El Malpais National Monument


Extreme caution should be taken at the edge of collapses. Falls on lava can cause nasty cuts and abrasions. Hikers must have sturdy boots on the rugged, often sharp lava. Leather work gloves are helpful on lava and in caves. Carry one gallon of water per person per day in summer; do not drink surface water.

All overnight use requires a free backcountry use permit available at the visitor centers.

Narrows Rim
Seventeen miles south of Interstate 40, just past La Ventana Natural Arch, New Mexico State Road 117 enters an area referred to as the Narrows. Here recent lava flowed right to the base of the 500-foot-high sandstone cliffs.

SR 117 traverses the "narrow" corridor between the lava and the sandstone. Most of the lava observed is from the McCarty's cinder cone and is thought to be 3,000 years old.

The Narrows continues for 3 miles and at the southern end, 21 miles from I-40, a gravel road angles off from SR 117.

  1. Take this road and park near where it reconnects with SR 117. An easy scramble takes you to the top of the sandstone rim and into Cebolla Wilderness.
  2. Follow the rim north for magnificent views of the lava and surrounding countryside, including awesome views of La Ventana Natural Arch. There are no trail markers for this roughly three-mile trail, nor an established treadway, but do not let that keep you from exploring. Do be careful of the sandstone edge, especially with small children and pets.

Good To Know
Come prepared for this hike with at least water, a hat, good hiking shoes, a snack, sunscreen, etc. Dress for the weather, and realize that you will be hiking at an altitude of 7,000-plus feet.

Check in at the Ranger Station for more details, and information on other hiking opportunities in El Malpais.

The Zuni Acoma Trail: An Ancient Trail
This trail across the lava is part of an old Indian trail connecting the pueblos of Acoma and Zuni, already ancient when Europeans first arrived. Some pottery found along the trail is almost as old as the lava, and Zuni and Acoma traditions tell of the fiery birth of these rocks. This trail may be a thousand years old.

You will cross 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.

Many of the present rock cairns were built long before Europeans arrived. We have not changed them. 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.

The Trailhead
The Zuni-Acoma Trail begins on State Highway 53, 16 miles south of 1-40, 1 1/2 miles into the park from the northern monument boundary sign. To help us find out what our visitors need and want in this new park, please get a free backcountry permit from a park ranger or at the El Malpais Information Center in Grants.

For Your Safety
This is a rugged trail. It is 7 miles across, and takes about 6-7 hours to hike one-way. Carry plenty of water, and you'll want a hat. It is hot out there in summer, and the black lava stores heat. Wear sturdy hiking boots, as most of the time you are walking on uneven lava. You should not hike this trail alone. It is marked with rock cairns, but they can be hard to see. You may have to stand at one cairn while your partner looks for the next one.

The Ancient Landscape
The valley was not always filled with lava. Perhaps only a million years ago, short as geologists count time, this was a typical valley, carved into sandstone and limestone laid down about 260 million years ago. A stream probably ran through it. Then over several centuries lava broke through the earth's crust and emptied into the valley, to cool and harden into the rugged flows you see today.

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 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 used in Hawaii, where this kind of lava is common. In the middle of this flow you walk past a limestone "island" the Acomas call Encerrito (surrounded).

About 2 1/2 miles out you cross onto even younger lava, the Bandera Flow from Bandera Crater itself. This flow has the most extensive lava tubes in the El Malpais.

About a mile farther you step onto the youngest lava in the valley, the McCarty Flow, which started about 8 miles southwest and flowed north. It is only 700-1,000 years old. This pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), "ropey lava," has many sinkholes and much less vegetation.

Just before you reach State Road 117, you cross down onto the older, underlying Laguna Flow, erupted from the volcano called Hoya de Cibola, about 14 miles west of this area.

Finally across, you stand once again on ancient sandstones on the other side. In a memorable hike, you've crossed lava flows that wound over and around one another, filling this valley with fire and smoke in each spectacular episode.

Photo courtesy of New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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