Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, October 8, 2012

Attractions in New Mexico

Off the Beaten Path New Mexico By Harris, Richard K. (Google Affiliate Ad)
sand bluffs at el malpais national monument
Sand Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument
Among the many attractions in New Mexico, the lava beds at El Malpais National Monument ranks as one of the most unique. El Malpais National Monument is located just southeast of Grants New Mexico and Interstate 40. This makes it one of the most easily accessible of all the National Monuments within the state. El Malpais translated into Spanish means "the badlands". The area was given that name because of the very rugged terrain.

The El Malpais National Monument Ranger Station is located about 98 miles west of Albuquerque and about 36 miles southeast of Grants New Mexico. It's a great addition to your New Mexico road trip planner being so close to Interstate 40.

Two additional articles on Western Trips with photos you'll be interested in are The Mining Museum of New Mexico and uranium mining located in Grants and the story of Hollywood on Route 66 in Gallup New Mexico.

lava beds in new mexico
Lava Beds at El Malpais
The Lava Beds at El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais is among the best monuments in the U.S. that showcases the results of massive volcanic activity. The lava flow at El Malpais is quite large, about forty miles north to south and twenty miles east to west. Driving on NM 117, which borders the east side of El Malpais, south of Interstate 40 takes you past the newest lava flow which came from McCarty's Crater sometime between 1,000 and 4,000 years ago. Because the climate is arid, the lava beds show very little water erosion. The lava flows in this area are one of the most significant found anywhere and comparable to those found in Hawaii. According to the National Park Service, the Malpais is home to more than 378,000 acres of lava rock,cinder cones, shield volcanoes and spatter cones.

The National Conservation Area which adjoins El Malpais is located is administered by the Bureau of land Management. El malpais itself is managed by the National Park Service. El Malpais National Monument was created in 1987 during the Reagan Administration although the idea of making it a National Monument went all the way back to the 1930's.

la ventana arch in new mexico
La Ventana Arch
Touring El Malpais on NM 117

Drive south on NM 117 and make your first stop at the Burea of Land Management's Ranger Station. Here you will find a large amount of information on the sites and trails available to visitors. There is also a short video available which will tell you a lot about the National Monument.When yoiu continue driving south of the Ranger Station, the fascinating Sandstone Bluffs will be your first stop. From these yellow sandstone cliffs you'll view the many cinder cones that line the horizon. Like many of the scenic stops along NM 117, you'll find it to be a great photo op site.

La Ventana Arch

A short drive further down NM 117 you'll come upon one of most fascinating geologic structures in the park. The La Ventana Arch is an excellent example of the erosive forces of nature. La Ventana Arch is known as the second largest natural arch in New Mexico at a height of 135 feet. The arch was created from eroding sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs. You can easily see the arch from the roadway. There is a parking area and a short trail which leads to the base of the arch.Driving a short distance south on NM 117 you'll come up to the site of Lava Falls. You'll turn right on to a gravel road off of NM 117 and about a mile down the road is another parking area and a trail head. The short trail will have you walk over lava deposits which in itself is quite unique. The Lava Falls trail route is marked with large cairns. Explore the lava flows and see the plant life. Another great photo op area.

lava falls trail at el malpais
Along the Lava Falls Trail
Lava Falls

The Lava Falls site is the youngest of all the lava beds at El Malpais originating from McCarty's Crater. The lava beds you'll be walking over originally came up out of the earth and flowed before eventually becoming cold and came to rest in it's final form. According to information from the U.S. Geologic Survey, the lava flowing under the surface of a cooled surface layer results in pushed up features on large flow fields. The broken and fractured character of the lava, which you'll view on your hike, results from the shrinkage of the lava as it solidifies and cools. Interestingly enough, some of this same geologic action can be seen today at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Lava Tube System

El Malpais National Monument is also the home to lava tube cave systems. According to the U.S. geologic Survey, lava streams that flow steadily in a confined channel for many hours to days may develop a solid crust or roof and thus change gradually into streams within lava tubes.

 lava falls trail cairn el malpais national monument
A cairn marking the Lava Falls Trail
Because the walls and roofs of such tubes are good thermal insulators, lava flowing through them can remain hot and fluid much longer than surface flows. As the lava flows and then is cooled the result is often a cave. As of this writing, the caves at El Malpais are closed to the public. According to the NPS, the closure is due to a combination of factors including the outbreak of a fungal disease that is killing millions of bats that used the caves. The disease has been named "White Nose Syndrome". The NPS has also closed the caves to prevent continuing loss of delicate geological formations and the need to put into effect a cave management program to sustainably provide visitor access to caves while protecting them for future generations of Americans.

El Malpais National Monument is one the most interesting geologic areas in the southwest. It is one of the many attractions in New Mexico that is a must stop. If your western trip takes you into New Mexico you will be pleased to have added El Malpais to your road trip planner. It's one of those fun yet very educational stops along America's western highways and makes an excellent family vacation side trip.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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