El Malpais National Monument is a large park that requires several days to thoroughly explore. There will be some extra driving time involved with the doing tour, because most of the trailheads and points of interest are located around the perimeter of this park, which means having to take the long way around. Even the Chain Of Craters back country Jeep trail takes nearly a full day to traverse, so there is no use trying to maintain a strict schedule. Being in a hurry is not the way to go and the rough volcanic terrain has a way of ensuring that hikers will go slow on the trails. As can be imagined, doing a complete tour of El Malpais definitely is a time consuming experience and the best frame of mind to adopt is to just go with it!
Modern amenities can be found in Gallup, Grants, Sky City or Albuquerque, but the commuting time to the park will be quite lengthy, which will likely become a deterrent. For this reason, camping on site is by far the best option when touring El Malpais. There are several camping modes to choose from, including the RV parks along Interstate Highway 40, which is Route 66 in these parts. There are also two BLM Dispersed Camping Areas can be found in the southeastern end of the park, which are well suited for land yacht cruisers on a budget.
A nice little campground can be found in the east end of this park that is perfect for car and tent campers. The Joe Skeen Campground is located on New Mexico State Road 117 just south of the Ranger Station, so it is easy to find. The dirt road to this campground is smooth enough for regular passenger cars and some of the campsite parking slips can accommodate large RV campers. This campground is actually located in the El Malpais National Conservation Area, which is BLM territory. The park rules are basically the same as inside the National Monument, but camping in the National Conservation Area is free of charge.
Only a small number of developed campsites are available in the Joe Skeen Campground, but they are top notch. Each of the developed campsites have a covered picnic table, large chargrill and a fire ring. A pit toilet is located on site for added convenience, but there is no running water, which is important to keep in mind. The fancy Joe Skeen campsites do fill up quick because there are only a few of them, but there are some undeveloped campsites across the grassy field where the big RVs and trailers usually park. The nearby BLM Dispersed Campgrounds are an option for busy days when no spots are available at Joe Skeen.
The Sandstone Cliffs and Ventana Arch are two of the most famous points of interest in El Malpais and both of these destinations are located just a few miles south of the Joe Skeen Campground. The Chain Of Craters 4x4 trail can be found a few miles south on SR 117 too. This long bumpy dirt road goes all the way to the Lava Tubes area in the west end of the park, which is yet another primary attraction that is well worth checking out.
The eastern and southern ends of El Malpais National Monument border upon the vast El Malpais National Conservation Area, which acts as a buffer zone to further protect this environmentally sensitive volcanic landscape. Since this is all public lands, this creates even more to roam, which will please adventurists to no end. Since maintaining a tight schedule is impossible to do at El Malpais, the timeless camping mode is best for doing a complete tour. The Joe Skeen Campground may be small, but it is in a good location for exploring this vast volcanic park, so be sure to keep this cozy spot in mind when planning the trip!
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