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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
- Antietam National Battlefield
- Scotts Bluff National Monument
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.