El Malpais National Monument is a national monument located south of I-40 in northwestern New Mexico. The name (meaning "the badlands" in Spanish) comes from the rough, barren lava flow that makes up much of its terrain.
El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area was established in 1987. The national monument protects 114,277 acres of volcanic landscape, while the adjacent national conservation area protects an additional 263,000 acres. The area has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, and historic and archeological sites provide reminders of past times. To this day Indian groups including the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo still utilize the park for traditional activities including gathering herbs and medicines, paying respect, and renewing ties.
El Malpais (pronounced el-mal-pie-EES) means "the badlands", so named due to the volcanic features such as lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges and complex lava tube cave systems that dominate the landscape. Sandstone bluffs and mesas border the eastern side, providing access to vast wilderness. Elevation in the park ranges from 6500 to 8300 ft. The most recent lava flow emanated from McCarty's Crater within the last 2,000 to 3,000 years, so the park remains a geologically active area.
Flora and fauna
While known more for its geologic features than for its wildlife, the park is home to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, great-horned owls, black bears, mule deer, elk, coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats. Less cuddly residents include rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders and brown recluse spiders. The park was also the home of a transplanted bison herd from 1993 until 1995, but the herd's preference for roaming onto private lands led to their relocation. Some of the oldest douglas firs on earth live in the monument: one dead tree was dated at over 2,000 years old!
The weather in northwestern New Mexico is unpredictable and visitors should be prepared for all conditions throughout the year. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence during summer afternoons and lightning poses a hazard to hikers. Winter snowstorms are common and nights are cold with below freezing temperatures.
El Malpais is south of the town of Grants. Two major state highways border the monument and conservation area and both are accessed via Interstate 40. Exit 89, east of Grants, will take you along NM 117 which forms the eastern park boundary. BLM's El Malpais Ranger Station is 9 miles south of this exit and is open daily. Exit 85 at Grants will take you to the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center, a multi-agency facility, south of exit 85. Exit 81, west of Grants, will take you along NM 53 which forms the northwestern park boundary. NPS's El Malpais Information Center is 23 miles south of this exit and is open daily.
The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque, about 90 miles (150 km) away and only slightly farther from El Malpais than Gallup is. Since you're going to have to rent a car or SUV anyway if you fly, you might as well get it in Albuquerque and drive. From the Albuquerque airport, drive north on Interstate 25 to Interstate 40 and continue as above.
Fees and permits
There are no entrance fees charged for visiting the park.
State highways NM 117 and NM 53 provide access to many areas in the monument. County Road 42, a dirt road, provides access to the backcountry's primitive dirt roads. These roads may be impassable when wet, and travel is restricted to high clearance vehicles and those with four-wheel drive. Check at the ranger station for current road conditions before visiting the park's backcountry.
A mountain bike is a good alternative to driving when exploring the park's backcountry.
Hiking routes exist throughout the monument. Most traverse lava flows and are marked with rock cairns. Few dirt routes exist. Backcountry hiking and cave exploration is permitted, but no water is available. Topographical maps and a compass or GPS unit are strongly suggested for backcountry exploration. Please stop by a visitor center for the park's caving policy and information prior to entering any cave. Entry to most caves requires permits in advance of your visit. Use extreme caution hiking on lava terrain - it's sharp and unstable! Please don't hike or cave alone.
- 1 El Malpais Information Center. Open seasonally on Hwy 53 in El Malpais National Monument, this small visitor information center offers cave permits, information, restrooms, and a Western National Parks Association Bookstore.
- 2 El Malpais Visitor Center, 1900 E Santa Fe Ave. Located outside of the park on exit 85 off I-40 in Grants, NM, the El Malpais Visitor Center is staffed by park rangers from the National Park Service. Stop in for maps, information, orientation, cave permits, a Western National Parks Association bookstore, museum exhibits, and park movies.
- 3 La Ventana Natural Arch. The largest of New Mexico's accessible natural arches, this massive sandstone formation lies just off of Highway 117 in the park's eastern section. A short trail leads to the base of the arch.
- 4 Bandera Crater Ice Caves. A privately owned and operated cave within the park, this volcanic area is perpetually below freezing, allowing the creation of greenish ice formations that average 20 ft (6.1 m) in thickness. Admission is from $7-15 per person.
- Sandstone Bluffs Overlook. On the west side of Highway 117, this overlook offers a dramatic viewpoint of the park's lava flows and the impressive sandstone cliffs that border them.
Only four caves are open to the public (with a free caving permit, obtainable at the park office or visitor's center). The four caves are Junction Cave, Xenolith Cave, Big Skylight, and Giant Ice Cave (ice only in winter months).
Warning: Always bring several independent light sources and wear sturdy hiking boots when exploring a cave!
