El Malpais is an area about an hour west of Albuquerque, New Mexico on I-40. El Malpais is made up of a National Monument run buy the National Park Service and a National Conservation Area run by the Bureau of Land Management. Backcountry camping is allowed in some remote parts of the National Monument but the only campground is the Joe Skeen Campground in the National Conservation Area (you don’t really notice the difference between the NPS and BLM land, it’s all the same pretty desert terrain). The Joe Skeen Campground has ten sites with a fire pit and covered picnic table at each one. There are also pit toilets in the campground. Despite being described as “primitive” (because there is no running water). This campground is well maintained and very clean. It sits below a large cliff with views that span the entire area if you are brave enough to climb up. This campground is also typically empty. We stayed here 4th of July weekend and there was one other person camping. The dirt road of off NM117 that leads to the campground is short but has a dip in the road that would be difficult for small cars to traverse if it was flooded. I have driven it in a Jeep Wrangler and a Honda Accord and neither had issues. This campground is awesome and is one of my favorite campgrounds to stay in. Partly because El Malpais is one of my favorite places ever and it is in my favorite state but it’s also just a great little desert campground. Camping at the Joe Skeen Campground will cost you the hefty price of zero dollars.
This picture was taken at night but ended up looking like an old film picture. You can kind of see some stars in the top left corner.
Thanks! – Josh
One of my favorite things to look for when traveling are geological survey markers. Survey markers are objects placed to mark key survey points on the surface of the Earth.
I get a thrill seeing one on a remote mountain top, imagining the survey crew who hiked in there and placed it.
Here are some pictures I’ve collected along the way:
Pine Mountain, Georgia (note the triangle indicating this mark is used for triangulation)
El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico
Charleston, South Carolina
Cadillac Mountain, Maine
Josh and I woke up refreshed at the Joe Skeen Campground in El Malpais National Monument. It had been a long day of hiking and driving the day before. We decided that we would like to go down to see the La Ventana Natural Arch then follow the Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway and hike in and around the lava tubes.
La Ventana Natural Arch – the largest in New Mexico
About to head down the Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway
The Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway, also known as CR-42, runs through the southern portion of El Malpais past a series of extinct cinder cone volcanoes, and leads to the Big Tubes Area where we wanted to hike. I was a little disappointed in that the road was not as rough as the signs indicated. I suppose after a good rain it may have been more difficult to traverse. The highlight of this drive was a herd of pronghorn antelope that ran parallel to us for several minutes down the bumpy dirt road.
After we arrived at the turnoff to go to the Big Tubes Area, the road (Big Tubes Road) did get much more rough and would not be passable without a 4 wheel drive (which we enjoyed immensely). After parking at the Big Tubes trailhead. We followed the rock cairns for a 1/3 mile or so and came upon the collapsed lava tubes. These were much larger than I anticipated. During one stretch, the “trail” goes over a small arch (called Lava Bridge) with collapsed tube on either side which was disconcerting to cross.
The “trail” to the Big Tubes Area
Big Skylight Cave
Big Skylight Cave (closer up)
Our shadows reflected in the opening of Surface Tube
The series of trails seemed difficult to follow in this area, so we ended up just exploring and climbing the lava rocks. This was as fun as it sounds. After we got back to the jeep and headed back towards CR-42, we realized that the other side of the Big Tubes Road was much more passable. Despite the signage we determined that as long as the weather was dry, a 2 wheel drive car could probably get back here safely. I would recommend coming from the north off of Hwy 53 to get here though.
El Malpais is one of our favorite places in New Mexico. If you are in the area, make time to visit and enjoy this area. rk
You can tell the sun was bright when this picture was taken
El Malpais is located just south of I-40 near Grants, New Mexico. It is a great spot to spend an afternoon or an entire day. El Malpais is the site of an extinct volcano. It is notable for its lava fields and lava tubes. During my visit, I basically saw the sign off I-40 and pulled into the park and wandered around. I had never heard of El Malpais before and didn’t realize that the park consists of two main roads that skirt the northern and eastern borders. I only went down Hwy 117 which travels the eastern border.
Off of Hwy 117, there is an amazing overlook at Sandstone Bluffs where you can rock climb and view the lava fields stretch out before you. We had a great time getting out of the car here (since we had been in the car from Georgia!) and spent about an hour climbing the rocks and enjoying the amazing panoramic views. Farther down Hwy 117 is a La Ventana Natural Arch which is down a short and easy hiking trail. There is also a peaceful picnic area near the arch.
La Ventana Arch
What I didn’t realize is that some of the coolest parts of the park are only accessible from Hwy 53 which travels the parks northern boundary and connects to multiple unpaved roads to the west and south of the park. On much of the unpaved area a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle may be your best bet, especially if it has rained recently. The interior of the park is pretty much all lava field.
I would recommend when you visit to start on Hwy 53 and go straight to the Information Center to learn more about the park and to pick up a free caving permit. You can drive/hike to the lava tubes and explore them. Which tubes you visit will vary based upon your comfort level and experience, but Giant Ice Cave and Big Skylight Cave are the most visited. Unfortunately, I missed the caving adventures but will plan to better on my next time in northern New Mexico. After getting all the caving out of your system you can then go down Hwy 117 to see the sights there.
I hope that this information is helpful and that you are now better prepared for your trip to El Malpais. Take care.
For everyone that can be different I suppose. But for most travel aficionados like myself, I think these 10 things are key to making a trip into an adventure. As a matter of fact, let’s call this Ten for Tuesday.
- See the iconic sights. For instance, my recent trip to Seattle wouldn’t have been complete without lunch at the Space Needle. Yeah it is an overpriced tourist trap and all that, but hey that view on a clear day is hard to beat!
- Get local recommendations on where to eat. I always ask pretty much any local who will talk to me where the best places to eat are. Last time in Moab we took a recommendation and drove south of town to Susie’s Branding Iron. Great meal and we got to visit with some wonderful people.
- Where to sleep? It is always a balance between location and price. I tend to lean towards location because of #4…….
- Explore and wander. Almost always my favorite parts of the trip are the times when I go explore and wander. My most distinct memory of my trip to Rome was when jet lagged I woke up at 4am local and proceeded to go explore the city. It was the only time I had the city to myself.
- Find something under the radar……..for instance during my penchant for over planning and trip planning, I found out about a wave organ in San Francisco. http://www.exploratorium.edu/visit/wave-organ. Back then it didn’t have a website and was something that even locals didn’t always know about.
- Leave some time to be spontaneous. Last year on a trip from home in Atlanta to the Grand Canyon…..that hour we on a whim spent out of the car looking at the lava fields in El Malpais National Monument was a highlight of the trip…..or maybe we were just loopy from 18 hours in the car the day before!
- Enjoy the journey—-whether that is trying to see the sights out the window of the plane or searching for that elusive last license plate on a road trip (where are you Rhode Island!).
- Take some pictures. Not all selfies mind you. Get the scenery and all that is around you. I often look back at a picture album and see a picture and that will bring back a wave of fond memories.
- Do something your travel partner wants to do. Whether it’s one more hike at Zion or a Broadway show in NY.….make time for everyone on your trip to do something they want to do. You’ll be surprised and happier for the experience.
- Get a momento. Not something crazy…..I tend to grab a t-shirt or if at a National Park one of those cool coasters.