Corbitt's National Parks
     El Malpais
               National Monument


1925: 1987

Size: 114,277 acres

2008 visitors: 115,066

Stamp: Yes

Rating (1-5):

About the Site

El Malpais means The Badlands in Spanish, and that's a fair description of the terrain in this western New Mexico site. The entire area is approximately 30 miles by 17 miles, though not all of this terrain is encompassed in the Site. Scientists believe that four or more major lava flows over time spilled out of vents and calderas, eventually covering fertile land with a variety of types of lava. Some flows could be over 100,000 years old; the Acoma Indians, who reside to the east of El Malpais, recount a story describing how lava innundated their crops and fields. If so, the most recent lava activity took place between 700 and 1540 A.D. Viewed by satellite from above, the El Malpais region looks like a vast lake of cooled lava, broken up by vegetation and mountain ranges and mesas. Up close and personal, the detail is much more interesting.

What You're Going to See

What you're going to see is rough lava terrain, much of it only now being broken up by vegetation and erosion. The NPS offers plenty of warnings to travellers about wearing sturdy shoes and advises against bringing pets, for the sharp rocks can slice feet and paws and sneakers to ribbons. This is a new Site, only established in 1987, and lacks many of the amenities of other Sites. It's an undeveloped area, so be prepared to bring in your own food and water (though towns aren't too far away). The information center is located right off Highway 53, surrounded by Ponderosa pines, and it's about three miles east of the Continental Divide.

There are several interesting places to explore. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, the place where I took the picture above, offers an excellent view of the lava flows and the surrounding countryside. Further on down that road you'll find La Ventana Natural Arch, which is the largest of New Mexico's realidy accessible arches. It was eroded from sandstone that was laid down in the time of the dinosaurs. There are lava tubes and natural caves to explore in the El Calderon area, which includes Junction Cave, Double Sinks, El Calderon cinder cone, and a bat cave. There is also a lava tube section that stretches for a total of 17 miles long, aptly named Big Tubes. The Chain of Craters area highlights a weak falut zone where hot lava found a way to the surface, creating 30 cinder cones in the process. The Zuni-Acoma trail is an ancient trade route that crosses the major lava flows from east to west. When Spaniards arrived in the 1500's, they found this trail impassible, because the sharp lava spikes cut the hooves and fetlocks of their horses. Other interesting areas include The Narrows, where lava flows nearly meet the base of a 500-foot sandstone cliff; the Cebolla Wilderness, which contains prehistoric petroglyphs, historic homesteads, and allows hiking, horseback riding, and camping; the Lava Falls area, the youngest lava flow in the region, and the Continental Divide Trail.

Personal Observations

We traveled through here in July, and the weather was surprisingly cooperative. Every afternoon we were threatened with thunderclouds, which provided much -appreciated shade, and occasionally we'd get wet. No one complained about that. If the skies had been clear, the afternoons would have been uncomfortably hot. But as we explored El Malpais in the afternoon following our trek in El Morro, the weather cooperated nicely.

After getting our stamp and helpful information at the Visitor Center, we drove a few miles down Highway 53 to a turnoff on the south side of the road. THis dirt road led to a parking lot and trailhead, where we met a couple coming back from their hike. They were the only other visitors we saw at El Malpais. How they get 107,000 yearly visitors I'll never know. Maybe not everyone travels in New Mexico in July. Go figure. So we went down that trail only a short distance, maybe 100 yards, and came across Junction Cave. Michael and Nick had no problem climbing down and exploring the cave, and eventually everyone did. This is a remnant of a lava tube, where the roof has collapsed and opened up to the skies in two places. It looks like two caves that go underground and meet in the middle, if that makes sense. The distance underground between the two exits is not enough to experience total darkness, so a quick scramble through the rough lava rocks is fun.

After we were through with Junction Cave, we continued down the easy up-sloping path for maybe a third of a mile. Double Sinks are two sinkholes that straddle the path. These steep-sided collapses are around 80 feet deep, and are formed the same way as lava tubes. I guess it's possible to climb down, but we didn't, not being that adventurous. Probably you'd need ropes and climbing equipment, now that I think about it. We enjoyed looking down into the pits, although my wife wasn't excited by how close the kids came to the edge. After we were through here, we turned around and went back to the car. It had been a long day, so we decided not to explore Bat Cabe or the El Calderon Cinder Cone. But we had one more sight to see.

Well, two, actually. We drove out of El Malpais, went up to I-40, went east 8 miles and took Exit 89 south. This road, Hghway 117, parallels the eastern edge of El Malpais, and there's no other way to get there by car. The first stop was a quick view and photo-op at the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook (see the first picture). I was there for maybe two minutes while the rest of the family rested in the car. Then I jogged back and we drove further, down to La Ventana Natural Arch. For my money, this was the highlight of El Malpais. I love the sandstone of Arizona and Utah and now New Mexico, the colors just speak to me, and the formations that come from erosion and wind and water are just fascinating. We parked and hiked 200 yards up to the main viewpoint, and that's where we took the good picture of the kids as well. We could have hiked up to the base of the arch, but everyone was pooped from the long day, and I took mercy on my good family.

I'm giving El Malpais two subbies. If it wasn't for La Ventana Natural Arch, I'd be tempted to give it one (though I probably wouldn't). Unless you're a big fan of arches and sandstone and lava fields, there's not a lot here for you.

Getting There

From Albuquerque, take I-40 west for about 66 miles. To see La Ventana Natural Arch and other spots on the eastern border of El Malpais, take Exit 89 and drive south on Highway 117. To see the Visitor Center and the rest of the monument, continue on I-40 to Exit 81. Take Highway 53 south for about 24 miles to the Center. Various ttrails lead off to the south, one to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, another to Junction Cave. Highway 53 continues on to the west and El Morro National Monument and, eventually, back up to Gallup and I-40.

Nearby Attractions

20 miles to the west is El Morro National Monument. 70 miles to the east is Petroglyph National Monument. 70 miles to the north is Chaco Culture National Historic Park. 100 miles to the east is Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Visited July 2007.