April 24, 2012

El Malpais National Monument

After winning our big money at the Sandia Casino, we packed up our things and hit interstate 40 west to El Malpais National Monument. We’d called the park service earlier in the week asking about camping opportunities, and they recommended that we stop at the free BLM campground off of highway 117.

We drove in just before sunset, with enough time to find the brightly colored yellow cattle guard that marks the entrance to the Joe Skeen BLM campground. After a short drive down a bumpy gravel road, we circled the grounds and picked out our spot. This campground is very well developed for  its “primitive” status, although there is no water or other amenities.

Our camping spot
Our spot was on the west edge of the circle, and had steep bluffs that offered a good view of the desert. We found a place to sit on the bluffs and were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

Sky, on the bluffs, watching the sunset
Sunset reflections in our window
Sometime after dinner, Sky stepped outside the trailer. He called me to come outside as well because the sky was amazing. We were so far out in the country, away from light pollution, that it was completely dark, the moon was barely a slice in the sky, and there were stars EVERYWHERE. I saw constellations I’d never seen before! It was awesome. Now if only Yair and Ayo had been there with their telescope!

The following morning, we woke up early, ate breakfast and decided to try out a back country road we’d seen on our way in as a good venue to walk our pups. It turned out to be a dirt road that eventually lead into a field of cows. There was a large pack of cows and calves grazing right in the middle of the road; the road that circled back to our campground. After observing the cows for some time, Sky made the call to walk among the cows instead of going back the way we’d come. I didn’t like the looks of the mama cows, but since we’d been around cows before, I figured it was probably ok. We started heading their way, several skittered away, but one of the mama cows (the one with the horns…) looked up at us and stepped in our direction. That was right about the time we walked away hurriedly back the way we had come. Bessie followed us for a while, but gave up when she saw that we weren’t up for the duel.

Bessie, the mean cow
After that heart-pattering adventure, we went out to explore El Malpais. El Malpais is a collection of lava flow remains from nearby volcanic eruptions that occured over many centuries. You drive along highway 117, and there is black hardened lava in the fields. It was probably smooth when it first flowed, but now the lava is in huge jagged chunks, having been eroded over time with plant growth and weathering.

Lava flow views off of 117
We drove to see the Natural Arch, and turned after going through the Narrows. The Narrows is a stretch of highway 117 that is tall bluffs on one side, and lava flows right beside the road on the other. 

The beginning of the Narrows
The Natural Arch
On the way back to highway 40, we pulled in to the Sandstone Bluffs overlook to get a better overview look at the fields of lava.

Old lava flows in the valley below the sandstone bluffs
Even if you choose not to visit this free National Monument, you can still see the lava flows off of highway 40, heading from Albuquerque to the Arizona border. Look for them on the north side of the highway, after you see the exit for highway 117.

Find more pictures of El Malpais here.

Happy lava fields exploring,


Email me


  1. Ahhh, a climbing destination!


    I kind of hate you right now. Glad you're enjoying, though :-)

    1. :o) We probably camped right by there! The location sounds right about the same place the entrance to the BLM site was. You'll have to stay there when you go!