When driving through Grants, on Interstate 40, the craggy basalt terrain cascades south to the horizon. The highway runs along the northern boundary of the Grants Lava Flow, which is part of the El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area. It is visually daunting. If Mordor was real, this is what I imagine it would look like. Lord of the Rings reference for any non-geeks reading. Mordor was home to the evil wizard.
El Malpais, pronounced el-mal-pie-EES, translates to "the badlands" in Spanish, which is pretty much what the Spanish conquistadors called all treacherous or challenging terrain. They couldn’t cross the lava field with horses and livestock. Walking is strenuous. Horses and cattle are a no-go. They preferred to circumvent the lava flows on the north or south.
The region was protected by law in December, 1987 to preserve the geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the lava flows. The National Conservation Area extends out and circumvents the National Monument on all sides except the north. I-40 serves as the northern boundary. Much of the National Conservation Area has been designated Wilderness Area.
Though it is on a major highway, there normally isn’t much company when exploring El Malpais. Cell phone reception is minimal to non-existent. I wouldn’t recommend this area for young children or dogs. There are too many hazards, it is too hot in the summer. The lava flows would shred dog paws. However, for outdoor enthusiasts with a fondness for backcountry exploration, caving and a reprieve from human interaction, El Malpais is ideal. Be prepared. There are minimal amenities or facilities.
Protection of the area is shared, with 262,000 acres managed by the BLM and 114,000 acres dedicated to the National Monument, which is managed by the National Park Service. The area encompasses dramatic sandstone cliffs, canyons, La Ventana Natural Arch, the Chain of Craters Back Country Byway, Narrows Picnic Area, Chacoan Archeological Site, Perpetual Ice Caves, and other prominent natural and cultural resources. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail passes through the El Malpais. There is one extended trail (Zuni-Acoma Trail), three short loop trails, and several overlooks.
The jagged, desolate landscape of El Malais is a volcanologist’s playground. The landscape was sculpted by a million years of ongoing volcanic activity. The field of lava was generated by numerous volcanoes and several lava flows, active until about 800 years ago, which is to say they haven’t been napping for long.
There are five layers of lava from McCartys Crater, Bandera Crater, Cerro Hoya, El Calderon, and Twin Craters, with a variety of volcanoes and volcanic features represented within the flows. McCartys crater, a shield volcano visible from Highway 117, is one of the youngest volcanic features in the continental United States. It erupted 500-1000 years ago, an event referenced in both Acoma and Zuni oral history. Acoma lore refers to lava flows that inundated the cultivated fields of their ancestors. If so, this would place the McCartys flow as occurring between 700 – 1540 AD.
The Grants lava flow is part of the Bandera-Zuni lava flows, which includes Mount Taylor and Bandera crater. Mt. Taylor, towering on the northern horizon, is a large stratovolcano. It created the oldest lava flows in the area, 1.5-3.3 million years old. Bandera is one of the best, and most accessible, examples of a cinder crater. The lava tubes cascading from Bandera are some of the longest in North America. Neither Mount Taylor or Bandera are part of the Monument or Conservation area, but they are part of a larger volcanic picture prevalent in northwestern New Mexico.
The Zuni-Bandera field covers more than 1500 square miles. It lies on the southeastern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, at the intersection of the Rio Grande Basin and the Jemez alignment. This is a “transition zone,” an area where the thickness of the earth’s crust varies dramatically. The Jemez lineament is a very deep fault, penetrating deep through the crust and upper mantle. It runs north by northeast and includes the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, the Mt. Taylor volcanic field, and the Jemez volcanic field. The western portion of the region falls within the elongated dome called the Zuni Uplift. The eastern half lies within the Acoma Embayment. The El Malpais is the core of the Mount Taylor volcanic region, which is one of the most significant volcanic areas in the United States.
In 1970, researchers published a lengthy analysis of lava tubes in New Mexico, noting their apparent similarities to formations visible on the Moon. Moonscape? Not surprising. Many areas of New Mexico have an off-world ambience. The lava flows resemble Hawaii’s volcanic landscapes. Due to the amount of volcanic study in Hawaii, many of the unique landscape features in El Malpais have Hawaiian names. Smooth, ropy-textured lavas are called pahoehoe, pronounced pah-HOY-hoy. Sharp, jagged lavas, that shred all but the sturdiest hiking boots, are a'a, pronounced AH-ah.
The Pahoehoe and A'a' lava flows in the El Malpais filled a large basin created by the Rio Grande Rift, between the high mesas of the Acoma Pueblo to the east, Mt. Taylor to the north, and the Zuni Mountains to the northwest. Vents associated with the major lava flows include Bandera Crater, El Calderon, and numerous other cinder cones. There are more than 25 old cinder cones that follow a roughly north-south trajectory along a fault line on the west side of the monument. This feature is called the Chain of Craters.
