El Malpais National Monument
The West Malpais Wilderness encompasses grassland, pinon-juniper woodland, ponderosa pine parkland, and basalt lava fields. A myriad of trees, shrubs, mammals, reptiles, grasses, fungi, and other creatures make this area their home.
These life forms interact with and influence one another, manifesting the gossamer web of life in the harsh, dry environment. Lichen slowly dissolves rock, drawing sustenance from stone. This process provides new soil and a toehold for new plant growth. Antelope, deer, rabbits, and squirrels forage for these plants and scarce water, and occasionally their struggle for existence is ended by the crush of a coyote's bite or the talons of a red-tailed hawk. Lightning-caused wildfires sweep through area, destroying some plants while releasing vital nutrients for others and opening up new niches in which life may again begin.
The presence of humans is also in evidence. The ancestors of today's American Indians and modern-day ranchers and homesteaders have influenced and interacted within this ever-changing community of life. It is now time for the major influence to revert back to the other, older members of this ecological family.
Within the West Malpais Wilderness is a 6,700-acre kipuka called Hole-In-The-Wall. Kipuka means "island" in Hawaiian. This island of fertile ground, underlain by the 700,000-year-old North Plains lava flows, is inhabited by numerous forms of life, surrounded and segregated from their original biotic communities by a sea of broken, jagged basalt.
Many species have adapted to the unique conditions here, and in some cases, varieties prosper that have not lived in adjacent areas for a very long time. This tract is an isolated pocket of ponderosa pine forest with some open areas of rangeland. The area is bounded by the Hoya de Cibola lava flow to the west, the Bandera lava flow to the north, and the McCarty's lava flow to the east.
You can explore above and below ground lava features, photograph a newborn antelope taking its first wobbly steps, or backpack down a trail that may have been used by people in a previous century.
The West Malpais Wilderness and Hole-in-the-Wall are places for you to savor solitude, encounter some of the Earth's primeval past, and experience the solace and satisfaction that comes from living life at its elemental edge.
The easier driving route to access the West Malpais Wilderness and Hole-In-The-Wall is:
- From the south end of the NCA off NM 117.
- From NM 117, proceed northwest on CR 42 for approximately 2.1 miles.
- Take the right fork to the north and go approximately 5 miles up the "cherry stem" road to the West Malpais Wilderness trailhead.
Hole-In-The-Wall and the interior of the West Malpais Wilderness are accessed:
- From the north by turning south from NM 53 onto CR 42 and proceeding approximately 5.8 miles.
- Then turn left (east) on the road that skirts the south side of Rendija. (Be forewarned, this is one of the roughest roads in the NCA!)
- Proceed on that road approximately 2.1 miles, take the left fork, proceed an additional 0.7 mile, and take the right fork. (The left fork at this junction will take you to the Big Tubes area.)
- In an additional 1.2 miles, at the stock pond, bear left again.
- In 0.5 mile you will see a sign for Little Hole-In-The-Wall.
- Continue straight in for an additional 0.9 mile. At the single fencepost, bear right and continue straight in on the main road (such as it is) for another 3.9 miles to the Cerro Encierro Trailhead.
Wet weather conditions can make all these roads treacherous and impassable. Check with a Ranger before you attempt to drive them.
Some Pointers and Precautions
- Water is a scarce and a precious resource in this arid country. You must carry with you all the water you need.
- Please respect wilderness regulations and ethics. Take only pictures and leave only footprints.
- No mechanized vehicles (mountain bikes included) may be driven past the posted wilderness boundary into the wilderness.
- Please pack out everything you pack in. The responsibility rests with all of us to keep this resource in good shape for future generations.
- Obtain a backcountry permit from the El Malpais Information Center in Grants or the BLM El Malpais Ranger Station on New Mexico Highway 117. It's safer to let someone know where you are going.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication