El Malpais National Monument

The state of New Mexico is home to a lot of special places that have their own unique ways of attracting tourists towards themselves. These places number in the dozens and there isn’t a single place that isn’t capable of sweeping you off your feet and leaving you completely surprised by what you see and at the same time breathless by the beauty of it. One of these places is known as El Malpais National Monument. Spanish for “badlands” this is place was turned into a monument in 1987 by the government to protect the land that comes in its boundary, a vast expanse of over 114,000 acres. There is also another adjacent conservation area which is also protected and brings in a further addition of 263,000 acres. The whole area is volcanic landscape and the history of inhabitance of this place goes back 10,000 years. There are several archeological sites here which are continuously busy providing proof of all that. Native Indian groups which include Zuni, Acoma and Ramah are still seen here utilizing the park to perform their traditional activities. Located south of I-40 with a breathtaking landscape that provides spectacular views, this place is certainly worth exploring.


The reason this place is called El Mapais or “badlands” is due to the many volcanic features that you find here which include lava flows, pressure ridges, cinder cones and lava tube caves. This is the kind of scenery that you see dominating this landscape. There are mesas and sandstone bluffs on the eastern border of the area and that provides for a vast and widespread wilderness. The elevation level of the park is between 6500 ft and 8300 ft. The most recent lava activity being from McCarty’s Crater less than 2-3 thousand years ago, the area is considered to be geologically active.


Apart from its extreme geological features there are some very interesting creatures that reside in this park. You will find red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, great-horned owls, mule deer, prairie falcon, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and elks. There are some less welcoming creature too like rattlesnakes, black widow spiders and scorpions.


New Mexico is quite well known for its unpredictable weather. Same is the case with the park too and it is important that you go in prepared for all sorts of weather conditions. Summer afternoons are often filled with thunderstorms and in winters there are snowstorms and the temperatures can go below the freezing point.

Getting around

You can reach the monument by both airline and using a car. Once there you can either take a 4WD vehicle with high clearance or if you are looking for some real adventure then you can either use bicycles or go on foot. Normal cars cannot take on that terrain especially during the wet time which makes the roads completely impassable for normal vehicles. Having a GPS with you, especially if you are on foot or riding a bicycle is very important. To enter the park it there is no fee but donations are always welcomed.


There are a number of places that are recommended for visitors to go to and they include the following:

  • La Ventana Natural Arch: Lying just off the highway 117, this huge sandstone arch is the largest of all accessible arches in New Mexico.
  • Sandstone Bluffs Overlook: Towards the west of highway 117, this is a great spot to check out the mesmerizing views of lava flows and sandstone cliffs in the park.
  • Bandera Crater Ice Caves: This is a privately owned cave system in the park and the temperatures here are always below freezing point. There are green colored formations of ice with an average of 20 feet of thickness. Admissions are $7-$15.

What to do?

There are a number of different activities that you can do here including caving, camping and hiking. The number of options is virtually unlimited as you go about exploring this massive volcanic area. There are no facilities inside the park itself and you have to stock yourself properly before you come in here for a long trip.

Enjoying the tough terrain and the dramatic landscape of El Malpais National Monument is an experience that you will not find anywhere else. Make sure your trip to New Mexico includes ample time to visit this place.

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