Step into a different world as you hike across lava fields, climb up cinder cones and explore the caves around these badlands.
In this article...
We visited El Malpais in early May 2019, making it the 26th stop on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units in the US.
Unfortunately the weather was pretty miserable the entire time we were there, but we did manage to find a break in the rain for a couple of days to get out and explore.
El Malpais National Monument is one of the easiest National Park units to reach. It's situated on the south side of I-40 near Grants in western New Mexico.
While you can view the lava fields from the Visitor Center just off I-40, expect to drive around 20-miles south to the trailheads.
El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands", and is so-named for the vast volcanic lava fields that cover the area, with a myriad of volcanic features such as lava flows, lava tubes and cinder cones.
It is part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field whose eruptions formed the pāhoehoe and ʻaʻā lava flows that filled a large basin created by the Rio Grande Rift.
The area is still considered volcanically active and has even been studied for geothermal energy exploitation. However the area has been largely dormant for hundreds of thousands of years.
Today the lava flows still dominate the landscape. As well as hiking across the lava fields and around the cinder cones, caves offer an opportunity for visitors to explore beneath the surface.
Despite the barren terrain, closer inspection shows that there is life out there.
In fact, El Malpais National Monument is home to some of the oldest Douglas Fir trees on the planet. The same lava fields which have stunted their growth with poor growing conditions have also protected them from forest fires. Some specimens are now many centuries old!
Prickly Pear and Claret Cup Cacti can also be found hiding amongst the rocks. The exposed cinder slopes are home to Cinder phacelia (Phacelia serrata) which is found in only two places in the United States - El Malpais National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
National Monument Designation
There almost wasn't an El Malpais National Monument. In the 1940s, the area was one of the possible sites being considered by the Manhattan Project for testing the first atomic bomb.
Eventually, the area near White Sands National Park was chosen as the site for the Trinity nuclear test.
While it escaped the atomic bomb, the area was used as a bombing range for pilot training during World War II.
The area was handed to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after the war, and on December 31, 1987, it was designated as El Malpais National Monument by President Reagan.
It now spans 114,000 acres in the southeastern corner of the Colorado Plateau.
Although we were in the area for a week, staying at Joe Skeen campground, the weather was being distinctly uncooperative! Keeping a close eye on the forecast, we managed to find a couple of mornings where the rain eased off.
On the way back from El Morro National Monument, we stopped in at the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center which doubles up as the El Malpais Visitor Center.
Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center
Situated just off I-40, if you're passing through the area you absolutely must stop here! There's plenty of space for big RVs and oversize vehicles, and there's even a picnic area if you just want to break up your journey.
As well as a small shop and a ranger station, there's also a 60-seater theater with a large collection of topical videos! But the panoramic views from the Visitor Center out across the lava fields are breathtaking!
We also enjoyed the "Discover the Wonders" displays in the exhibit area - a collection of nine suggested tours of the area with photos, maps and exhibits. If you're in the area and wondering what to do, this stop is a must.
While there, we discussed our plans with the Ranger. We learned about the opportunity to go explore some of the caves in El Malpais. Unsure as to whether we wanted to or not, we filled out the form for a free permit just in case.
We also learned more about White Nose Syndrome (WNS). It is a disease that has killed millions of bats across the country. If any of your gear (clothing, cameras, etc) has ever been used in a WNS-affected state, it cannot be used in a cave in New Mexico. Fortunately we were clear, but bear that in mind!
The next morning we set out on the El Calderon Loop Trail. We parked at the trailhead and set out hiking.
Near the beginning of the trail we passed three caves.
The first two, Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave were open for us to explore if we wanted - using the caving permit we had picked up the previous day.
Junction Cave is considered relatively easy to access whereas Xenolith Cave is much more technical.
In the end we decided against descending into either cave. The rocky slopes down to each looked loose and a little slippery in the damp morning weather. We decided photographing them from the outside would be sufficient!
The third cave, Bat Cave, is closed to visitors since it is in active use by Brazilian free-tailed bats.
The trail continues up to the rim of El Calderon, and we followed it all the way around. Parts of the trail intersect with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) too.
According to the NPS, the trail is 3.8 miles - a little longer or a little shorter depending on exactly which detours or shortcuts you take. With our circumnavigation of the rim, we recorded it as 5.1 miles with a little over 450ft of ascent.
We had hoped to explore a little more, maybe to go and hike the area around Cerro Bandera, but the weather was not cooperating. Water-logged dirt roads and the impending threat of rain were enough to deter us.
The next morning, the weather looked better. Still overcast, but the forecast showed it should stay dry until early afternoon - and maybe even a few breaks in the clouds.
We wanted to get out and hike on the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Not only does it follow the route that many would have taken to reach El Morro National Monument, but nowadays it's also a stretch of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT).
We parked near the trailhead on highway NM-117, just a little south of Joe Skeen Campground where we were staying.
While the trail is only 7.5 miles long (one way), it leads hikers directly across the lava fields. The trail is rugged and tough going - climbing up rocks and stepping across large cracks.
The NPS recommends that if you want to hike the entire trail from one side to the other, then leave a vehicle at either side. We instead chose, like many others, to only hike a portion of the trail before turning around and coming back.
The jagged rocks are unforgiving - we were grateful for the thick-soled hiking boots we were wearing! Do NOT attempt this hike in flip-flops - your feet will thank me later.
While much of the landscape is barren, there were little splashes of color - particularly from the beautiful Claret Cup Cacti.
Paving or grading a trail across this terrain isn't very feasible, nor would it be appropriate to tarnish the landscape in such a way. Instead, the trail is marked by cairns - piles of rocks.
As we reached each cairn, we had to find the next cairn before we could proceed. Spotting a pile of rocks in this landscape wasn't always easy, but that's part of the fun!
The trail was great fun - vast sweeping views out across the lava fields. We had a lot of fun climbing and jumping over the rocks!
It is really remote out here, so come prepared. We only passed a handful of other people, including one through-hiker on the CDT!
We hiked a little under half way out on the trail, and stopped for lunch after 2.9 miles.
After lunch, we turned around and headed back. In total, we hiked just under 6 miles in 4 hours, including a leisurely stop for lunch. The weather held up and we really enjoyed the hike - it's such an unusual trail!
Sandstone Bluffs Overlook
Our final stop of the day was the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, just north of our campground.
This viewing point has pit toilets and picnic tables, but we came for the views!
The pale yellow Dakota Sandstone of the bluff is a stark contrast to the dark lava flows that surround it. Further north is Mount Taylor - a dormant stratovolcano and the highest point in the San Mateo Mountains, named after President Zachary Taylor in 1849.
We spent a little while taking photos and soaking in the views.
We've driven along the stretch of I-40 past Grants, NM several times before and had no idea what was hidden just here.
El Malpais National Monument is a rugged but stunning landscape. If you're passing through the area, be sure to stop at the fantastic Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center along I-40 and enjoy the panoramic views out across the lava fields. And who knows, maybe it'll be enough to tempt you to explore a little more!
If you have a little more time, then stop in and visit El Morro National Monument too - it only takes a few hours to explore!
We loved our time here, and there are more areas of El Malpais National Monument that we didn't get a chance to explore. We'll be back for sure!
El Malpais National Monument was also the final stop for us in Season 2 as we followed Route 66 from Los Angeles, CA up towards Albuquerque, NM.
But stay tuned, because Season 3 will be even bigger and better, as we spend the summer in Colorado!
If you enjoyed this blog post and still want to learn more, visit our dedicated El Malpais National Monument page with a map and links to lots more useful resources!
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