While traveling along New Mexico’s stretch of I-40 late one April, I felt torn between a longing to discover more of the state’s “Land of Enchantment” and a need to make up for lost time. It was during a long road trip near the end of my vacation, and I needed to get back soon. So, I decided to keep an eye out for any local attractions that would be both quick and fulfilling. It came with a brown sign labeled “El Malpais National Monument” at the next exit. While I had not previously heard of it, the name reminded me of the “Grand Junction National Monument” in Colorado, which turned out to be phenomenal. So, I decided to take a quick detour and explore.
About El Malpais
The El Malpais National Monument is one of several NPS destinations that can be explored by road or trail. As such, visitors can drive to the specific site within the park that they want to see and then take a smaller trail or path for a closer view (if they wish). There are several sites along the way, and a visitor center near the entrance offers free maps. There’s also a small information center inside, but due to time restraints, I had to skip it. It also relatively shares the same geological area with the El Malpais National Conservation Area. What’s the difference? Mainly that part of the land is controlled by the National Park Service and the rest is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (or privately owned). Yes, it seems a bit odd that two federal agencies would share the same land, but, well, that’s the government for you.
After grabbing a map, I jump back in my car and continue along into the monument. The unique rock and mountain formations begin almost immediately. This entire area’s entire geological structure was actually crafted by lava currents years ago. In fact, many of the formations and monuments are actually composed of hardened lava. This makes sense as I observe some of the seemingly impossible stone structures and a noticeable lack of strata (in some parts, anyways). It is certainly among the most unique areas that I have visited in the American Southwest. The rocky mountains feature a yellowish-pinkish tint with desert shrubs scattered across the landscape.
Sandstone Bluff Overlook
Overlooks abound throughout El Malpais. One of the most popular is the Sandstone Bluff Overlook, where views stretch across the valley below and far to the Zuni Mountains against the horizon. This area is also adorned with formations of all shapes and sizes, offering a close look at how so many generations of lava flow carved its own natural art piece into the mountainside. There are also crevices and trenches running along the top close to the cliff’s edge. The stone formations rise above some of them, forming a great “adult playground” with plenty of opportunities for climbing (even for an inexperienced climber like me). Still, some areas remain flat, leading right to the cliff’s edge before descending abruptly into the valley below. Though I often recommend parks with a road/trail combination as great family-friendly destinations, parents should definitely keep an eye on kids at some of these sights, as there are no fences or railing.
El Malpais is probably best known for its natural arch, La Ventana. It is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico and the state’s largest that’s open to the public. It is a short trek from a parking lot. Leaving my car there, I begin to take a paved path through the arid landscape. A short distance ahead, it turns to gravel. The path winds around some of the area’s many shrubs. It approaches a mountain for a moment, then begins to turn ahead of it. As the trail continues around, the arch comes into view. It is, indeed quite large. The trail ends a fair distance away in front of the arch, with a wooden fence blocking further exploration. The fence wasn’t high, and I could’ve probably jumped over it for a closer view. However, it was clear that they did not want visitors getting too close, and I was in a time crunch anyways. I decided to respect the rules and admire it from a distance, appreciating the rugged climb that would lead to its base were it accessible. The yellow-pink colors reflect those found throughout the park’s rock formations, with dark spots hinting at frequent water runoff along the trench underneath (which appears to be a wash). It is amazing that such a cool monument can form completely naturally.
When I’m finally able to pull myself from the arch and begin heading back to my car, I notice an interesting shape in the mountainside to my right. It appears to resemble a face, complete with a tall hat that seems reminiscent of Egypt’s ancient Pharaohs. It is a fitting reflection of this area’s majestic features.
Bringing my Short Trip to an End
There’s so much more to see and do in El Malpais, but time was running short, so it’d have to wait for another day. Still, it was nice to finally explore New Mexico’s Enchanted Land beyond the road, even if for only a little while. Sometimes, the short excursions are all you need. After leaving, I later did some research and found out that there are actually a number of caves to explore in El Malpais. Permits are required, but at no cost. There’s also a trail that runs along the Continental Divide. Needless to say, I am definitely intrigued enough to go back one day when, of course, I have more time.