Unfortunately the weather was pretty miserable the entire time we were there, but we did manage to find a break in the rain for a couple of days to get out and explore. While you can view the lava fields from the Visitor Center just off I, expect to drive around miles south to the trailheads. Video Hiking lava field in El Malpais National Monument 26 of Background El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands", and is so-named for the vast volcanic lava fields that cover the area, with a myriad of volcanic features such as lava flows, lava tubes and cinder cones. Vast volcanic lava fields dominate the landscape at El Malpais National Monument.
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Unfortunately the weather was pretty miserable the entire time we were there, but we did manage to find a break in the rain for a couple of days to get out and explore. While you can view the lava fields from the Visitor Center just off I, expect to drive around miles south to the trailheads. Video Hiking lava field in El Malpais National Monument 26 of Background El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands", and is so-named for the vast volcanic lava fields that cover the area, with a myriad of volcanic features such as lava flows, lava tubes and cinder cones.
Vast volcanic lava fields dominate the landscape at El Malpais National Monument. The area is still considered volcanically active and has even been studied for geothermal energy exploitation. However the area has been largely dormant for hundreds of thousands of years. Today the lava flows still dominate the landscape. As well as hiking across the lava fields and around the cinder cones, caves offer an opportunity for visitors to explore beneath the surface.
Nature Despite the barren terrain, closer inspection shows that there is life out there. The same lava fields which have stunted their growth with poor growing conditions have also protected them from forest fires. Some specimens are now many centuries old! Prickly Pear and Claret Cup Cacti can also be found hiding amongst the rocks.
In the s, the area was one of the possible sites being considered by the Manhattan Project for testing the first atomic bomb. Eventually, the area near White Sands National Park was chosen as the site for the Trinity nuclear test.
While it escaped the atomic bomb, the area was used as a bombing range for pilot training during World War II. It now spans , acres in the southeastern corner of the Colorado Plateau.
Itinerary Although we were in the area for a week, staying at Joe Skeen campground, the weather was being distinctly uncooperative! Keeping a close eye on the forecast, we managed to find a couple of mornings where the rain eased off. But the panoramic views from the Visitor Center out across the lava fields are breathtaking!
We also enjoyed the "Discover the Wonders" displays in the exhibit area - a collection of nine suggested tours of the area with photos, maps and exhibits. While there, we discussed our plans with the Ranger.
We learned about the opportunity to go explore some of the caves in El Malpais. Unsure as to whether we wanted to or not, we filled out the form for a free permit just in case. It is a disease that has killed millions of bats across the country. If any of your gear clothing, cameras, etc has ever been used in a WNS-affected state, it cannot be used in a cave in New Mexico. Fortunately we were clear, but bear that in mind!
We parked at the trailhead and set out hiking. The El Calderon Loop Trail leads past several caves as well as the cinder cone itself. Near the beginning of the trail we passed three caves. The first two, Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave were open for us to explore if we wanted - using the caving permit we had picked up the previous day.
Entrance to Junction Cave. Junction Cave is considered relatively easy to access whereas Xenolith Cave is much more technical.
In the end we decided against descending into either cave. The rocky slopes down to each looked loose and a little slippery in the damp morning weather.
We decided photographing them from the outside would be sufficient! Xenolith Cave is considered much more technical than Junction Cave. The third cave, Bat Cave, is closed to visitors since it is in active use by Brazilian free-tailed bats. The trail continues up to the rim of El Calderon, and we followed it all the way around. Looking out from the rim of El Calderon. According to the NPS, the trail is 3. With our circumnavigation of the rim, we recorded it as 5.
The Continental Divide Trail runs right through this area and we saw several through-hikers while we were in the area. We had hoped to explore a little more, maybe to go and hike the area around Cerro Bandera, but the weather was not cooperating. Water-logged dirt roads and the impending threat of rain were enough to deter us. Zuni-Acoma Trail The next morning, the weather looked better.
Still overcast, but the forecast showed it should stay dry until early afternoon - and maybe even a few breaks in the clouds. We wanted to get out and hike on the Zuni-Acoma Trail. We parked near the trailhead on highway NM, just a little south of Joe Skeen Campground where we were staying.
While the trail is only 7. The trail is rugged and tough going - climbing up rocks and stepping across large cracks. The NPS recommends that if you want to hike the entire trail from one side to the other, then leave a vehicle at either side.
We instead chose, like many others, to only hike a portion of the trail before turning around and coming back. The jagged rocks are unforgiving - we were grateful for the thick-soled hiking boots we were wearing! Do NOT attempt this hike in flip-flops - your feet will thank me later. While much of the landscape is barren, there were little splashes of color - particularly from the beautiful Claret Cup Cacti.
These brilliant splashes of color really stand out against the dark black rocks. Instead, the trail is marked by cairns - piles of rocks. As we reached each cairn, we had to find the next cairn before we could proceed. Can you see the next cairn after these two? The trail was great fun - vast sweeping views out across the lava fields. We had a lot of fun climbing and jumping over the rocks! It is really remote out here, so come prepared. We only passed a handful of other people, including one through-hiker on the CDT!
Sometimes we had to almost jump over cracks in the rocks! We hiked a little under half way out on the trail, and stopped for lunch after 2. After lunch, we turned around and headed back. In total, we hiked just under 6 miles in 4 hours, including a leisurely stop for lunch. Not a bad spot for lunch!
This viewing point has pit toilets and picnic tables, but we came for the views! The pale yellow Dakota Sandstone of the bluff is a stark contrast to the dark lava flows that surround it. Further north is Mount Taylor - a dormant stratovolcano and the highest point in the San Mateo Mountains, named after President Zachary Taylor in Magnificent panoramic views from the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook! We spent a little while taking photos and soaking in the views.
El Malpais National Monument is a rugged but stunning landscape. Why not take a break and go for a hike along the El Calderon Loop Trail? If you have a little more time, then stop in and visit El Morro National Monument too - it only takes a few hours to explore! But stay tuned, because Season 3 will be even bigger and better, as we spend the summer in Colorado! Learn More If you enjoyed this blog post and still want to learn more, visit our dedicated El Malpais National Monument page with a map and links to lots more useful resources!
Their ancestral uses — gathering herbs and medicines, paying respect, and renewing ties — continue today. The cinder cones, broken ridges, and brushy flats are intermixed with conifer, pinon-juniper and aspen woodland stands providing for a depth and breadth in wildlife diversity uncommon to the surrounding area. With summer temperatures, reaching the triple digits this hike is ideal for fall weather. Be sure to brush up on your desert hiking skills prior to any trip in this area.
Rivers of Ancient Fires
Open year-round. Note that use may be restricted periodically due to fire dangers or other management needs. This area is first come, first served. There are no camping fees at Joe Skeen Campground. Restrooms are available. No overnight camping is permitted.
Map of El Malpais National Monument
Best Trails in El Malpais National Monument