The Big Tubes Area is one of the most popular destinations in El Malpais National Monument, yet because the volcanic terrain is so demanding, the trails are rarely crowded on any given day. The Big Tubes Area is where several caves can be found and these ancient lava tubes travel quite a distance underground. Spelunking the caves is one of the top activities in this park and the organized guided tours are a good educational experience. Exploring the lava caves can also be done by individuals, but there are many safety measures to consider, because this truly is a dangerous place where getting hopelessly lost or stuck in a crevice is easy to do.
Just getting to the lava tube caves is an accomplishment in itself, because the jagged sharp volcanic terrain is difficult to negotiate. As can be imagined, a pair of sneakers would shred to pieces after hiking a few miles through this sharp lava rock terrain, so heavy duty boots are highly recommended. I had a pair of old leather boots with steel toes that I wore back when I used to work at a steel mill, which were perfectly suited for this volcanic hiking trail. In fact, my job at the steel mill was quality testing the steel slag, which actually is man made lava, so I do have plenty of experience walking on jagged volcanic rock and steel toes definitely are a real "little. piggy" saver!
The Lava Tubes Trail first follows a long path to Big Skylight Cave, which is the central point in this volcanic field. At the big Skylight Cave, the trail splits and these two trails meander to several more lava tube caves that are well worth checking out. On the downside, the piles of black lava rock that are used as trail markers absolutely blend in with the rest of the volcanic rubble covering the ground, so straying from the path will likely happen more than once. To make matters worse, everything starts to look the same off the trail, so relying on memory does no good when finding the way back. For this reason, a hand held GPS is recommended for hiking the Big Tubes Area trails or any of the other lava field trails in this park.
The Big Skylight Cave is a magnificent sight to behold and hours can be spent gazing into this abyss. This gigantic lava tub was exposed when the solid lava roof collapsed long ago. The hollow tube actually was so big that when the ground settled, it created a deep ravine with cave pockets at both ends. The Big Skylight Cave is where the old original big lava tube still remains.
The Big Skylight Cave is large enough for a lengthy spelunking adventure and it is a top choice for group excursions. Caving permits are required for entering this lava tube for both safety's sake and White Nose Bat Fungus prevention. For those who do obtain lava tube caving permits, all clothing and equipment must be sterilized prior to arrival. There is also a White Nose Bat Fungus shoe sterilizing station located at the trailhead. The bats in these caves eat all the flying insects, so they are well worth protecting!
Exploring the Big Tubes Area simply is a must to do when touring El Malpais National Monument. Because of the nature of the volcanic terrain, a hike on this trail system is guaranteed to be tedious and slow. Twisting an ankle is very easy to do, which is another good reason to wear sturdy heavy duty boots. As long as a hiker goes slow and carefully negotiates the footing, this trek should go off without a hitch. Lava tube caves are not something that is ordinarily seen back home, so this certainly is an exciting adventure to log on the books!
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