El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais -- "badlands" in Spanish -- is rich in spectacular volcanic scenery, beautiful natural features, and traces of long-vanished human settlements. The 115,000 acres of New Mexico's El Malpais National Monument contain many reminders of its eruptive past: jagged spatter cones, fragile ice caves, and one of the longest lava tube cave systems in North America, extending at least 17 miles. Some tubes contain ice year-round, despite seasonal rises in temperature.

The park has several major lava flows, some of which are interrupted by islands of native plant and animal communities called kipukas. These are undisturbed areas that were encircled but not covered by lava flows.

El Malpais National Monument
The "badlands" of El Malpais National Monument contain one of the longest lava tube cave
systems in North America.

People have lived in the El Malpais region for more than 10,000 years. Between A.D. 950 and 1350, it was a community of the great Chaco Culture, centered 80 miles to the north. The Anasazi people lived along the edges of these lava flows until the mid-1300s. The monument preserves ruins of the Anasazi, as well as reminders of white homesteaders who struggled to make a living here.

Hiking trails and roads lead to other highlights of the monument, including the Cebolla Wilderness, a forested rimrock area that features prehistoric rock art and historic homesteads; the Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient Pueblo trade route; and La Ventana Natural Arch, a large sandstone formation dating from the dinosaur age.

El Malpais National Monument Information

Address: Exit 81 off Interstate 40; 23 miles south on NM 53
Hours: Open 24 hours a day; Sandstone Bluffs Overlook closes at dusk
Admission: Free

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To learn more about national national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:



Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.