How to spend a day at El Malpais National Monument (better than I did)

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.