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.
El Malpais National Monument
National Park Service
Grants, NM 87020
For information on the El Malpais Conservation Area, contact:
Bureau of Land Management
Grants, NM 87020
El Malpais Information Center: 505/287-3407
El Malpais is located in New Mexico, 70 miles west of Albuquerque and 10 miles south of Grants (800/748-2142).
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.
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.
Most common are elk, deer, turkey, golden eagles, coyotes, badgers, black bears, mountain lions, chipmunks, squirrels, swallows, thrushes, snakes, and bats.
Contact park office for information.
Pinon, aspen, blue spruce, Douglas fir, and juniper join hardy grasses.
Camping is primitive, but El Malpais officials will suggest some good sites.
Contact park office for information.
Free backcountry permits are required. They are available at the information center, from BLM, and by mail from either source.
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.
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.