El Malpais may mean “the badlands” in Spanish, but there’s nothing ugly about the place. In fact, it is a little-known treasure in New Mexico. Pronounced el mal-pie-EES, El Malpais National Monument preserves 114,277 acres 70 miles west of Albuquerque. It is a stark, but phenomenally beautiful area, with sandstone bluffs and volcanic features including lava flows, complex lava tube systems and cinder cones.
People have traveled through and lived in this rugged region for more than 10,000 years, so as we moseyed along the 7.5-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail searching for treasures like wildflowers and snakes, we found pottery shards, something we don’t often see as we explore the trails of our national parks and monuments.
The Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, Zuni and the Ramah Navajo all traveled the same paths we traveled. Today, these same tribes continue to gather herbs and medicine here, and they still pay respect to the landscape and renew ties with it. The Zuni-Acoma Trail is one of many ancient routes connecting the pueblos of Zuni and Acoma. Hike it and you’ll see lava bridges made by hand. Amazingly, the pottery remnants we found (and left where we found them) date from as early as 850 to 900.
The Ancestral Puebloans lived along the edges of the lava flows, but found refuge in the lava tube caves when it was hot in summer and when the cold winds blew in winter. They also melted ice from the caves and stored the water in pottery jars for later use.
During our hike along the Zuni-Acoma we were thrilled to know we were also hiking part of the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail, as well as following the path of the 1776 Dominquez-Escalante expedition.
Narrows Rim Trail
Within the neighboring El Malpais National Conservation Area, we found a superb trail of more than three miles at the Narrows. The trail is along the rim of a sandstone mesa above a narrow corridor that was formed when lava flowed near the base of the mesa. Much of the lava we saw that day was from McCartys crater, which at 3,000 years old is the youngest flow in the area. We meandered along the route, capturing the beauty of claret-cup cacti along the way. We slowly gained access to the top of the 500-foot sandstone mesa, where we hiked among ponderosa pines and ate lunch with a fantastic view of the La Ventana Arch. (If you would rather not hike so far, you can park near the arch and take a short hike to its base.)
We found two other interesting places. The Lava Falls Area, where trails are marked with piles of rock called cairns, was a fun place to explore. An interpretive booklet served as a fantastic way to learn more about the lava. Late one afternoon we drove to an area of ancient ruins called the Dittert Site. We followed a dirt two-track more than a mile to a gate. From there we walked to the ruins, probably built and occupied by the Ancient Puebloans between 1000 and 1300.
We also explored the El Calderon Area at the north end of El Malpais, just off New Mexico State Highway 53. A three-mile loop trail led past Junction Cave, Double Sinks, Bat Cave and El Calderon cinder cone. Bat Cave is the home of Mexican free-tailed bats in summer. Little brown bats, pallid bats and Townsend’s big-eared bats live in the monument year-round and hibernate in this cave and other caves throughout the region. There are plenty of caves in El Malpais, but when we visited they were closed to the public. The caves were off limits to protect the bats from white-nose syndrome, which could be transmitted by a fungus on clothing or gear. Although Bat Cave and the Four Windows Cave remain closed, several others are now open to the public. Talk to one of the rangers about getting a permit. The permits are free, but all visitors requesting a permit will be screened to ensure that the bats are kept safe and disease-free.
We found plenty to do in our days at El Malpais, and could have stayed even longer. The Joe Skeen Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Campground is located a couple of miles south of El Malpais ranger station. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Sheltered picnic tables, vault toilets, fire pits, grills and sites large enough for most RVs are offered. There’s water at the ranger station. Pets are allowed, but they must be under control. Mountain bikes are allowed on any of the designated roads, but they are not allowed on trails and in the wilderness areas.
Visitors can acquire more information by stopping in at the BLM ranger station about 12 miles south of Grants. The ranger station is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. For more information, check out nps.gov/elma.
El Malpais is one of the many incredible places to visit in the Land of Enchantment, but we found a few more hot spots in the Grants area that can make an RVing trip to this region of New Mexico, just west of Albuquerque, worth a significant stay. West of El Malpais is El Morro National Monument. Named for the huge headland or bluff, this place is comparatively small, but big on views, sandstone cliffs and historical significance. The monument was designated in 1906 to protect the inscriptions found there.
Weary travelers thought the world of El Morro, a massive sandstone bluff and welcome landmark, because there was, and still is, a reliable waterhole at the base the bluff near the road. Also called Inscription Rock, it was a popular campsite as well. Ancient Puebloans lived on top of the mesa and were the first to carve on the rock, leaving petroglyphs of sheep and other creatures. For more than 300 years, Spanish explorers and American soldiers inscribed their signatures, dates and messages on the rock. Today the monument protects more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs.
The El Morro visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most of the year, and slightly longer in the summer. You’ll have to be off the trail by closing time because they close the park to protect the inscriptions. There is a trail fee of $3 per adult for a pass that is good for seven days. Passes can be purchased at the visitor center, where you can watch a free video that will orient you to the park.
Before you begin your hike, be sure to pick up the necessary literature for the self-guided trail. The Inscription Trail should make your to-do list. Not only will you hike to the desert pool, you’ll see hundreds of Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as prehistoric petroglyphs.
If you have the time and energy, hike the entire loop, including the Mesa Top Trail. (The two-mile loop includes Inscription Trail.) It’s only 200 feet to the top and well worth the effort for the views. You’ll see the Zuni Mountains, El Morro Valley and the volcanoes of the El Malpais area. You’ll also see the Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Atsinna, or “place of writing on rock,” as well. About 1,500 people lived in the 875-room pueblo more than 700 years ago.
A nine-site primitive campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Free in the winter when the water is turned off, it’s $5 a night in summer. If you prefer hookups, check out the Ancient Way Café and Outpost, one mile east of the monument. It offers water, electric and sewer in addition to wireless internet, showers, and delicious American, New Mexican, and vegetarian food (including scrumptious pies). You can find it online at elmorro-nm.com.
Wolves and Ice
While you’re in the area you may want to visit two other locations, Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave and the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. Located between El Malpais and El Morro, the privately owned Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave is an interesting stop with trails leading to a terrific view inside the volcano and a bone-chilling look at the ice cave. Unbelievably, even when it’s hot outside the cave temperature never gets above 31 degrees. The floor of the ice cave is about 20 feet thick. The deepest ice is the oldest and dates back 3,400 years. There’s an admission fee for hiking the trails.
Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary is located southwest of El Morro. From State Highway 53, take BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Road 125 south and then you will have to drive on gravel BIA 120 to the sanctuary. There’s no room for RVs to park in front, but there is a campground. Guided tours are available from Tuesday through Sunday at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Adults are $7, seniors $6, and the tours last more than an hour. We learned all about wolves and wolf dogs and were fortunate to be there when the animals began howling. See wildspiritwolfsanctuary.org for more information.
Donna Ikenberry is a photojournalist who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
Caution: Hiking at El Malpais:
Named for the lava flows that cover much of the monument, El Malpais is a place where the hiking can be as hard as the lava beneath your boots. We have hiked across lava in the past so we know to use hiking poles and common sense.
You find your way across the lava flow by following the route marked by cairns (conical piles of stacked rocks). Stop at each cairn and do not continue until you can locate the next cairn. The Malpais may be beautiful but it can be dangerous. Visitors have gotten lost on the lava and died. Hike with care!