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.


Craters of the Moon National Monument


Lava field. The white dome in this picture is called a kipuka.

  • IMG_0732Website: Craters of the Moon
  • Visitor center hours vary by season
  • Campground in the park
  • Backcountry camping permitted in the preserve
  • Scenic drive
  • Hiking
  • Picnic areas
  • Caving
  • International Dark Sky Park
  • When to go: anytime.

Lava flow

Getting There


Idaho Falls, Idaho, which is 130 miles from Craters of the Moon, has a regional airport that is served by a few national carriers. We are going to start our trip from there, so get your camera ready and let’s hit the road!

Note: Salt Lake City, Utah has the closest major airport and is 300 miles from Craters of the Moon.

From Idaho Falls take Highway 20 west toward Arco, Idaho.

Bonus stop: EBR-1 National Historic Landmark. For those wanting to satisfy their inner geek, this stop is for you. EBR-1 was the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity, and it is located at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Unfortunately, the museum is only open only during the summer.

IMG_0701Travel tip: West of INL on the South side of Highway 20, there is a rest area (with nice restrooms) that has some outside displays with great information about the region. We recommend spending a few minutes there learning about Nuclear Reactors, the Eastern Snake River Plain, the Great Rift, the Lost Rivers, and other interesting topics.

Just one example of the beauty of Idaho

Below is one of several buttes (volcanic perhaps?) along Highway 20 between Idaho Falls and Arco. This region has many lava flows, cones, rifts, and other volcanic features, most of which are contained in the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. The combined lava flows of the monument and preserve cover over 600 square miles. That’s a lotta lava! Check it out on Google Earth sometime.


Continue west on Highway 20 to the town of Arco, Idaho.

Bonus stop: Arco, Idaho.


Stop in Arco to see Number Hill, and we recommend stopping for lunch at Pickle’s Place, which has good food in a retro diner atmosphere. We ate at the counter with a local man who told us the story of the Apollo astronauts coming to Arco in the 1960s to train at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Hearing his story was one of the highlights our trip.

From Arco take US Highway 26/93 west 19 miles to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve Visitor Center. Drive time between Idaho Falls and Craters of the Moon: 2 hours.

Travel tip: as with many remote sites, GPS systems may not be reliable for directions to this park. Refer to your road atlas if in doubt.

Destination: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

The first stop is the visitors center where films, displays, and exhibits explain the characteristics of the park. Learn to identify the many different types of lava, and find out if the volcanoes are still active. The pictures below show some of the features of the park.

Spatter cones

Inferno Cone Trail

Lava flow and cinder cones

Spatter Cone

We love the contrasting landscapes of this shot! (This type of lava is called a’a.)

Thank you for joining us on our visit to Craters of the Moon. We post our journeys simply because we love sharing them with you. Our hope and mission is for you to be inspired by our photos and guided by our experiences in order to seek your own adventures in the wonderful national parks and beautiful cities of our great country. For those who can’t “just get in the car”, we love that we can provide you with virtual travel experiences. Please leave us a message below and tell us about your own travels. We would love to hear from you. Until the next trip…

Travel safe, travel smart, and we will see you down the road!

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!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.