Primitive Roads and Lava Tubes in New Mexico

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)


Lava Bridge


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


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.