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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
- Distance: 3.6
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.
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.
Location: 34.9450597, -108.1015742
About 0.3 miles west of the trailhead, turn left at this signed junction toward Four Windows Cave.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Location: 34.9448047, -108.1047177
Dawn is the best time for a summer hike in any of the lava fields.
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.
Location: 34.9450333, -108.1016064
Location: 34.9456138, -108.0997664
The trail is marked by cairns, but they can be difficult to spot in this rocky terrain.
Location: 34.9456973, -108.1013274
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.
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.
Location: 34.9459655, -108.0988061
Climbing into any of the caves or collapses requires scrambling over large boulders.
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.
Location: 34.9487093, -108.0988383
This sign marks Caterpillar Collapse, so named because of its rounded and bulging shape.
Location: 34.947144, -108.0984414
Cactus and other plants grow atop the lava, as you wander, look for colorful blooms like this one.
Location: 34.9465899, -108.0982161
Yellow flowers sprouting from a prickly pear cactus.
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.
Location: 34.9433887, -108.0994821