Monday, March 12, 2012

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands." It is volcanic features such as lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges and complex lava tube systems that dominate the landscape.

Fairly new to the National Park System, El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area was established in 1987. Its 114,277 acres is managed in a joint effort between the National Park Service, forest service, and the Bureau of Land Management. El Malpais hosts more than 100,000 visitors annually; visitation is highest in July and August and lowest in December and January.

General Information

Seasons / Hours

  • The monument is almost always open to visitors except for the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook that closes at dusk. Winter hours are posted online.
  • El Malpais NPS Information Center is open daily 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. It is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
  • BLM's El Malpais Ranger Station on NM Highway 117 is also open 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily.

Rates & Fees

Still no fees charged at El Malpais, but donations are accepted and appreciated.

Visitor Center

El Malpais Information Center is located 23 miles south of Grants, on NM Highway 53. It contains exhibits about volcanology and natural history, a bookstore and regional information. Picnic tables, water and restrooms are also available here.

Ranger guided activities are available during the summer weekends. These include hikes, programs, cave explorations and evening bat flights. Contact El Malpais Information Center for details. Ranger guided programs for educational groups are available by reservation. Contact monument headquarters for information.

None in the monument. Restaurants, service stations, and grocery stores are avail
able in nearby Grants.

Visitor parking is available at all sites, and these areas have room for a limited number of RVs or buses.
Accessibility is limited. A portion of Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is wheelchair accessible as is a short loop trail at the Zuni-Acoma Trailhead. Restroom facilities at areas throughout the monument are accessible. El Malpais Information Center is also accessible.

All overnight and backcountry use requires a free permit. Some caves require a Special Use Permit. Educational groups need to make reservations for ranger-led activities.

Climate, Geography, Setting


El Malpais is located south of Grants, New Mexico. Two major state highways border the monument and conservation area; both are accessed via Interstate 40. Exit 89, east of Grants, travels along NM Highway 117, which forms the eastern boundary.

The BLM's El Malpais Ranger Station is located 9 miles south on 117 and is open 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily. Exit 81, west of Grants, travels along NM Highway 53, which forms the northwestern boundary. NPS's El Malpais Information Center is located 23 miles south of this exit and is open 8:30 am - 4:30 pm daily.


El Malpais ranges in elevation from 6500 to 8300 ft. 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.

Getting There

To the Monument
The best access to the monument is by private automobile. The two major state highways bordering the monument and conservation area are accessed via Interstate 40. Exit 89, east of Grants, will take you along NM 117 which forms the eastern boundary. Exit 81, west of Grants, will take you along NM 53 which forms the northwestern boundary.

In the Monument
Private automobile for paved roads and the information center; high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for travel on dirt roads and are required for travel on primitive roads.


Cultural History

For more than 10,000 years people have interacted with the El Malpais landscape. Historic and archeological sites provide reminders of past times. More than mere artifacts, these cultural resources are kept alive by the spiritual and physical presence of contemporary Indian groups, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo. These tribes continue their ancestral uses of El Malpais including gathering herbs and medicines, paying respect, and renewing ties.

Natural History

The monument office, located on highway 53, is everything to do with the volcanoes, lava flows and associated features dating from 200,000 to 2,000 years old. Sandstone bluffs and mesas border the eastern side, providing access to a vast wilderness.

The lava flows are unique ecosystem with animals and plants living on the rocks. Birding is a popular activity in the Malpais. Or explore the caves and lava tubes, and experience the flows from within.

Things To Do

There are many areas awaiting your exploration of El Malpais. Below are some of the main visitor use areas that offer sightseeing, hiking, caving, photography and birding. It is a good idea to carry water when exploring any of these areas.

Auto & 4WD Touring

Two state highways provide paved 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. Travel on these roads is restricted to high clearance vehicles and those with four-wheel drive are preferred.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook
An easy drive on a dirt road leads to a ridge of sandstone. From here you are offered excellent vistas of the El Malpais lava flows and the surrounding countryside.

Hiking & Climbing

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.

Use extreme caution hiking on lava terrain -- it is sharp and unstable! Never hike or cave alone.

Zuni-Acoma Trail
This ancient puebloan trail follows a trade route between Zuni and Acoma Pueblos. This is a strenuous 7-mile, one-way hike across 4 of the major lava flows in this region.

La Ventana Natural Arch (BLM)
One of the largest of New Mexico's natural arches, La Ventana was eroded from sandstone that dates back to the age of dinosaurs.

Cebolla Wilderness (BLM)
East of NM 117 lie some 62,000 acres of forested rimrock country. This wilderness is rich in prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.

Lava Falls Area
Explore lava features and plant adaptations unique to McCartys flow, the youngest lava flow in this region.

El Calderon Area
Forested and offering year-round opportunities, this area includes Junction Cave, Double Sinks, El Calderon cinder cone, lava flows and sandstone formations.
Chain of Craters (BLM)
Magma found a weak area here and created a rift lined by 30 cinder cones.

West Malpais Wilderness (BLM)
Lava surrounds a large ponderosa pine parkland known as Hole-in-the-Wall.


Visitors planning to explore lava tube caves need to come prepared with warm clothing, protective headgear, three sources of light, and leather gloves. Sturdy hiking boots are required when hiking on lava terrain and day packs with water, snacks, rain gear, first aid kit and sunscreen are suggested. Backcountry exploration requires planning and rangers at El Malpais Information Center can provide assistance prior to your visit.

Big Tubes Area
Lava tubes can be huge and this area is home to one of the largest systems in North America. A cairn route leads to Four Windows and Big Skylight Caves, and to Caterpillar and Seven Bridges Collapses.

El Calderon Area
Forested and offering year-round opportunities, this area includes Junction Cave, Double Sinks, El Calderon cinder cone, lava flows and sandstone formations. There are picnic sites available here.

Camping & Lodging

The monument does not have an established campground. Primitive camping is allowed and all overnight use requires a backcountry permit available from El Malpais Information Center. The back country camper is virtually certain of isolation.

Then when bathrooms and showers are preferable, there is the Grants KOA near Grants. The KOA is always a good experience.

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