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.
Lava tube caves, with their fascinating geology and hidden ice formations can be found throughout El Malpais. Caving permits are free. With the proper equipment, you can enter volcanic underworlds. For more information, such as which caves are available for entry, permitting requirements, recommended equipment, maps to caves, etc., please refer to the caving brochure (linked above). Adequate equipment is recommended: helmet, gloves and knee pads, fleece, waterproof and good sources of light. Don't go alone. What part of delving into a lava tube alone in a wilderness area seems like a good idea?
Free caving permits are available at the El Malpais Visitor Center and seasonally at the El Malpais Information Center. An individual permit application may be completed in advance of your trip and brought to a park ranger at a visitor center to obtain a cave permit number. Groups of eleven or more need to call 505-876-2783 to reserve a date thirty days in advance. After making a reservation, a group permit application may be completed in advance of a trip and brought to a park ranger at a visitor center to obtain a valid cave permit number. If you are an experienced caver or group, be sure to read the cave decontamination information.
El Calderon Area
Junction Cave - Good for beginners
Xenolith Cave - Most challenging
Giant Ice Cave - A small floor of ice preserved at the back of this cave.
Big Tubes Area - Accessible by forest road (at least when the weather cooperates...not always accessible). The Skylight cave and Four Windows cave is in this area, noted for lots of large lava tubes, some collapsed, created lava bridges strong enough to sustain pine trees. The caves are a short hike across the lava flow. Big Skylight is impressive.
Four Windows Cave - Named based on the small openings in the roof near the main entrance. Moss garden, lichen, ice stalagmites in the winter months.
Each cave system has its own unique ecosystem. There is no way to know how bacteria and fungus from one cave system will affect others. All of your cave gear needs to be decontaminated between cave systems. Procedures for decontamination. Save the bats! There is no decontamination procedure effective enough to allow gear from a White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) affected state to be used in a non-WNS affected state.
Trails - Trails brochure
Armijo Canyon Trail (BLM)
This is a pleasant hike, but it is very sandy. The trail winds among piñon and juniper trees and will take you to a very nice homestead. This is a designated wilderness area and is not accessible by bicycle.
A foot path here is part of the National Trail stretching from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide.
This is a wonderful hike for the avid hiker or backpacker. Accessing Hole-in-the-Wall trailhead requires hiking several miles across open plains and lava flows. Hole-in-the-Wall is a 6700 acre kipuka that consists of ponderosa pine and open rangeland surrounded by lava. This is a designated wilderness area and is not accessible by bicycle.
Homestead Canyon Trail (BLM)
The trail is a closed road 3 ¾ miles long connecting to the Sand Canyon Road.
Lava Falls Trail (NPS)
Explore lava features and plant adaptations unique to the McCarty's flow, the youngest lava flow in El Malpais.
La Ventana Arch Trail (BLM)
The arch is visible from the road and the trail is only a few hundred feet long to a good view point. Along the way, you will be surrounded by dramatic sandstone cliff formations. The Trail is primitive.
Lobo Canyon Trail (BLM)
The trailhead is on the north side of the road and leads to a petroglyph area. The hike is approximately ¾ of a mile roundtrip.
Start from a trailhead located at the southern end of the Narrows Picnic Area, and follow a rock cairn trail or the edge of the cliff along the rim of sandstone. The views from the Narrows Rim are spectacular to say the least. Going to the far end a distance of 4 miles will result in excellent views of La Ventana Natural Arch.
Located on the east end of the Ranger Station, the Nature Trail loops approximately 1.25 miles along a mesa rim.
This ancient Puebloan trail follows a trade route between Zuni and Acoma pueblos. This small portion of the trail is a strenuous 7.5 mile one-way hike across four of the major lava flows in this region.
Mountain bikes are permitted on any of the backcountry roads that are not otherwise posted as closed, however, like motorized vehicles, mechanical bikes or equipment are prohibited from wilderness areas.
Lava tubes can be huge and this area is home to one of the longest systems in North America. A cairn route leads to Four Windows and Big Skylight Caves, and Caterpillar and Seven Bridges Collapses.
