Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway

Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway is named after an area where hot lava below the surface hit a weak area and created a rift lined by 30 cinder cones.

The drive is a 36-mile-long, Type II byway that runs through the El Malpais National Monument in northwestern New Mexico. The byway, which is County Road (CR) 42, passes almost exclusively through public lands. CR 42 forms the western boundary of the West Malpais Wilderness and connects State Roads (SRs) 53 and 117.

What You'll See
El Malpais, which means "the bad country" in Spanish, includes some of the most recent lava flows in the continental United States. The Chain of Craters was given its name because of the line of volcanic cinder cones that roughly follows the Continental Divide. These cerros, or hills, were created by violent eruptions of thick, viscous magma that spewed out volcanic bombs and cinders more than a half million years ago. Magnificent views of the sandstone bluffs rising above the volcanic flows to the east are visible from this area.

The lands in and around El Malpais have been inhabited since Paleo-lndian times, about 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Archaeological sites, including old homesteads, are present-day reminders of the human occupation in this area.

A large population of permanent village dwellers settled the area from about 800 A.D. to 1400 A.D. These ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians were known as the Anasazi, from the Navajo word meaning "the ancient ones."

In part because they have lived on this land for over a millennia, the area in and around CR 42 has deep, special meaning to local American Indians, especially the Acoma, Laguna, Navajo, and Zuni tribes. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are aware of the lands' importance and work with the tribes.

The cinder cones, broken ridges, and brushy flats of the area form diverse wildlife habitats. You may see antelope, turkey, deer and other wildlife. The "Watchable Wildlife" program is designed to increase opportunities to photograph, study or simply watch the countless wildlife of the area. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail follows a portion of the byway along the northern area, where mixed conifer, pinon-juniper, and aspen woodlands dominate.

Because the Chain of Craters Byway is remote, outstanding recreational opportunities abound. Few established hiking trails exist, but there are plenty of places to hike. Overnight camping is allowed in both the NCA and National Monument. Vehicles are restricted to existing designated roads, except in wilderness areas, where vehicles and mechanized equipment, including mountain bikes, are prohibited.

The Chain of Craters Byway is located in Cibola County, near Grants.

  • From Interstate (I) 40, access may be gained from SR 117 or SR 53.
  • To begin the byway from the south entrance, turn south onto SR 117 from I-40, approximately 5 miles east of Grants.
  • CR 42 begins approximately 35 miles from the SR 117 turn-off.
  • To begin the byway from the north end, travel I-40 through Grants and take the San Rafael exit south. Travel on SR 53 for approximately 25 miles. CR 42 begins on the south side of SR 53.

A Type II byway is a byway that requires high-clearance vehicles. The road is not paved, although its dirt and gravel surface is routinely graded by the county. Grades, curves, and road surface can be negotiated with a two-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle without undue difficulty. During rain and snow seasons the road is likely to be impassable.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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