Admittedly, this is a park we had not ever heard of and had no expecations of what would be there to see. Sometimes you open a map and just pick the next stop and then you are hanging out on sandstone bluffs and walking across the top of a laval flow for the afternoon.

El Malpais is where lava meets sandstone. Black craggly basalt rock meets smooth, soft stone. The name El Malpais is from the Spanish term Malpais, meaning badlands. Lava from the McCarty’s crater flowed only 3900 years ago; just a baby lava field in geological terms. You can simply do the scenic drive or plan for more time and camp, hike, or go caving (with a permit). The lava tube cave runs over 17 miles.

The monument is surrounded by the El Malpais National Conservation area managed by the BLM. As our spontaneous stop, we only had 2-3 hours to explore this area. After our stop at the Visitor Center, we decided to drive down HWY 117 along the eastern side of the park and sample both lava and sandstone. Exploring this route takes you through both the monument and the national conservation area.

The Sandstone

Sandstone bluffs overlook the vast lava flows

La Ventana Natural Arch

This is New Mexico’s 2nd largest natural arch and a popular stop if you’re in the Grants, NM area. There’s a 0.4 mile loop walk from the road to the arch.

View of the natural arch
Arch as viewed from the road

Narrow Rim Trail

There are several hikes in the park and most of them are in the lava field. The trail head is at the Narrows picnic area as you turn off of HWY 117. The hike takes you up to a easy rim tail., As you navigate rocks, sand, trees, you’ll get a great view of from the south east end of the park.

Lava Field

Hiking the Zuni-Acoma Trail

If you have all day and want a unique challenge, this trail is for you. The Zuni-Acoma trail is a 7.5 miles one way trail over the jagged lava flow areas. We hiked in only about 2 miles just to get to more lava flow. It is definitely a thigh burner walking though the rocks. It is well marked with carins through the field.

There is a BLM managed campground off of HWY 117 as well. We drove through Joe Skeen campground to check it out. It had sites that were very well spaced and shaded. Included were vault toilets but no water or trash. Cell signal seemed very usable and many sites had nice views overlooking the park. Can’t beat that for free camping.

Where to Next?

This was a nice afternoon break and we continued driving south to Las Cruces, NM. Arriving after 9PM and we’ll do another Walmart parking stop then go find our BLM campsite in the daylight.