A line of 30 cinder cones that resulted from magma finding a weak spot in the Earth’s crust and forming a rift of volcanoes (similar to Albuquerque's rift volcanoes on the western horizon). The cinder cones formed 600,000-700,000 years ago.
Part of the West Malpais Wilderness, this is an area where younger lava went around older lava flows leaving a ponderosa pine parkland and grassland called a Kipuka (Hawaiian term).
La Ventana Natural Arch (BLM)
The second largest of New Mexico’s natural arches, La Ventana, at 135 feet, was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.
An easy drive on a gravel road leads to a ridge of sandstone above the lava flows. From here you are offered excellent vistas of the El Malpais lava flows and the surrounding countryside.
El Malpais, NCA offers free, primitive camping at the Joe Skeen Campground (11 miles south on 117, from exit 89 on I-40 and 2 miles south of the BLM Ranger Station). 10 campsites with picnic tables and a vault toilet. The National Park Service also allows primitive camping. A free permit is required, which you can procur at El Malpais Information Center on NM 53. There are campgrounds with more amenities near Grants and near El Morro. There are several campgrounds in the Mt. Taylor Ranger District.
The Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway is a rough, albeit scenic, drive along County Road 42. This route provides excellent views of the Chain of Craters and access to the Continental Divide Trail.
In the El Calderon Area, the NPS manages the Junction Cave and the Xenolith Cave. In the Big Tubes Area, the NPS manages the Big Skylight Cave and Giant Ice Cave. All of these caves are open for exploration with a permit. Nearby lava features nearby include Double Sinks, Bat Cave, and the El Calderon cinder cone.
Sometime between AD 1000 and 1300, the Dittert Site was built and occupied by the Ancestral Puebloans, a Chacoan outlier community. The ruin is a two-story masonry structure with 30-35 rooms and a Great kiva.
The Narrows Picnic Area has five picnic table sites (one of which is accessible via hard pack dirt by wheelchairs) and two vault toilets. At Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, a picnic table and a vault toilet are available. Each visitor center also has one picnic table, water, and restrooms. La Ventana Natural Arch also has a picnic table and two vault toilets.
There are numerous places for travel by horse or other stock animal. Contact staff at the visitor center for more information.
Special Permits & Reservations
El Malpais National Monument has various permits that are required for certain activities within the park boundaries.
Lava tube caves await your discovery at El Malpais. A FREE cave permit is required to visit all caves in El Malpais National Monument. Cave permits can be picked up at the El Malpais Visitor Center at exit 85 on I-40 in Grants, NM, 7 days per week from 8 am-5 pm. You can also get permits at the El Malpais Information Center on Hwy 53 (open seasonally) and El Morro National Monument Visitor Center. Click here for the caving page.
All groups and students interested in caving at El Malpais need a caving permit. Groups are asked to notify the park at least 30 days in advance of their visit. Please call 505-876-2783 for more information.
Special Use Permit
Individuals or groups who wish to use El Malpais National Monument for a special purpose or event require a Special Use Permit. A Special Use Permit must be applied for and approved by the Superintendent. If you have questions, you may contact the Special Use Permit Coordinator at 505-285-4641 ext. 25.
Click here to read a summary of the commercial filming regulations and fees required by law - this document will answer many questions you may have about commercial filming and photography.
This activity includes, but is not limited to, any filming or photography intended for commercial public viewing or advertising, such as commercial still photography, motion picture photography, television commercials, and/or commercial videotaping. Please allow at least twenty-one days for processing. If you have questions, you may contact the Commercial Filming Permit Coordinator at 505-285-4641 ext. 25.
This includes, but is not limited to, weddings, large group picnics, sporting events, church services, public spectator attractions, entertainment, ceremonies, 1st Amendment activities (fee is waived), or anyone wishing to use a public address system. Please allow at least twenty one days for processing (ten days for 1st Amendment activities). If you have questions, you may contact the Special Use Permits Coordinator at 505-285-4641 ext. 25.
Anyone wishing to conduct research at El Malpais National Monument must first submit an online application through the National Park Service Research Permit and Reporting System. We will then review the application and notify you of our decision. Contact the Research Permit Coordinator at 505-285-4641 or email us for more information.
Click here to see a current list of research needs at El Malpais.
New Mexico Nomad