El Malpais National Monument

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El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
Malpais pahoehoe.jpg
Pahoehoe lava flow in El Malpais National Monument
Map showing the location of El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
Map showing the location of El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
Map showing the location of El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
Map showing the location of El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
LocationCibola County, New Mexico, USA
Nearest cityGrants, NM
Coordinates34°52′38″N 108°03′03″W / 34.87722°N 108.05083°W / 34.87722; -108.05083Coordinates: 34°52′38″N 108°03′03″W / 34.87722°N 108.05083°W / 34.87722; -108.05083
Area114,276 acres (462.46 km2)[1]
EstablishedDecember 31, 1987 (1987-December-31)
Visitors105,356 (in 2011)[2]
Governing bodyNational Park Service
WebsiteEl Malpais National Monument

El Malpais National Monument is a National Monument located in western New Mexico, in the Southwestern United States.[3] The name El Malpais is from the Spanish term Malpaís, meaning badlands, due to the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic field that covers much of the park's area.

It is on the Trails of the Ancients Byway, one of the designated New Mexico Scenic Byways.[4]

Geography and geology[edit]

View of El Malpais Lava Fields and sandstone bluff

The lava flows, cinder cones, and other volcanic features of El Malpais are part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, the second largest volcanic field in the Basin and Range Province.[3] This volcanically active area on the southeast margin of the Colorado Plateau is located on the ancient Jemez Lineament, which provides the crustal weakness that recent magmatic intrusions and Cenozoic volcanism are attributed to.[5]

The rugged pahoēhoē and ʻaʻā lava flows of the Zuni-Bandera eruptions (also called the Grants Lava Flows) filled a large basin, created by normal faulting associated with the Rio Grande Rift, between the high mesas of the Acoma Pueblo to the east, Mt. Taylor to the north, and the Zuni Mountain anticline to the northwest. Vents associated with these flows include Bandera Crater, El Calderon, and several other cinder cones; more than a dozen older cinder cones follow a roughly north-south distribution along the Chain of Craters west of the monument.[6]


Looking out of Giant Ice Cave in the Big Tube area

El Malpais has many lava tubes open to explore (unguided) with a free caving permit, available at NPS-staffed facilities. There are currently four caves accessible by permit: Junction and Xenolith caves in the El Caldron area, and Big Skylight and Giant Ice caves in the Big Tubes area. From December 2010 to June 2013, all caves were temporarily closed to recreational use to protect bats from the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) until a permitting process, including visitor screening for WNS, could be implemented.[7]

A nearby scenic overlook at Sandstone Bluffs offers spectacular panoramic views over the monument's lava flows.[8]

Natural history[edit]

Some of the oldest Rocky Mountain Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii subsp. glauca) on Earth can be found living in El Malpais Monument.[9] In 2020, a new population of hart's-tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) was discovered inside of a cave with basaltic lava flows in El Malpais, which represents the first confirmed population of the species in the United States or Canada west of the Mississippi; all other known populations of the fern are around the Great Lakes, Alabama, and Tennessee. Genetic analyses and surveys are currently being performed to determine the population's variation and overall health.[10]


The area around El Malpais was used for resources, settlement, and travel by Oasisamerica cultures, Native Americans, and Spanish colonial and pioneer exploration. Archaeological sites remain in the park.[11]

In the 1940s the Malpais lava field was one of the eight candidate sites considered by the Manhattan Project to test detonate the first atomic bomb, the Trinity nuclear test, which did occur to the south at White Sands Proving Ground.[12] The Department of Defense did use the site as a bombing range to train pilots during World War II.[11]

After the war, the Bureau of Land Management became the administrator of the area. In 1987, President Reagan signed Pub.L. 100–225 that created El Malpais National Monument and designated it a unit of the National Park Service.[13] It is jointly managed with the nearby El Morro National Monument.

