Depending which direction a traveler enters El Malpais National Monument, the visitor center will either be the first stop or the last stop when doing the tour. In fact, the visitor center is not really located along either of the paved touring routes within this park, so it will likely not be stumbled upon along the way. The El Malpais Visitor Center can be found on Interstate Highway 40 between the two park access roads, so this is actually is a good spot for starting a venture. On the downside, it will be a flip of the coin as to which of the park roads to explore first, because there are so many points of interest along either touring route! This is where the visitor center fits into the picture, because all of the information needed to make an El Malpais adventure happen can be found here.
The visitor center at El Malpais is also a natural history museum that houses exhibits which thoroughly explain the unique volcanic geology of this region, which is quite a study in itself! Several large cinder cones flooded this wide valley with molten lava way back in ancient times. The native legends of how El Malpais came to be are conveyed in the visitor center exhibits and this story is fascinating to ponder over, especially when considering how far back the volcanic event timeline goes.
There is a short hiking trail at the visitor center and all it takes is a few steps down the path to see why this valley is also called Lava Land. Chunks of lava are scattered all over the fields and there are a few lava flows in this part of the park. Most of the solid black lava flows are just a few miles south of this spot, so the trails near the visitor center are like a primer course. The lava chunks are also an indicator of what kind of footing should be worn when hiking over the sharp jagged lava rock trails. There are also a few long lava caves to explore in this park and the regulations for spelunking are posted in the visitor center.
Because of the rugged nature of the sharp jagged lava fields, El Malpais certainly is a dangerous place and a severe injury can easily occur even during a short hike. Safety measures have to be considered when exploring this park, because everything from rattlesnakes to deep lava holes will be encountered along the trails in this harsh landscape. Letting friends or the rangers know about the excursion plan is good to do when caving or exploring the back country, just in case the unexpected occurs. El Malpais may be very unforgiving, but the majestic beauty of this unique volcanic landscape is simply impossible to resist!
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