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El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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

Little-Known Fact: Many landscape features in the volcanic El Malpais bear Hawaiian names because early scientific knowledge of volcanoes was developed in the Hawaiian islands.

In the eerie coolness of El Malpais’ Junction Cave, a 3,000-foot-long tube, our flashlights break a dim trail in the dark, while above us the sharp desert wind cuts across grass-covered basalt. Picking our way carefully over the rubble, we find respite from the bright April sun and the roar of the wind.

For those who prefer their hiking above ground, 100,000 acres of land are available for exploration. We choose one of the few marked trails, the 7-plus-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail, our feet following in the footsteps of the ancients who traded between pueblos.

Unforgiving black rock slices the soles of our boots while water sloshes in our packs. Soon we find campsites shaded by pinon and juniper, and sit and stare in awe of this country’s raw spirit.

A mere million years ago the 376,000-acre El Malpais valley typified the buff yellow and faded ruby sandstone majesty of the lower Colorado Plateau. Then the Earth’s molten core heaved through a thin spot in the dusty crust and surged rapidly across the surface, cooling and hardening on top while liquid fire flowed underneath.

Eventually the eruption slowed and the river of lava eased to a stop, leaving a series of tubes with flat bottoms and arched ceilings. Over the centuries, subsequent eruptions laid blankets of lava over the original El Calderon Flow. Wind brought in debris that helped hardy grasses and dryland trees take root on the surface.

Early Indians probably witnessed the last eruption about 3,000 years ago because their legends speak of “rivers of fire rock.” When the first Europeans arrived searching for riches, thriving pueblos existed at nearby Zuni and Acoma. The Spanish found nothing to appreciate about this ragged New Mexico country, dubbed it El Malpais (“The badlands”) and moved on.

In 1987, Congress established El Malpais National Conservation Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and El Malpais National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, to conserve and protect the geological and archaeological wonders of the New Mexico “Badlands.”

El Malpais offers magnificent contrasts: high red bluffs that overlook sweeping lava flows, dry heat simmering above caves of perpetual ice, groves of aspen near lava tubes that extend for almost 17 miles, and delicate wind-sculpted sandstone standing island-like in rugged lakes of frozen black fire.

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