deeper into the cave.

Scrambling

Location: 34.9459655, -108.0988061

Climbing into any of the caves or collapses requires scrambling over large boulders.

Bat

Location: 34.9460007, -108.09879

Though the caves in this area are usually open, some caves in Malpais are closed due to bat migrations and breeding seasons. Don't touch or handle any bats you encounter in the caves.

Big Skylight Cave

Location: 34.9460623, -108.1010914

The entrance to Big Skylight Cave is less accessible than Four Windows, but also hosts mossy microclimates.

Caterpillar Collapse

Location: 34.9487093, -108.0988383

This sign marks Caterpillar Collapse, so named because of its rounded and bulging shape.

Cactus Bloom

Location: 34.947144, -108.0984414

Cactus and other plants grow atop the lava, as you wander, look for colorful blooms like this one.

Cactus Bloom

Location: 34.9465899, -108.0982161

Yellow flowers sprouting from a prickly pear cactus.

Collapse Edge

Location: 34.9449102, -108.0985916

For much of the hike, you walk along the edges of lava tubs collapses.

Seven Bridges Sign

Location: 34.94267, -108.0976

The area near the sign contains 7 natural bridges.

Seven Bridges

Location: 34.9433887, -108.0994821