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
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