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El Malpais National Conservation Area

BLM Public Land
Pinyon- and juniper-studded sandstone soars into La Ventana, a high natural arch within the El Malpais National Conservation Area. –

ADA Accessibility Notes

El Malpais Ranger Station and restroom facilities throughout the National Conservation Area and National Monument are accessible. The view point trail to La Ventana Natural Arch is accessible and one picnic table at the Narrows Picnic Area will accommodate wheelchairs, but access is on packed dirt. In the monument, a portion of the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is wheelchair accessible.

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.

Pet Friendly Notes

Pets are allowed in the NCA but must be kept under control at all times. Pets are not permitted on nature hikes, in caves, or near cultural and historical sites. Animals that are trained to assist handicapped persons are the exception to this rule. Please keep plenty of water on hand for you and your pet as water sources are limited. Please respect wildlife at all times.

Recreational Opportunities

  • Guided Programs
    Ranger guided walks and other activities are offered throughout the NCA. Schedules of activities can be found at the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center located in Grants, the BLM Ranger Station located on NM 117, or the National Park Service Information Center located off Highway 53. Also, rangers can provide natural and cultural history talks for organized groups. Please contact BLM in advance to make arrangements. Education groups are welcome and activities can be conducted with school groups if arrangements are made in advance.
  • Picnicking
    The Narrows Picnic Area has five picnic table sites (one of which is accessible via hard pack dirt by wheelchairs) and two vault toilets. At Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, a picnic table and a vault toilet are available. Each visitor center also has one picnic table, water, and restrooms. La Ventana Natural Arch also has a picnic table and two vault toilets.
  • Camping
    El Malpais, NCA offers free, primitive camping at the Joe Skeen Campground (11 miles south on 117, from exit 89 on I-40 and 2 miles south of the BLM Ranger Station). The Joe Skeen campground offers 10 campsites with picnic tables and a vault toilet. The National Park Service also allows primitive camping, but a free permit is required. This can be obtained at El Malpais Information Center on NM 53. There are private developed campgrounds in Grants and near El Morro. The US Forest Service, Mt Taylor Ranger District, operates several campground in the Grants, NM area.
  • Bicycles
    Mountain bikes are permitted on any of the backcountry roads, however, like motorized vehicles, mechanical bikes or equipment are prohibited from wilderness areas.
  • Trails
    Trails Brochure
    Designated trails and routes will help you explore the varied landscapes of El Malpais. Ask at either visitor center for information on these trails: La Ventana Natural Arch Trail, Narrows Rim Trail, Acoma-Zuni Trail, Lava Falls Trail, Cerro Americano Trail, The Continental Divide Trail, Hole-in-the-Wall Trail, Bat Cave Trail, Big Tubes Trail, Braided Cave Trail, or the Ranger Station Nature Trail. Many other opportunities exist to hike to areas or locations that have no trails or along roads that are no longer used ask at El Malpais Ranger Station for suggestions.
  • Horseback riding
    There are numerous places for travel by horse or other stock animal. Contact staff at the visitor center for more information.


Seasons Accessible

The area is open all year, but summer daytime temperatures can be high. July, August, and the first part of September receive the most rainfall and roads may be impassable at times. The best time to visit is during the autumn months.