El Malpais National Monument Overview

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In satellite photographs of New Mexico, the lava flows that blanket much of El Malpais National Monument look a lot like a huge lake southwest of Grants. The images show only the big features—the lava flows, the mountain ranges, the mesas—and not the myriad of small mysteries and fleeting wonders. You have to be there—and not in space—to experience those.

El Malpais (pronounced ell-mal-pie-ees) means "the badlands" in Spanish. Its volcanic features include jagged spatter cones, a lava tube cave system extending at least 17 miles, and fragile ice caves. There is much good in these badlands; the area offers diverse natural environments and tantalizing evidence of American Indian and European history. More than mere artifacts, these cultural resources are kept alive by the spiritual and physical presence of contemporary Indian groups, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo. These American Indians made their homes here and continue their traditional uses. The best way to experience the aura of El Malpais is by hiking through it. If you've got a rugged vehicle, the Chain of Craters Scenic Byway will expose you to the landscape as it skirts the edge of the West Malpais Wilderness. Many other points of interest are reachable by car. Two distinctive natural features to seek out are El Calderon Area and Big Tubes Area. Nearby Casamero Pueblo is a well-preserved ruin that provides a sense of how the native peoples lived in the region.

The Land
Paradoxically, the malpais landscape is at once primal, pristine, ancient, and surprisingly modern. With continuing research, new knowledge is revealed. Lava that poured out of McCarty's Cone established a new land surface 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Elsewhere, ancient Douglas-fir trees thrive in the midst of rugged lava terrain. The diversity of life tells a story of unique adaptation to a challenging environment. Roadrunners are a favorite bird to search out while at El Malpais.

Many landscape features in El Malpais bear Hawaiian names because early scientific knowledge of volcanoes was developed in the Hawaiian islands. Kipukas are undisturbed areas that lava flows encircled but did not cover. These ecological islands of vegetation are living remnants of native plant and animal communities. Study of these kipukas will provide benchmark information for restoring disturbed portions of El Malpais. Lava types bear Hawaiian names, too. Smoother, ropy-textured lavas are pahoehoe, pronounced pah-hoy-hoy. Sharp, jagged lavas that rip up all but the sturdiest hiking boots are aa, pronounced ah-ah. By studying active volcanoes, geologists can determine how similar features formed at El Malpais.

For more than 10,000 years people have interacted with the El Malpais landscape. While truly ancient Indian artifacts have been found, peak human occupation occurred between 950 and 1350. During this time, El Malpais was at the fringe of a political and economic system centered in Chaco Canyon, 80 miles to the north. As participants in this system, the ancestors of modern Puebloans, called "Anasazi" by archaeologists, established communities along the edges of the lava flows. When the Chacoan system collapsed in the late 1100's, these outlying communities continued to thrive. Although the Anasazi left El by the mid-1300's, they did not disappear. From here they moved to the Acoma area and established a new homeland. In 1540 Coronado's expedition encountered two major Indian pueblos—Zuni and Acoma—flanking El Malpais. When New Mexico became a U.S. territory in 1848, Anglo explorers saw El Malpais as little more than a hindrance to travel. Anglos did not move into El Malpais in significant numbers until the 1920's, before the Great Depression. Many were homesteaders or sheepherders escaping the flood of immigration to other parts of the West.

Throughout time El Malpais has been an unrelenting challenge for Indian, Spanish, and Anglo travelers. Today, the monument serves as a reminder of the perseverance of those who crossed this rugged landscape.

Cultural Traditions
Southwestern American Indians have deep ties to El Malpais. The lands have figured in Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and Ramah Navajo cultures for thousands of years. Their ancestral uses—gathering herbs and medicines, paying respect, and renewing ties—continue today. Protection of these lands ensures the continuation of traditions that are an integral element of this region's cultural diversity. All cultural, as well as natural, features are protected by law. Do not disturb them. Leave archaeological and other artifacts in place; they provide important information about the past. All plants and animals are protected by law in the national monument. Hunting and trapping in the national conservation area require state licenses, and all state regulations apply.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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