El Malpais National Monument
Location: Grants, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: No
El Malpais National Monument is the site of an ancient volcanic eruption. The park is very spread out so unless you have several days to explore you’ll probably need to pick a few highlights. The park offers amble hiking, caving (you have to get a caving permit from the rangers ahead of time), and nightly bat flights. Most of El Malpais is undeveloped so if you plan to really explore the park please make sure you are well prepared as this is rugged terrain. Not a back county type of explorer? That’s ok, we aren’t either. There are still great ways to explore this park.
We arrived at El Mlapais at about 8:30 in the morning. Our first stop was the La Ventana Natural Arch. The arch is about a thirty-minute drive from the interstate and is actually in El Malpais National Conservation Area not the main park. You won’t find mention of it on the parks website. This spot is a hidden gem. Since we were there so early, we were able to spot several deer. You can see the arch fairly well from the road so you could just drive by but there is a small parking area and a short trail. The parking area also has a primitive toilet and a few picnic tables. The trail covers about a quarter-mile out to the arch and is very easy to walk. It’s not paved so I think strollers and wheelchairs would have a difficult time. The arch is well off the desert floor so you can’t actually walk up to it, but hiking the trail does get you a better view of the arch than you can really see from the road.
After spending about thirty minutes exploring the area surrounding the arch, we drove to the main visitor’s center. The Visitor’s Center is located just off of I-40 in Grants. We took the kids inside for the older two kids to finish their Jr Ranger badges and get some more information about the park. The visitor’s center has a nice display talking about the geological and cultural history of the park as well as a short film about the high desert ecology of New Mexico and a small gift shop.
After speaking to the ranger and getting Jr Ranger badges, we decided to explore the El Calderon Area of the park. The El Calderon Area is along New Mexico Hwy 53 and was about half way between the visitor’s center and our next park. El Calderon is actually a dormant volcano. The area surrounding is a large lava flow. At the trailhead you’ll find some primitive toilets and a few picnic tables. The full El Calderon hike is 3.8 miles but you can hike the dirt access road back to the picnic area to cut off about a mile of the hike. NPS claims this hike is easy to moderate. I’d say it was much more to the moderate side especially during the summer.
There is very little shade along the trail and no running water at the trailhead so be prepared before taking off. We started our hike at 10 in the morning and the temperatures were already very warm. The trail leads you past several lava caves. Part of our group did scramble down to peer into one of the caves and feel the nice cool air. The hike then continues at a fairly steady climb to the base of the volcano. There is a lot of cool lava flow rocks to check out along the way. When you reach the base of the volcano, there is a trail off to the left. If you follow that and then take a right when that trail y’s, you can actually hike to the top of the volcano. The ground changes dramatically from rough jagged rock, to pebble gravel and finally to very fine sand as you go. The hike to the top was strenuous. The trail then continued around the top of the volcano but we opted to go back down to get back to the main trail.
After the volcano the trail begins to go back downhill. About 1.5 miles into the loop the trail intersects with the service road. We chose to take that back to the picnic site as it was getting close to lunch time and the temperature was hot by this point. We saw a lot of squirrels and a hummingbird was highly attracted to our bright-colored clothing. We had a picnic lunch at trailhead area and then headed for our next stop.
Overall: El Malpais is a lot more rugged than most the national parks sites we visited on this trip. With proper planning even casual day users can have a lot of fun at this park. Be sure to pack plenty of water. Most of the park is not handicap or stroller accessible. The hiking was fun but hard work. We used backpack carriers for the toddlers. I would highly recommend stopping by this park on your way down I-40. The park was quiet. We only saw 3 or 4 other groups using the park in the several hours we were there. If you are looking for rustic nature this is great park to check out.