The term "El Malpais", Spanish for "Badlands," is ofter applied to lava flows. Perhaps the name evokes images of emptiness and desolation, but this area is truly abundant with beauty and life and awaits exploration. This area is now a National Monument and a National Conservation Area.
Over the past 3 million years volcanos erupted and gaseous explosions, rivers of molten rock and flying cinders covered the area. It happened again and again over the centuries, producing this spectacular lava filled valley surrounded by sandstone cliffs and mesas. American Indians settled in the area, building pueblos nearby. They may have been here during the last eruptions, for Indian legends tell of rivers of "fire rock."
An overview of the activity is best obtained from the Zuni-Acoma trail. This trail across the lava is part of an old Indian trail connecting the pueblos of Acoma and Zuni. Some pottery found along the trail is almost as old as the lava. Both Zuni and Acoma traditions tell of the fiery birth of these rocks. This trail may be a thousand years old.
The trail crosses lava bridges built by the ancestral Zuni and Acoma, such as the one over the lava crack to the right of the exhibits at the trailhead (off NM 53). Many of the present rock cairns were built long before the arrival of Europeans in the area. They have not been changed. To protect this special place, please do not disturb artifacts or the pristine terrain. It's the law; it's also a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
As you step onto the trail, the first lava is the earliest that emptied into the valley. It came from El Calderon, the cinder cone 4 miles west. Though you walk on it only at the beginning of the trail, this flow underlies most of the other lava you will see.
Soon you will cross onto younger lava, with less plant life and less weathering. It came from Twin Craters, 7 miles northwest near Bandera Crater. Geologists call this chunky lava aa (pronounced ah-ah), a term from the Hawaiian where lava is common. In the middle of this flow you walk past a limestone "island" called "Encerrito," meaning surrounded, by the Acoma.
About 2 ½ miles out you will cross onto even younger lava, the Bandera Flow from Bandera Crater itself. This flow has the most extensive lava tubes in El Malpais.
About a mile farther, you will step onto the youngest lava in the valley, the McCarty Flow, which started about 8 miles southwest and flowed north. It is only 700-1000 years old. This pahoehoe (again from the Hawaiian, pronounced pa-hoy-hoy), "ropey lava," has many sinkholes and much less vegetation.
Just before you reach State Route 117, you cross down onto the older, underlying Laguna Flow, from the volcano called Hoya de Cibola, about 14 miles west of this area.
Finally, at the end of the trail, you will be once again on sandstone. Here you are on Rt. 117, connecting I-40 with Quemado, just west of the VLA. A spectacular view of El Malpais may be obtained from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, a few miles north of here on 117. South of here lie the Narrows region where there is only a narrow corridor between the sandstone bluffs and the lava field. Just beyond that, you can find La Ventana Natural Arch.
Back on NM 53 (with your car!) you may find the El Calderon area where a short hike will take you past lava tubes and to a bat cave, where Mexican Freetail bats spend the summer.
Lava tubes are the pathways that lava travels downslope. The lava which is exposed to the air cools rapidly. This creates a crust which acts as an insulator for the molten lava below, which continues to flow. When the magma chamber empties, the remaining lava flows out of the tube, leaving a flat floored tube with an arched ceiling. Because most lava tubes lack the necessary ceiling support, portions may fall inward, creating twisted rubble-filled trenched where the tubes once were. Junction Cave, near the beginning of the El Calderon trail is such a break in a lava tube system. The nearby Big Tubes area, accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles, has several large tubes available for exploration for those with the proper equipment.
The Mexican freetail bats colony migrates between the caves in this area and their winter home in Mexico. If you take this hike, plan to arrive at dusk when the bats can be observed leaving the cave for a night of food gathering. This is a spectacular sight for those seated on the knoll to the west of the lava tube opening. Your first hint of activity may be the sight of a single bat circling in the entrance area. perhaps you will first feel a change in the air temperature and scent the air from the cave interior being driven ourwards. The activity at the mouth of the cave will continue for a long time, slowing increasing the visible bat population, until they feel organized enough to begin the exodus from the cave. When the exodus begins, there is no mistaking the change in the air with the drop in temperature and powerful smell that comes with the outrush of air from the cave. From this high point you can see the bats spread out over the New Mexico landscape, into the twilight to gather their food for the night, a spectacle not to be missed.
Don't forget that you will be hiking back to your car through the lava in the dark or near dark. Bring a flashlight or two for safety.
This is especially true of archeological features. To learn all we can about the earliest inhabitants, an artifact must not only be left, it must be left where it was found. Location is very important to archaelogical research. The penalties for collecting or disturbing these resources, which belong to all Americans, include fines of up to $10,000 and/or two years in jail for first offences.
This page was synthesized from materials distributed by the El Malpais office of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Grants, NM. They have many handouts available for the areas covered here and many others. Be sure to follow both their rules for safety and for preservation of the area. For more information, contact:
El Malpais National Monument El Malpais National Conservation Area P.O. Box 939 P.O. Box 846 Grants, NM 87020 Grants, NM 87020 505-287-3407 505-287-5406
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