Kipukas are undisturbed areas that lava flows surrounded but did not cover. These ecological islands of vegetation create islands of native plant and animal communities. Some of the oldest Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir trees on earth can be found on these ecological islands. Study of the flora and fauna that thrives in the kipukas will yield bench-mark information for restoring disturbed portions of El Malpais.
Water is a precious commodity in the Southwest. Drought is common, including mega-droughts. Water is critical in the El Malpais, but it is more abundant than you might expect. Annual precipitation averages 10 inches. Localized thunderstorms are more common in the summer months, July - August. The lava beds retain rainfall better than the surrounding land, because the escaping air in lava creates pores in volcanic rock. Water permeates the lava and gets trapped beneath the basalt or in the lava tubes. The lava acts as an insulated container, reducing evaporation and keeping the temperature very low, like Mother Nature’s Igloo cooler. Some of the moisture cools and becomes crystalline ice.
There are several ice caves in the monument. Entry requires checking in with the rangers, procuring a free caving permit, good shoes and a willingness to hike. For easier access, there is also an ice cave that is next door to the El Malpais on private land. The entrance is on Hwy 53, approximately 25 miles south of Grants. There is a nominal fee, with two short, easy trails. One trail leads to the ice caves (less than a mile round trip) and the other leads to av overlook of Bandera Crater. It is an imposing cinder cone volcano. Flanked by ten or more smaller cinder cones, the crater is 1800 feet across and 700 feet deep. Two other landmarks within the El Malpais are nearby, El Calderon and Twin Craters.
The area around El Malpais was used for resources, settlement, and travel by Oasisamerica cultures, Native Americans, and Spanish colonial and pioneer exploration. There are several archaeological sites in the park.
People have lived on the periphery of the lava fields for at least a thousand years, drawing upon mineral resources, lichen for dye and bat guano for fertilizer. The area is significant to both Acoma and Zuni pueblos. They flank El Malpais on the east and west. Both pueblos have been around for a very, very (add a couple more of those) long time. How long? I don’t know. That seems to be a point of ongoing debate and contention. One thousand years at least…possibly significantly longer. The Zuni-Acoma Trail traverses the Malpais. The rock cairns created centuries ago still mark the route. Rock cairns are a series of rock piles used to trace a route across land. They are very common on lava landscapes, where creating a traditional trail or footpath is impossible due to the extreme terrain. Please don’t remove stones or add to them.
The region's first dwellers, meaning the first people who left stuff behind that we can identify with certainty as human crafted, showed up during the Paleo-Indian Period (10,000-5,500 B.C.). These folks relied on hunting and left stone and bone tools behind. At some point during the Archaic Period (5500 B.C.-400 A.D.), the people living around the El Malpais developed agriculture, using the surrounding mesa tops and valleys to cultivate seasonal crops. They occupied shelters beneath the overhangs of Cebolleta Mesa, which defines the eastern edge of the lava flow. This area is considered a traditional point of contact between the Mogollon, Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi), Sinagua and Patayan cultures. Early human occupation peaked between 950 and 1350, coinciding with the growth and expansion of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. At the height of their power, El Malpais was on the fringe of a political and economic system centered in Chaco Canyon 80 miles north.
The Ancestral Puebloan culture that emerged in the Four Corners area between 400 - 1350 AD represents the transformation of the indigenous people from nomadic hunters and gatherers to cultivators and the builders of the first apartment complexes in North America. The process evolved slowly. The Ancestral Puebloans settled in the canyons and on the mesas, forming numerous villages and hamlets. Cave shelters were supplanted by pithouses around 800 AD. By around 950 AD, during the Cebolleta phase, more communities cropped up in the canyons, with fewer villages on mesa tops. Small communities consolidated into larger population centers; the ancient world’s urbanization trend, with a corresponding boom in cultural evolution and innovation. Agriculture was central to the economy. Chaco was “the capital.” The buildings at Chaco were the largest in North America until the 1800s. Often people don’t realize that Pueblo Bonito was not THE Pueblo. That was city hall or, perhaps the ancient version of D.C., with concentrated administration, commerce, power and wealth housed there. The communities up and down the canyons were the neighborhoods.
The power and influence of the Ancestral Puebloans grew for 400 years, but the late 1200s was devastating, with Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon abandoned by the 1300s. Varies studies have confirmed a prolonged drought, which may have provoked a climatological refugee crisis. People began to migrate from Mesa Verde and Chaco in small family groups. They settled in canyons, near streams and rivers and on top of mesas throughout the Four Corners and Rio Grande regions. Additionally, many of the outlier communities continued beyond Chaco’s collapse. They adapted and survived.
