El Malpais National Monument offers endless adventures in a volcanic environment near Grants, New Mexico. The most popular activities in this park revolve around exploring the vast black lava flows and lava tube caves. The Ice Cave is one of the most interesting features and this privately owned attraction is located on SR 53, just west of the National Monument information kiosk. County Road 42 is also located in the same area of the park and this dirt road goes to the Big Tubes, which is where the Skylight Cave Trailhead can be found. After the spelunking venture is done, there actually is an option to take a tour of the El Malpais back country on CR 42, which is better known as the Chain Of Craters Backcountry Byway.
The Chain Of Craters Backcountry Byway (CR 42) is a 33 mile dirt road trek that begins at at Big Tubes and ends at the intersection of State Road 117 in the southeast end of the park near the Sandstone Bluffs. The Joe Skeen Campground is also near the end point, which is a nice spot for winding down after the long bumpy ride. County Road 42 is well maintained and smooth to the Big Tubes area, but beyond this point this dirt road becomes much rougher, so a high ground clearance vehicle or a 4x4 is recommended for trip. Beginning the venture at El Malpais Visitor Center is highly recommended, because the rangers are familiar with the dirt road conditions and any hazards along the way will be known. Checking the weather report will also be necessary, because this dirt road is impassible when wet. Getting stuck in the rugged El Malpais back country will certainly result in a survival situation, so stocking up on food and water in case of emergency will need to be on the check list too.
The Chain Of Craters Backcountry Byway meanders through the valley around the southern edge of the vast black lava field. This road passes through the El Malpais National Conservation Area, so there are primitive camping options where existing stone fire rings are spotted. The first part of the drive goes through thick pine forests and a few old ranches, which provide a peaceful contrast to the harsh looking ancient black lava flow rubble. There are a few distant forested cinder cones and volcano craters in this area to see, which are easy to spot because of these hills are covered with dark cinders. The Continental Divide Hiking Trail goes through this area, which is a 3100 mile long path that goes from the Mexican Border all the way to to Canada. Providing extra water and snacks for the long distance hikers is customary and information about where to to leave the goods can be found at any number of CDT websites or the visitor center.
After exiting the pine forest into the grassy plain, the views extend to the horizon and it becomes easy to see why this road was designated with the Chain Of Craters name. There are several volcanic plume mounds, volcano craters and cinder cones to view near the intersection of Cerro Americano Road. There is also plenty of wildlife to see and wild horses often roam just beyond the pine forest. Gigantic termite mounds and other natural oddities can be experienced along the road too, so be sure to bring a good camera, so the memories can be shared back home!
Further into the grassy plains before reaching the end of the line is where the Hole In The Wall Trailhead is located along CR 42. The Hole In the Wall is an interesting feature that simply must be checked out and an entire day trip can be planned around this destination alone. The Hole In The Wall actually is a kipuka, which translates to "a green island surrounded by black lava" in Hawaiian language. As can be imagined, spending a day in a kipuka on the mainland truly is a rare opportunity!
County Road 42 passes by several small lava flow piles near the end point which are interesting to ponder over because they are a different color than the main black lava flow. With all the craters in this area, it is easy to imagine that the volcanic activity must have been quite a sight to see way back when the event occurred a few thousand years ago. Oddly enough, the eruptions actually were witnessed, because there is a famous native wisdom keeper story that describes how and why this valley was filled with lava. All this and much more will be part of the experience while touring the Chain Of Craters Backcountry Byway, so be sure to log this adventurous Jeep trail on the books!
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