The Spaniards called the massive lava flows El Malpais (pronounced ehl MAHL-pie-EES), which translates to “the badlands.” The site is located south of the New Mexico town of Grants and a 90-minute drive from Albuquerque. Despite their name, these lavas flows that are part of El Malpais National Monument are, in fact, a wonderland and certainly worth visiting.
Now you can explore the history of humans who lived on or near the lava beds and discover the amazing story of the lava flows that El Malpais is known for.
When you visit the badlands, you qualify for a twofer as El Morro Inscription Rock is about 40 miles farther west along New Mexico Highway 53 and is every bit as engrossing. Read more about El Morro National Monument here. If El Malpais interests you, El Morro likely will, too.
El Malpais, El Morro, and Grants lie in the shadow of Mount Taylor. It’s a moderately tall mountain, about 5,000 feet above the plain from which it rose. However, the plain rises another 6,000 feet above sea level, giving the mountain an elevation of more than 11,000 feet.
As it rose — in part from a volcanic eruption about three million years ago — natural forces began eroding the mountain, leaving it at the height we now find it, along with lava masses and dikes forming Grants Ridge to the northeast.
The Source of El Malpais
Even so, this eruption is not the source of El Malpais. In the 1880s, Captain Clarence E. Dutton of the U.S. Geologic Survey passed through El Malpais and declared volcanic vents in the area’s plains and not Mount Taylor had created the lava flows. He was the first to note the volcanic activity was recent and not ancient.
Author Sherry Robinson wrote a book about the area: El Malpais, Mt. Taylor, and the Zuni Mountains: A Hiking Guide and History. She explains the lava came from some 74 vents that erupted periodically. The first eruption was about 200,000 years ago; the most recent was only about 3,000 years in the past. So, perhaps the geologic activity beneath your feet is not yet extinct . . . just dormant.
Robinson says all four kinds of volcanoes typically found in Hawaii — basalt cones, cinder cones, shield volcanoes, and composite volcanoes — are also found at El Malpais. “From whatever source,” she writes, “as molten lava oozed, tumbled, and broke over the landscape, the drama of its progress froze in place. The flow’s surface cooled and crusted over, but the push of still-molten lava underneath cracked and buckled the hard crust, pushing up pressure ridges and building up spatter cones and fiery fountains.”
Exploring El Malpais on Foot
When you hike, you’ll find spatter cones that look like termite hills of the Serengeti in Africa. You’ll see flows of wrinkled, ropy lava Hawaiians call pahoehoe (pronounced pah-hoey-hoey), tubes where surface lava cooled but still molten rock flowed on underneath, and places where more recent lava slid over older flows, cooling into strange-looking falls.
The National Park Service manages 114,000 acres of El Malpais National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management supervises another 262,000 acres in a conservation area, including the West Malpais Wilderness Area, Chain of Craters, La Ventana natural arch, and Cebolla Wilderness.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail cuts across El Malpais, and there are other hiking opportunities on and around most of the interesting features. You can see La Ventana natural arch, eroded from a sandstone bluff dating to the time of dinosaurs. You can walk through a segment of a lava tube, in one collapsed section and out another. You can skirt the Chain of Craters, examining 30 cinder cones created by a rift in a weakened surface that allowed lava to erupt.
One hike will take you across one of the youngest flows to the lava falls area. Rock cairns mark the way, but they can blend into the surrounding landscape and be difficult to see. It’s good to keep the cairn whose location you know in sight while looking for the next because it’s easy to get lost once you’re out of sight of major landmarks. Sturdy hiking boots are essential. Crusty, jagged lava — called a’a (pronounced “ah-ah”) by Hawaiians — likes to eat soles and, without ankle support from a boot, a misstep could result in a painful sprain.
Those two Hawaiian names for different types of lava have been adopted globally by scientists who study volcanoes.
Despite minor hazards, walking the lava flow can be fascinating. At each vista, you might ask, “I wonder what happened here?” — especially viewing lava toes, wrinkled ropy braids, or mounds and cracks of pressure ridges. You might spot a xenolith or foreign rock, a fragment of earth’s mantle brought to the surface in the magma. Or a tachylite, glassy-textured basalt with a greasy look or even with bits of green olivine embedded in it.
Flora and Fauna of El Malpais
But there’s more than just rock to explore. Wind-blown dust and decaying lava have formed soil beds in which seeds have taken root. The lava flow abounds with widely scattered wildflowers. There are lichens colored gray, green, orange, and other hues. Their acids help break down the rock.
Then, there’s the pygmy forest – another spot of “I wonder what happened?” These Ponderosa and piñon pines, attempting to grow on the lava, find shallow soil that holds moisture and extend roots through cracks and crevices in search of more. Their twisted trunks mimic the twisting of roots beneath the surface.
Rattlesnakes are seldom seen in the lava, but bull snakes are found, along with other reptiles and small, furry creatures, like rabbits, mice, and ground squirrels. El Malpais is home to mule deer, porcupines, skunks, and other mammals. There are also predators, like badgers, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions. In summer, lava caves provide homes for Mexican free-tailed bats. And there are, of course, countless species of insects and birds, such as bald eagles, Stellar’s jays, rock wrens, pinyon jays, western bluebirds, and our state bird, the greater roadrunner. The observant hiker may be fortunate to see one or many of these.
The park service’s guide explains, “Before stepping off the lava and driving away in your car, imagine what it may have been like . . . hiking across the lava in a pair of yucca sandals.”