Caves created from ancient lava tubes are found throughout the park, with some cave systems extending as far as seventeen miles. The 4 open caves require permits for entry; check with rangers for current regulations. When caving, assume that your light source could break or be lost while exploring, and bring at least one (and preferably two) backup light sources. In addition, be aware that the cave floors are uneven, littered with boulders, and often wet, making sturdy shoes a necessity. Anyone who has visited a cave or cavern within the last several years will need to disinfect their gear prior to entering caves in the monument, in order to prevent the spread of White Nose Disease among the bats.
- Junction Cave (just off NM 53 east of the visitor center). This cave entry is a short walk from the parking area. The cave extends about 1 mile and makes a great introduction to caving for those wanting to explore.
- Xenolith Cave (3/4 mile south of Junction Cave). This cave requires physical fitness and dexterity as climbing is required in several places. Definitely not for the novice caver.
- Big Skylight Cave (in the park's backcountry off County Road 42). This cave was named for its large entrance. The floor of this cave is covered with a considerable amount of rubble that has fallen from its ceiling, making footing extremely uneven.
- Giant Ice Cave (150 feet north of Big Skylight cave).
The open lava expanses make for a wonderful hiking experience, one found in few other places. The terrain is truly from another world, and any hiker off the beaten path will feel like a trail blazer for sure. A word of caution before attempting any off-trail journey, either a GPS or extremely good orienteering skills are required, as the iron content of the lava makes compass readings unreliable and useful visible landmarks are few.
- Lava Falls Area. This trail leads over lava formations and past sinkholes to a high lava wall. The trail follows rock cairns and is often uneven, and the heat can be intense during the summer months.
- Zuni-Acoma Trail. This ancient Puebloan trail follows a prehistoric trade route between Zuni and Acoma Pueblos. This is a strenuous more than 7½-mile one-way hike across 4 of the major lava flows in this region. The trail follows rock cairns over very difficult terrain; plan on taking at least 5 hours to cover the full 7½ miles.
The park's visitor center has a few books, postcards, and other souvenirs available for sale. Supplies and just about anything else can be purchased outside of the park, with the nearby town of Grants offering most of the essentials. Albuquerque, a little more than an hour away, offers everything a traveler could want.
There is no food sold within the park. The nearby town of Grants has numerous restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores.
There are no hotels in the park, but the nearby town of Grants offers numerous options.
There are no organized campgrounds in the western portion of the park, and campgrounds in the park's eastern portion may be closed; check with rangers for current conditions. Additional camping options can be found north of the park in the town of Grants.
- Near Sandstone Bluffs. Off Highway 117 near the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, this campground is not within the park's borders, but is located within the El Malpais National Conservation Area and is operated by the BLM. Services are primitive and no fees are charged.
- The Narrows. 4 miles south of La Ventana Arch along Highway 117 and offering primitive services.
Backcountry camping in the national monument area requires a free backcountry use permit that can be obtained at any visitor center. Backcountry usage in the national conservation area does not require a permit, although visitors are encouraged to notify a ranger of their plans to help monitor usage.
Visitors planning to explore lava tube caves need to come prepared with warm clothing, protective headgear, at least three sources of light, sturdy footwear, and leather gloves. Do not take these warnings lightly; if you lose your light source even a short distance from a cave entrance it is extremely likely that you will become disoriented in the darkness and unable to find your way out. Similarly, the cave floor is rocky, uneven and often slippery, making sturdy footwear is an absolute necessity to avoid foot and ankle injuries.
Sturdy hiking boots are required when hiking on lava terrain and daypacks with water, snacks, raingear, first aid kit and sunscreen are suggested. The heat while on lava flows can be intense, so plan on drinking at least one gallon of water per person per day. In addition, be aware that progress over lava flows is slow, that lava is sharp and can easily tear apart tennis shoes, and that some sections of lava are unstable and may simply be thin crusts covering sinkholes. Traveling solo on the lava is a very bad idea, as a broken leg can spell certain doom. Cellular service is nonexistent beyond the very northern borders of the park. It is advisable to let someone know your itinerary in case you turn up missing. No joke: more than one person has been lost upon the veritable black sea. The dangers cannot be overstressed.
Less common park dangers include rattlesnakes, scorpions and spiders, which can be easily avoided by being cautious in rocky areas; these creatures crawl under rocks to avoid the sun, so be cautious when reaching into crevices or overturning rocks. In addition, the area around McCarty's crater was once used as a military bombing range, and while unlikely, it is possible that unexploded ordnance may be encountered if traveling in this remote location. Any munitions that are encountered should not be handled and should be reported to rangers.
- El Morro National Monument. Jst off NM Highway 53 about 30 miles west of the park, El Morro protects a Puebloan dwelling as well as a sandstone bluff on which ancient people, early Spanish explorers, and pioneers carved inscriptions. Fee $3 (Park Pass applies) for day use; there is a small (9 sites), primitive campground ($5/night fee during summer, free off-season when water is turned off).
- Grants. About 10 miles north of the park, this town offers food, lodging, and supplies for visitors to El Malpais.