Valley of Fires Recreation Area is an interesting stop on US-380 for geology buffs and birdwatchers. Located just four miles west of Carrizozo, Valley of Fires is one of the youngest lava flows in the continental United States, the second youngest in New Mexico behind the McCartys flow in the El Malpais National Monument.
There were probably humans in the area when the volcanic vents were last active, because archaeological evidence of humans in the Tularosa Basin goes back over 12,000 years. The Mogollon left more than 20,000 images on basalt boulders on the east side of the basin. More recently, the Mescalero Apache used lava rocks as grinding stones. They also gleaned vegetation in the Malpais, like sotol, prickly pears, and yucca, using them as sources of both fibers and food.
Valley of Fires
Volcanic vents on Little Black Peak starting oozing lava about 5,000 years ago, filling the northern end of the Tularosa Valley with streams of molten rock for about 30 years. The volcanic field is associated with the Rio Grande Rift, a part of the Earth’s crust that is being gradually pulled apart. This creates faults, which provide paths for magma to reach the Earth’s surface. Whereas most of the volcanic activity has been steady seepage, the last eruption, about 1,500-2,000 years ago, was more explosive.
In total, the Carrizozo Malpais lava flow is 4-6 miles wide, 44-miles long, and approximately 160-feet thick, covering 125 square miles of the Tularosa Basin. The view from the top of Sierra Blanca is outstanding on a clear day. Valley of Fires lava flows extend from the north end of the Tularosa Basin to 14 miles north of the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park. Dark and light. The geologic contrast is striking enough, and large enough, to be seen from space.
Valley of Fires is still an interesting geologic Petrie dish. There are lava caves, pressure ridges, and collapsed gas bubbles. Additionally, there are two types of lava, rough blocks of ‘A’ā (pronounced “ah-ah”) and ropy flows of pahoehoe (pronounced pah-hoh-ey-hoh-ey)]. Please keep in mind, this area is not as well-developed for hikers as other lava fields, like the El Malpais National Monument near Grants, where hikers can pick a marked trail above ground or hike inside a lava tube. There are lava tubes, but there aren’t as many and they are smaller and more fragile. If you choose to go trail blazing, let someone know your plans.
Valley of Fires is in a transition zone between the Chihuahuan Desert and grasslands. Critters in the area include bats, roadrunners, quail, foxes, cottontails, mule deer, oryx, barberry sheep, snakes, tarantulas, and a few varieties of lizard. The area is also a high desert delight for birdwatchers, home to great horned owls, burrowing owls, turkey vultures, hawks, gnat catchers, cactus wrens, sparrows and golden eagles. You are more likely to see snakes from spring through late fall and the tarantulas usually go on their mating march in September.
Though the cascading lava flows initially look like a sea of buckled stone, the short nature trail showcases a surprising variety of plant life, including cane cholla, juniper, mesquite, creosote, sage and sumac. When New Mexico gets rain, the area is greener than many well-known lava fields in the American West, like Hell’s Half Acre in Idaho or Lunar Crater in Nevada.
P.O. Box 871
Carrizozo, NM 88301
Directions: Four miles west of the Town of Carrizozo on US 380.
- Day Use – one person in vehicle, $3.00.
- Day Use – two or more in vehicle, $5.00.
- Tent Camping – $7.00
- RV Camping (13 sites)
- with water & electric, $18.00.
- without water & electric, $12.00.
- dump Fee – $15.00
- Group Shelter – group use, $25.00.
- Tour Bus – 15 or more persons on board, $15.00.
- America The Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Passes are sold here.
The recreation area is on a ridge of sandstone overlooking the lava fields. There are 19 RV campsites and 6 tent camping sites with picnic shelters, tables, grills, and potable water at each site. RV electric hookups are available at 14 sites. Two sites are wheelchair accessible. The full facility bathroom is fully accessible and has a tidy shower area. Vault toilets are available throughout the park. Quiet hours from 10 PM – 7 AM. There are two large day-use shelters available for reservation. No hunting. No Off-Highway-Vehicle riding.
The campsites are exposed to the elements, which means it can be a slow broil during the summer and wind blasted during the spring.
Reserve your campsite through Recreation.gov
The fully accessible Malpais Nature Trail starts at the group shelter and leads the visitor into the lava flow. The trail is a paved, ¾-mile loop. The visitor center has a guide available.
Pets are welcome at Valley of Fires, but keep in mind that lava is abrasive on exposed paws (and human feet). If you can’t hold your hand to the ground for more than five seconds, it’s far too hot for your dog’s feet! Boots are a good idea if you are hiking in the flows, even more so if you decide to leave the trail. Watch for snakes and tarantulas. There is no shade. Take your own…wear a hat.
Other Things to See & Do Nearby
- White Oaks & No Scum Allowed Saloon
- White Sands National Park
- The Museum of Space History
Museum and planetarium complex in Alamogordo, New Mexico, US dedicated to artifacts and displays related to space flight and the Space Age.
- Smokey Bear Historical Park in Carrizozo
This 2-acre park is the only park in New Mexico run by NM Forestry Division. Smokey’s grave and the NM Wildland Fallen Firefighter Memorial is located in a serene corner of the Park.
- Three Rivers Petroglyphs, between Carrizozo and Tularosa
There are over 21,000 petroglyphs at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.
- Trinity Site Tours
The open house is free. Trinity Site is where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time July 16, 1945. The walk to “ground zero” is about a quarter mile. There is a small obelisk marking the exact spot where the bomb was detonated. Historical photos are mounted on the fence surrounding the area.