Road Trip: El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais (pronounced El Mal-pie-EEs) National Monument will leave visitors in awe of its varied landscapes and geological wonders. Lying a few miles west of Mount Taylor, an 11,301-foot stratovolcano, El Malpais features its own lava flows, tubes, and caves, as well as cinder cones, sandstone bluffs, and other volcanoes. We hope you enjoy the journey as we visit some highlights of this intriguing park.

Where is it?

El Malpais National Monument is located south of Grants, New Mexico, just off of I-40. The physical address is 1900 East Santa Fe Avenue, Grants, New Mexico.

Park features include:

  • Visitor Center with bookstore, museum exhibits, and covered picnic area
  • Hiking trails, including a portion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
  • Scenic Drives via Highway 53 and Highway 117
  • Lava tube caving by permit
  • Backcountry camping by permit
  • Ranger programs, including bat flights during June and July
  • Ranger guided hikes
  • Periodic Cultural/Craft/Demonstration Events
  • Free Admission

Access the park’s website here.

View of Mount Taylor which is sacred to the Native American people who live in the area.

El Malpais Via Highway 117

The national monument abuts the El Malpais National Conservation Area which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Features of the conservation area include a campground, picnic areas, a natural arch, and several trailheads. However, we chose a short hike along the Sandstone Bluffs area of the national monument because a helpful park ranger told us the scenery was spectacular.

Approaching Sandstone Bluffs.

A gravel road took us the last couple of miles to the Sandstone Bluffs parking lot, and the bumpiness was well worth the trek. The ranger was right, the scenery was spectacular! We spent an hour walking along the bluffs and admiring the scenery.

Sandstone Bluffs with Mount Taylor in the background.
A view of some of El Malpais’ lava flows.
Not-so-bad badlands with lava and mountains.

Lava flows at El Malpais date from 115,000 years ago to 3,900 years ago. At least 200 known vents from which the lava flowed created the cinder cones and shield volcanoes in the park. Interestingly, before this area became a national monument it was used by the military as a test bombing range.

La Ventana Arch

This amazing natural sandstone arch is located in the El Malpais National Conservation Area but is close to Sandstone Bluffs on Highway 117. It is one of the largest arches in New Mexico, and the surrounding scenery is as breathtaking as it is historic. La Ventana Arch spans 120 feet, and its top is 25 feet thick.

Approaching La Ventana Arch under gathering storm clouds.

According to park information, the area surrounding El Malpais once resembled the Sahara Desert. About 160 million years ago, the cliffs and bluffs we see today were sand dunes, now called Zuni Sandstone.

Zuni and Dakota Sandstone layers

Then, about 96 million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway made its way into what is now New Mexico and deposited the top layer, now called Dakota Sandstone. The two geological eras are divided by the white layer near the top of the cliffs as seen in the photo above. It is also interesting how the colors of the two sandstone layers differ.

La Ventana Arch and its surrounds. La Ventana means the window in Spanish.

A quarter-mile hike on an easy trail from the parking lot gives visitors an up-close view of the arch. Not only is La Ventana magnificent, but the colors of the surrounding rocky cliffs make for an awe-inspiring experience. Additionally, the area features a perfect place for a picnic with covered tables among the trees near the parking lot.

Spectacular colors!

El Malpais Via Highway 53

Highway 53 takes visitors along the western side of the park which also abuts the El Malpais National Conservation Area. Hiking trails, the El Calderon Volcano, and lava tubes are accessible from this road. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hike El Calderon because we chose to visit another volcano that will be featured in separate post.

The scenery along Highway 53 got prettier the farther we drove, but it wasn’t as pretty as the scenery along Highway 117. For those who plan to visit El Malpais, note that it took us 35 minutes to backtrack from La Ventana Arch to the visitor center. Highway 53 also leads to El Morro National Monument, which is approximately 43 miles southwest of the El Malpais Visitor Center.

Fire and Ice Native American Art and Dance Gathering

One of the best things about our visit was that the park was hosting the Fire and Ice Native American Art and Dance Gathering on the day we were there. We didn’t know about the event until we arrived at the visitor center, but it was exciting to meet the artists and purchase some of their offerings.

We were also able to see a traditional dance, which was fascinating. Native American dance was something neither of us had even seen before, and the troupe was made up of dancers from various pueblos in the area.

Thank you so much for visiting El Malpais National Monument with us! We are closing the post with one more view of the fabulous La Ventana Arch.

Looking for more national park inspiration? Try these great parks:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.


52 thoughts on “Road Trip: El Malpais National Monument

  1. Oh my gosh, that arch is beautiful! When we visit a place like this, we always make a point to talk to the rangers – as the advice they give is priceless. This sounds true for you for this visit. The scenery on your hike looks stunning! How lucky you were to be there for the special activities. I look forward to your next post!

  2. It’s incredible just how diverse the geography can vary, from dry desert to lush, verdant land– all within New Mexico! So much to see at the El Malpais National Monument, and it looks like you made your time there well-worth it!

  3. Beautiful. You’re both so fortunate to be able to see such wonders. I’m glad you also got to see the dancing and the special events/focus on one of the days

  4. What an interesting landscape. What we would call Bik Sky Country. Fire and Ice or any Aboriginal performance group is a bonus and that arch tops it all. Great Post Kellye. Thanks for sharing. Allan

  5. The scenery looks stunning with all the sandstone cliffs. It’s also pretty neat how you can still see signs from all the lava flows and volcanic activity that took place here many many years ago. La Ventana Arch looks like it’s defying gravity.

  6. Another fabulous looking place, Kellye. We’ve seen several traditional tribal dances in various parts of the world….they seem to vary from robotic (Viet) to manic (Aztec)…but are always a joy to watch and learn. Glad you enjoyed this one. 😀

  7. Proof that you should always listen to a park rangers recommendations- those views of the bluffs are incredible! I love the arch and how you can almost see time and weather carving out a hole through the rock. And getting to be there for the fire and ice dancers at the park must have been really amazing 🙂

  8. The landscape and the geological history of its creation are absolutely fascinating. One of those Earth wonders that make me feel small and insignificant while simultaneously bringing sentiments of awe and deep appreciation of our little planet. I’m glad that this area is now a protected park rather than a military playground. Seeing the fire and ice dancers at the park is a wonderful bonus to what already was an incredible trip. Great piece, Kellye.

  9. I really liked your article about road trip to El Malpais National Monument. You have shared a fascinating and adventurous journey to this amazing place. You have also given some informative and helpful facts and tips about the history, geology and attractions of this monument. Your photos are also very stunning and impressive, showing the beauty and diversity of this landscape. I hope to visit El Malpais National Monument someday and see it for myself.

  10. How lovely are the Sandstone Bluffs. The vastness of the area, breathtaking mountains and different colours are indeed beautiful … as are those clouds! And the La Ventana Arch is lovely too – don’t you just love interesting rock formations!

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