Protection and management[edit]

El Malpais National Conservation Area: La Ventana Natural Arch

The U.S. National Park Service protects, manages, and interprets El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais Visitor Center (formerly The Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center) is just south of Exit 85 off I-40 in Grants, New Mexico.[7]

The adjacent El Malpais National Conservation Area is protected and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.[14] They staff the El Malpais National Conservation Area Ranger Station 8 miles down State Highway 117 south of I-40 Exit 89.[15]

The Cibola National Forest conserves large natural areas, wildlife, and habitats in the surrounding region as well.[16]

In literature[edit]

The second portion of the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley takes place on the "savage reservation", which is located on land encompassing the park's area.[17]

The malpais is the setting for a western story, "Flint" (November, 1960) by Louis L'Amour. Flint is a successful business man who thinks he is dying of cancer and returns to a hidden campsite within the malpais he had learned of in his youth.[18]

A scene in Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian takes place on the malpais.[19]


  1. ^ "Listing of acreage – December 31, 2011" (XLSX). Land Resource Division, National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-05-13. (National Park Service Acreage Reports)
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-05-13.
  3. ^ a b "Zuni-Bandera". Global Volcanism Program. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2008-12-10.
  4. ^ Trail of the Ancients. Archived August 21, 2014, at the Wayback Machine New Mexico Tourism Department. Retrieved August 14, 2014.
  5. ^ Channer, Michael A.; Ricketts, Jason W.; Zimmerer, Matthew; Heizler, Matthew; Karlstrom, Karl E. (1 October 2015). "Surface uplift above the Jemez mantle anomaly in the past 4 Ma based on 40Ar/39Ar dated paleoprofiles of the Rio San Jose, New Mexico, USA". Geosphere. 11 (5): 1384–1400. doi:10.1130/GES01145.1.
  6. ^ Maxwell, C.H. (1986). "Geologic map of the El Malpais Lava field and surrounding areas, Cibola County, New Mexico". U.S. Geological Survey Miscellaneous Investigations Series Map. I-1595. Retrieved 20 November 2020.
  7. ^ a b "El Malpais Visitors Center". National Park Service. 2008-10-21. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  8. ^ "Sandstone Bluffs". El Malpais National Monument. National Park Service. 2013-01-03. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  9. ^ "Nature & Science". El Malpais National Monument. National Park Service. 2013-01-03. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  10. ^ New Mexico Rare Plant Technical Council (7 November 2019). "Rare Plans in the News". New Mexico Rare Plants. University of New Mexico. Retrieved 12 March 2022.
  11. ^ a b "History & Culture". El Malpais National Monument. National Park Service. 2012-12-23. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  12. ^ "Trinity Atomic Web Site". Walker, Gregory. Archived from the original on 2010-04-20. Retrieved 2010-08-20.
  13. ^ Mangum, Neil C. (1990). "In the land of frozen fires: A history of occupation in El Malpais country" (PDF). Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Paper. 32. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  14. ^ "El Malpais National Conservation Area". Bureau of Land Management. 2007-07-11. Archived from the original on 2008-10-14. Retrieved 2008-12-10.
  15. ^ "Sites Along Highway 117". National Park Service. 2008-10-21. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  16. ^ Cibola National Forest and Grasslands. "About the Forest". US Forest Service.
  17. ^ Meckier, Jerome (2002). "Aldous Huxley's Americanization of the "Brave New World"" (PDF). Twentieth Century American Literature. 48 (4): 439. JSTOR 3176042. Retrieved December 30, 2021.
  18. ^ L'Amour, Louis (2005). Flint (Bantam reissue ed.). New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780553899153. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  19. ^ Vann, David (13 November 2009). "American inferno". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 March 2022.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mabery, Marilyn (1987). The Volcanic Eruptions of El Malpais: A Guide to the Volcanic History and Formations of El Malpais National Monument. Ancient City Press. p. 83. ISBN 1-58096-007-3.

External links[edit]