Exiting Interstate Highway 40 at Grants, New Mexico is a great way to get off the beaten path and enjoy the wide open spaces. From the offramp, State Road 53 runs southwest from Grants to the Zuni Village near the Arizona border. This scenic route through the western New Mexico mesa lands is a nice alternative to battling it out on the hectic four lane freeway when heading west. In this case, the road less traveled passes by two interesting National Monuments that many mainstream tourists overlook.
Both El Malpais National Monument and El Morro National Monument are located on SR 53, but only one of these destinations can be toured in a single day. El Morro is perfect for a day trip venture, while El Malpais requires about one week to see it all. For those who do the El Morro day trip, the roadside Lava Badlands Area along SR 53 is the most convenient place to become familiar with treacherous El Malpais landscape.
Upon first glance from the side of the road, El Malpais National Monument does not look like it has much to offer. All that can be seen is endless miles of eroded ancient black lava flows. Few landmark features can be noticed from the roadside and it is easy to assume that there is not much to do in this place. The roadside badlands are a formidable dangerous place, so they do have a way of imparting a negative initial impression that makes it safer to just go with the assumption that nothing is worth checking out here.
What makes El Malpais Badlands so unique will become obvious once a visitor takes a few steps into this wilderness area. The lava flows extend far out into the flat grassy valley, just like long wriggly snakes. The result is a maze of very rough jagged black volcanic rock that definitely ranks amongst the most rugged badlands areas in the entire west.
The valley floor lava fields are extensive in this place and in some places they look fresh enough to have been created yesterday. The name El Malpais translates to “The Land Of Frozen Fires” which adds credence to how weird the terrain looks. The basalt lava flow rocks are sharp, jagged and very hard, so the volcanic activity of this region must have been fairly recent on a geologic timeline. This is where a word of warning must also be stated for safety’s sake. When hiking on lava flows, one false step can lead to serious injury and medical help is a very long ways away, so it definitely pays to wear good rugged boots and protective gear. Rattlesnakes and scorpions also haunt this area, so there is no such thing as a carefree quick hike in El Malpais!
Where there are fresh jagged lava flows, there will also be dangerously steep narrow ravines and plenty of hidden lava tube caves. Some of the most popular cave trails are located along SR 53 in the Badlands area. The ancient hollow lava tubes at El Malpais attract spelunking enthusiasts from around the globe. A visitor can literally spend days exploring the hidden lava tube caves that run through this unique landscape. Caving Permits can be obtained at the El Malpais National Monument Visitor Center on Interstate Highway 40. The rangers at the Visitor Center are of great help and they will provide plenty of information about the equipment that will be necessary for exploring the caves. Preventing the spread of white nose bat disease is also part of the program. The main thing to keep in mind is to register before going spelunking, so the rangers know where to look if the unexpected occurs.
The El Malpais National Monument Badlands Overlook certainly is a good primer course for those plan to explore this rugged place. There is an information center on SR 53, but it is rarely staffed. The National Monument Visitor Center is located on I-40 and this is where all questions can be addressed. El Malpais definitely is a dangerous place that requires careful preparation when planning a hiking venture, but this is what exploring the wild west is all about!
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