El Malpais, (pronounced “Mall-pie-ees”), “the badlands” in Spanish, aptly describes the tens of thousands of acres of craggy lava flows, some up to 800,000 years old, that cover much of the 263,000-acre El Malpais National Conservation Area. The black basalt, far from lifeless, has been reinvaded by ponderosa pine and pinyon and juniper trees, as well as by various grasses and shrubs. This sparsely-vegetated, rocky terrain provides habitat for reptiles, small mammals, birds (including hawks and eagles), and coyotes. Two wilderness areas, West Malpais and Cebolla, encompass almost 100,000 acres. West Malpais Wilderness Area includes Hole-in-the-Wall, a large expanse of grasslands underlain by 700,000-year-old lava and surrounded by younger lava flows. Cebolla Wilderness Area is dotted with historic homesteads and archaeological sites that provide connections to the past.
The El Malpais National Conservation Area was established in 1987 and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. El Malpais NCA was established to protect nationally significant geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the Grants Lava Flows. The adjoining El Malpais National Monument was also established at the same time and is managed by the National Park Service.
In addition to the two wilderness areas, the NCA includes dramatic sandstone cliffs, canyons, La Ventana Natural Arch, the Chain of Craters Back Country Byway and the Narrows Picnic Area. There are many opportunities for photography, hiking, camping and wildlife viewing within this unique NCA.
For more than 10,000 years people have interacted with the El Malpais landscape. Historic and prehistoric sites provide connections to past times. More than mere artifacts, these cultural resources are kept alive by the spiritual and physical presence of contemporary Indian groups, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo. These tribes continue their ancestral uses of El Malpais including gathering plant materials, paying respect, and renewing ties.