BLM’s West Malpais Wilderness, located within the El Malpais National Conservation Area, includes 39,540 acres. It encompasses grassland, pinon-juniper woodland, ponderosa pine parkland, and basalt lava fields.
A myriad of trees, shrubs, mammals, reptiles, grasses, fungi and other creatures make this area their home. These life forms interact with and influence one another, manifesting the gossamer web of life in this harsh, dry environment. Lichen slowly dissolves rock, drawing sustenance from stone. This process provides new soil and a toehold for new plant growth. Antelope, deer, rabbits, and squirrels forage for these plants and scarce water, and occasionally their struggle for existence is ended by the crush of a cougar’s bite or the talons of a redtailed hawk. Lightning-caused wildfires sweep through areas, destroying some plants, while releasing vital nutrients for others and opening up new niches in which life may begin anew.
The presence of humans is in evidence also. The ancestors of today’s American Indians and modern day ranchers and homesteaders have influenced and interacted within this ever-changing community of life.
Within the West Malpais Wilderness is a 6700-acre “kipuka”, a Hawaiian term meaning island of fertile ground, called Hole-In-The-Wall. The area is underlain by the 700,000-year-old North Plains lava flows and is inhabited by numerous forms of life, surrounded and segregated from their original biotic communities by a sea of broken, jagged basalt.
Many species have adapted to the unique conditions here, and in some cases, varieties prosper that have not lived in adjacent areas for a very long time. This tract is an isolated pocket of ponderosa pine forest with some open areas of rangeland. The area is bounded by the Hoya de Cibola lava flow to the west, the Bandera lava flow to the north, and the McCarty’s lava flow to the east.
You can explore above and below ground lava features, photograph a newborn antelope taking its first wobbly steps, or backpack down a trail that may have been used by people in a previous century.
The West Malpais Wilderness and Hole-In-The-Wall are places for you to savor solitude, encounter some of the earth’s primeval past, and experience the solace and satisfaction that comes from living at its elemental edge.
Hiking, backpacking, wildlife viewing and horseback riding are a few of the primitive type recreation activities available.
Additional hikes in El Malpais National Conservation Area are listed here -- Trails Brochure. And 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.
Location and Access
The West Malpais Wilderness is located south of Grants, NM, and is within El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA). The easier driving route to access the West Malpais Wilderness and Hole-In-The-Wall is from the south end of the NCA off NM 117. Drive south on NM 117 from I-40 until you reach County Road 42, also known as the Chain of Craters Back Country Byway. County Road 42 begins approximately 35 miles from the NM 117 turn-off from I-40. From NM 117, proceed northwest on County Road 42 for approximately 2.1 miles. Take the right fork to the north and go approximately five miles up the “cherry stem” road to the West Malpais Wilderness trail-head.
Hole-in-the-Wall and the interior of the West Malpais Wilderness are accessed from the north by turning south from NM 53 onto County Road 42. Contact the BLM ranger station on NM 117 or Northwest NM Visitor Center in Grants for further information.