The Dittert Site in El Malpais is one of more than 60 sites in the Armijo Canyon area. For some inexplicable reason, the BLM website is down and all of the brochures are currently inaccessible, including a great essay about the Dittert Site. It was named after Alfred "Ed" Dittert Jr. who excavated it between 1947 and 1949. The ruin is an L-shaped masonry structure that was originally two stories high and consisted of 30-35 rooms and a circular room. All the rooms were built close together, with the kiva incorporated into the building. The walls are made of compound masonry with "pecked" sandstone (worked by hand so the rocks are uniform). It may have been a Chacoan Outlier. The community was abandoned by the mid-1300s. They moved from the lava fields to Acoma mesa, establishing a new homeland.
In 1540 Coronado's expedition encountered two major pueblos bordering the El Malpais, Zuni and Acoma. Acoma and Zuni had forged a trail through the area, connecting the two pueblos and forming one of the oldest highways in the region, but it wasn’t livestock friendly. Horses couldn’t negotiate the lava without lacerating hooves and fetlocks. The Spaniards preferred to avoid it. Most trails and, later, roads skirt the lava flows.
When New Mexico became part of the United States in 1848, Anglo explorers perceived El Malpais as little more than a hindrance to travel. They did not move into El Malpais in significant numbers until the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Homesteaders and sheepherders, hoping to escape the flood of immigration to other parts of the West, attempted to eke out an existence near the lava fields. The Vanishing Treasures program administers the Garrett Homestead
AREAS & ACTIVITIES
In El Malpais many trails are marked with cairns. There is no well-defined path visible on the landscape. The only maintained trail is the strenuous 7 mile (one way) Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient Indian route that crosses four of the major lava flows between NM 117 and NM 53. The rock is sharp and brittle. Walking off trail can be hazardous. The lava has fissures that are several feet deep and can be unstable and brittle.
Approximately 30 miles of the Continental Divide Trail are within the El Malpais. The CDT enters the Conservation Area and winds through the Chain of Craters, a 20 mile long string of cinder cones formed when an underground lava flow found a fissure at the surface. The largest cone, Cerro Alto, is 8,460 feet.
There are three other entry points for exploring the lava. The most interesting, though hardest to access, is the Big Tubes area, near the western edge of the lava flow. There are several huge lava caves, both intact and partially collapsed. The caves formed when a solidified rock crust congealed over flowing currents of lava underneath. When the liquid lava drained away, an empty tunnel remained, like a long rock straw. Many of them are several miles long and contain ice all year.
Along NM 53, the El Calderon region is toured via a 3 mile loop trail. Forested with year-round exploration possible, this area includes Junction Cave, Double Sinks, El Calderon cinder cone, lava flows and sandstone formations.
Along NM 117, the Lava Falls region includes some of the most recent flows in the monument, with a variety of different volcanic features. Explore lava features and plant adaptations unique to McCartys flow, the most recent lava flow. One other section of the flow is privately owned; the Bandera Crater region in the northwest. There is a large ice cave, set in thick lava deposits at the foot of Bandera, a symmetric, cinder cone with a crater over 700 feet deep.
The lava is bordered in the east by a long sandstone escarpment, with cliffs up to 400 feet high. Rock climbing is NOT allowed. NM 117 runs along the base for 15 miles, past one side road to the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, an excellent viewpoint both of the cliffs to the east and the lava to the west. One well-known natural landmark along the highway is La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest in New Mexico, which has formed in a bend in the sandstone cliffs that flank the lava to the east. It is clearly visible just west of the road, about 20 miles south of I-40. A short trail leads directly underneath. La Ventana was eroded from sandstone that dates back to the age of dinosaurs.
East of NM 117 lie some 62,000 acres of forested rimrock country, the Cebolla Wilderness (BLM) is rich in prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.
West Malpais Wilderness (BLM) includes an area where lava surrounded and isolated a large stand of Ponderosa Pines, leaving an area with developed soils and habitat. This ponderosa pine island is known as Hole-in-the-Wall.
El Malpais has several lava tube caves open to the public (unguided). A caving permit is required, but they are free, available at NPS-staffed facilities. There is only one cave suitable for beginners or children. Like most of the El Malpais, it is too hazardous for young children and dogs.
There are currently four caves accessible by permit: Junction and Xenolith caves in the El Calderon area, and Big Skylight and Giant Ice caves in the Big Tubes area.
New Mexico Nomad