El Malpais is Spanish meaning “the bad country”. Spain’s religious zealots detoured this volcanic land; however, native cultures (Zunis and Acomas) forged pathways across it connecting pueblos in an ancient highway. Because it has little economic value, it’s perfect for public land. Fortunately for us, it makes for great hiking! In fact, the Continental Divide Trail passes through El Malpais on its way north to Canada or south to Mexico. The best way to see this national monument is to experience it, feel it under your feet, smell the trees, hear the birds, and get dirty. Sure the drive is nice and scenic. You’ll see cinder cones in the distance, a river of lava spread out before you, and some amazing sandstone bluffs and arches. You should definitely do the drive, but for an up-close look at the park’s volcanic features and some incredible vistas, hike the lava rivers at El Malpais National Monument.
Before you venture out into the monument, stop at the Visitor’s Center for literature and maps that will make your time here rich with learning. Click here for a digital map. The geologic, natural, and cultural history is fascinating. Understand what you’re viewing…a valley covered in lava, filled with lava tubes, and a chain of ancient cinder cones. This place was inhabited by native peoples and passed by conquistadors and settlers. Click here for historical details.
Take the loop at Lava Falls to experience a numbered tour of volcanic features. You’ll feel like a first grader on a field trip. You can pick up the Lava Falls Trail Guide at the Visitor’s Center or online here. The trail is clearly marked with cairns. This is a relatively young formation where lava rose up from beneath 3,000 years ago. Take the Pahoehoe (smooth lava) lava flow to see lava toes, ropes, sinkholes, falls, pressure ridges, and squeeze-ups. You will also experience a twisted pygmy forest of ponderosa and pinon pine. Please take sunscreen, water, sunglasses, a desert hat, and sturdy shoes.
The Narrows Rim
From the road, you can stop over to see, La Ventana, an impressive natural arch. This is all well and good, but if you really want a killer view of Ventana hike the 8-mile Narrows Rim Trail. You will get an extreme vantage point from the mesa top on the Narrows Rim. This is better than any scenic drive. Look over the immense lava flows from the bluffs high above. Peer at cinder cones in the distance. Try to imagine them spewing smoke. This is an out-and-back hike, leading to the mesa’s edge across and above La Ventana. It is epic!
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- Joe Skeen Campground is a great place to spend the night. It’s first-come, first-served. Includes pit toilets and covered picnic tables and is within easy access of these two excellent hikes.
- El Malpais is a spelunker’s delight. Click here for the El Malpais caving brochure.
- Stop at the Sandstone Bluffs for an epic viewpoint.