american west, Camping, Family, Hiking, Kids, Museums, national parks, outdoors, photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Vacation

El Malpais National Monument


After a quick four days in New Mexico, it was time to begin the second portion of our Spring Break Southwest Adventure road trip.  We loaded up and headed west for Flagstaff, AZ, where we would spend two days before heading back home to the San Gabriel Valley.  We hit the road right after breakfast with the intention of stopping at Petrified Forest just off the I-40 just over 100 miles from our destination. We didn’t quite make it to Petrified Forest, as we made a stop after lunch in Grants, NM where the scenery made a distinct change to from flat land to lava fields. We were entering El Malpais National Monument.

El Malpais is Spanish meaning “the badlands,” called such because of the lava flows. The scenery is marked by sandstone bluffs towering over fields of lava flows and forest.  The land is old, with 10,000-year-old lava flows and a chain of 30 cinder cone volcanoes that flowed millennia ago. Similar to Hawaii, there are lava tubes to explore and two different types of lava flow: smooth pahoehoe and rocky, jagged ‘a’a. Above the lava flows are the sandstone bluffs, which provide an amazing overlook for the surrounding scenery.  There is also La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest natural arch in New Mexico that is accessible to the public.  Portions of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail cut through El Malpais. It was a picturesque little side trip.

We stopped at the visitor center to pick up our junior ranger books and to make sure we knew where we were going. The ranger on duty was very helpful, and gave us clear instructions on how to get to where we wanted to hike. That involved getting back into the car and driving about four miles to exit 89 and Highway 117. We wanted to check out the arch along with any other points of interest we happened to come across. We parked not far from the sandstone bluffs and enjoyed the sweeping views below before heading to the La Ventana Arch.

The La Ventana Natural Arch is within the El Malpais Natural Conservation Area and is part of the Bureau of Land Management. The hike to the arch was very easy, and we appreciated views of this impressive arch.

While exploring the geologically diverse landscape, we worked on our junior ranger books. Before we headed out to continue the drive to Flagstaff, we stopped back at the visitor center to turn in our books and receive our badges.

Some things to consider:

The El Malpais Visitor Center is off I-40 exit 85. Check in here first for visitor info and to pick up your junior ranger booklets.

Many of the sights are accessible via exit 89 on New Mexico State Route 117 and exit 81 on NM 53. The day we visited, the ranger station was closed, so I would recommend checking with the visitor center.

Some of the lava tubes are accessible to hikers but require a permit. We were not able to hike the lava tubes on this visit due to the hibernating bats.

We didn’t have time, but El Morro National Monument is only about 45 minutes away on NM 53. It is another park that participates in the junior ranger program and is another short trip worth checking out if you’re out in the area.

We’re all junior rangers

I love semi-spontaneous stops on our vacations.  That’s the fun of road-tripping. You really get the chance to explore, and the American West is full of national parks and areas of natural and cultural significance. Happy trails!

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