Southwestern US, US National Parks

Bad country – El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Day 2 of our New Mexico road trip was somewhat of a failure in planning. I did plan. I planned a lot. Too much, in fact. And had it been July, with 14 hours of daylight and the endless motivation that can only be found during summer break, we might have pulled it off. But in November, with the exhaustion of the semester and limited daylight to work with, it quickly became clear that we weren’t going to make it through everything I’d added to our itinerary.

So we ditched our plan to pop over to El Morro National Monument while we were in the area, and we skipped a visit to the Bandera Ice Caves (which were closed for the season anyway, marking another failure in planning), and instead focused on seeing as much of El Malpais as we could in the hours we had.

El Malpais – pronounced “mal-pie-ESE” and meaning “bad country” in Spanish – is part National Monument and part National Conservation Area (NCA), located about an hour west of Albuquerque on the edge of the Colorado Plateau. This high desert environment is, upon first glance, desolate. But closer inspection reveals plant and animal life tucked in amongst the rocks, including a handful of endemic species. These landscapes are what we would spend our day exploring.

We began at the El Malpais Visitor Center in Grants, NM, which was altogether disappointing. If you’ve arrived in the area and have absolutely no idea what to see or do, this would be a great place to stop. If you already have a plan, it’s largely a waste of time. Other than the passport stamp and a souvenir magnet, I obtained nothing of use here.

On the other hand, if you want to actually learn about the landscapes and history of El Malpais, the NCA Visitor Center is the place. I’d recommend starting here. It’s located on the northeastern edge of the monument off Highway 117.

From here, we continued south on Hwy 117. To our left, red and tan sandstone cliffs towered above the road. To our right, a vast expanse of black volcanic rock coated the landscape. El Malpais is a unique combination of both features. The sandstone was laid down around 200 million years ago, first by wind and later by an ocean. The lava flows then spread through canyons and valleys in the sandstone during a dozen volcanic eruptions over the past 3 million years.

(In more recent history, these lands were home to the ancestors of the present-day Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna Pueblos as well as the Ramah Navajo. Oral histories from these cultures suggest that all were in the area and witnessed the most recent of these eruptions. Later, the land was homesteaded by white settlers, though most eventually left in search of a less harsh way of life.)

Probably the best view of this rugged landscape is at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook off Highway 117. A 1 mile (1.6 km) gravel road leads out to the overlook. From here, you can climb around on the bluffs and enjoy the view of the lava flows. We also found it to be an excellent picnic spot.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook
Looking across the lava flows
Picnic spot
El Malpais handstand

Next up, all the way at the southern end of the monument, was the 1.2 mile (2 km) hike on the Lava Falls Trail across the McCartys lava flow. This is the newest lava flow not just in the monument, but in New Mexico; it took place just 3900 years ago. This was Pat’s first time walking on a lava flow and he really enjoyed it! I’ve been to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which in my opinion was slightly neater than this, but it was still a fun hike. It was interesting to walk right past the different patterns in the lava and to see the sinkholes and cracks that formed as it cooled. Rock cairns mark the way; aside from those, there was no semblance of a trail. I could see how it would be easy to get lost out here.

McCarty’s Lava Flow
This ropy type of lava is called pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy)
Lava amphitheater
The trail crossed multiple very deep cracks in the lava. If you’re scared of heights, don’t look down!
Me: “I’ll take a picture of you walking over this giant crack”
Pat: does this

Working our way back north, we stopped next at the Narrows Picnic Area. This is in the NCA portion of El Malpais and a trail travels about 4 miles (6.4 km) along the sandstone cliffs. We didn’t hike the whole thing, but a ranger had recommended we walk about the first 0.6 miles (1 km) to the 90° curve in the trail, and I’m glad we heeded his advice because this provided another great view of the landscape.

Narrows Trail
View from our turnaround spot on the Narrows Trail
My outfit matched the landscape… maybe a little too well.

Our last stop on Hwy 117 was the quick 0.5 mile (0.8 km) round-trip hike to La Ventana Arch, the largest publicly accessible arch in the state (and the second-largest overall).

La Ventana Arch

The final hike (Actually, this was the first one of the day. I’m going a little out of order here. Sometimes these posts just start writing themselves, continuity be damned.) was off Hwy 53 in the northern section of the monument on the El Calderon Trail. This trail can be hiked as a longer loop or a shorter out-and-back. We did the latter, staying right at every junction and following the trail past caves, sinkholes, and a lava trench, through the grasslands and forest, and up to the summit of El Calderon Crater.

El Calderon Trail
Cave on the El Calderon Trail
When the top of a lava flow hardens while the lava underneath continues to flow, a hollow tunnel called a lava tube is left behind. If the roof later collapses, a lava trench remains
Ice crystals on the lava rock
How the previous photo was taken (thank you, Pat 🤣)
El Calderon summit

There’s a lot more to El Malpais than we saw. It’s an oddly-shaped monument, with one road (Hwy 53) along the northern edge and one road (Hwy 117) along the eastern edge, and that’s about it. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can drive some very rough roads in the farthest south or west reaches of the monument, but the central portion is designated wilderness and is relatively inaccessible.

All in all, I’d say we saw as much as we could have in one day, but we left a lot unexplored. In addition to the closed ice caves, there are lava caves (also closed in the winter), extensive lava flows, and in the summer there are sunset hikes to watch bats emerge from the caves. We will definitely be returning to El Malpais in the summer for some ice caves, lava caves, and bat viewing. But for now, we had a nice introduction to this unique and relatively unknown national monument.


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the two paved roads into the monument are NM 53 and NM 117; both are off I-40 in Grants, NM via exit 81, 85, or 89. Note that these roads do not connect within the monument; to see everything we did, you’ll need to drive both roads separately which will require some backtracking.
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: There are many hiking trails of varying lengths in the monument and NCA; view the details here. To avoid getting lost when hiking across the lava flows, keep a close eye out for the cairns marking the route.
  • Where to stay: There are no developed campgrounds in El Malpais, but backcountry camping is allowed in certain locations within the monument (guidelines). The NCA offers one campground, and there are also a few options in the surrounding BLM and USFS lands. For hotels and other lodging, Grants is the closest town while Albuquerque (about 1 hour away) is the largest.
  • Other: This is a relatively remote monument, with little phone service and few amenities. Come prepared with adequate food, water, gas, layers, and a navigational system that will work without cell service.

30 thoughts on “Bad country – El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico”

  1. What a great adventure (despite the initial planning fails)! The views look stunning – you must have had some amazing picnics! I have never walked on a lava flow and actually had no idea how it looked like so I’m glad you included pictures too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Walking on a lava flow is really weird and disorienting, but also really neat. Hopefully you’re able to do so one day! I wonder if there’s a place to hike on one in Iceland?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, there are beautiful hikes next to volcanoes in Iceland – so probably on a lava flow too! Sadly when I went there it was winter so the hiking possibilities were quite limited, but I hope I’ll get to experience it my next time around, in a warmer season!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s one of the downsides to travelling late in the fall is that it becomes a race against when the daylight will fade. It’s a bummer about the ice caves being closed, but it’s probably for the best. Sometimes it’s better to just stick to one location than try to cram too much in (something I often struggle with). I would for sure get lost on trails like that. I’m not used to navigating with cairns (something we discovered recently when we were in southern Utah last week). Love the landscape and view of the arch.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful – and I appreciate the effort of you lying on rocks to get beautiful photos 🙂 I totally hear you as well with itineraries having to be shorter in the winter – often we’ve forgotten to figure daylight hours in to ours and early museum etc closures leading to a total change of plans! This looks amazing, just a shame about the tunnels being closed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Despite a shaky start with a few forgone sites and a not-as-needed Visitor Center, the landscapes in El Malpais certainly made up for all of that! Those ice crystals on the lava rock are spellbinding, and I’m glad that the trip worked out in the end!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m so simple and shallow … the landscapes were cool, but the photos I zoomed in on were Pat theatrically stepping over the crack and you on the ground taking the ice crystal pic! And the handstand, of course. And the one where I had to find you up on the rock. Thanks for the entertainment this evening! 🙂

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  6. Nice! Just a note, I know “mal-pie-ESE” is proper Spanish, but I’ve never heard a western New Mexico local pronounce it that way, including Spanish speakers. Everyone says “mall pie”. New Mexico has a few funny names like that, that you think would be pronounced as Spanish but aren’t, e.g. Datil and Madrid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh, interesting. In the park, the rangers all pronounced it the Spanish way. I wonder if locals shorten it to “malpie.” On the other hand, Colorado does a lot of mispronouncing Spanish words too so maybe this was just another case of that

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  7. We had the same kind of experience at El Malpais – not enough time to explore and to go to El Morro and ice caves – we too plan to go back.
    here2where.wordpress.com/travels-in-the-u-s/el-malpais-national-monument

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this interesting summary of this new-to-me-also monument. It’s obviously misnamed, based on superficial first impressions and the misguided notion that all land that’s not beneficial to humans is badland or wasteland in some way. The sweeping views of the landscape are marvelous, as is the photo you painstakingly took of the ice crystals. It does get cold in the desert at night!

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  9. Off season travel is a double edged sword. On one hand, there are less people around. On the other hand, some spots are closed and daylight hours are short. I have taken many similar closeup shots, sprawled on the ground and it seems that my Patty always takes a photo of me in an undignified pose. Sigh. Thanks for sharing Diana. Allan

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  10. That’s a fantastic picnic spot with such amazing views, Diana! One thing I have learned after trotting the globe is that over-planning is a rather fruitless effort. Don’t get me wrong: planning, research and general preparation is a great thing, but a stringent itinerary of things to do and places to see doesn’t provide the outcome that you really want. If you’re a planner, I’m sure you’re thinking exactly what I was: if I have reservations made and days outlined, I’ll get the most out of my trip, right? Well, only kind of right because the reality is that life doesn’t always work out as planned, and that’s not a bad thing. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m trying to figure out the right balance and planning. If I don’t have some plans I feel really anxious, but as you said, if you have too many plans it can get in the way of a trip and lead to anxiety as well when things don’t go as expected. Hopefully one of these days I’ll find the right balance.

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