Welcome to Wilderness Wednesday, our weekly posting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
The El Malpais Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is our highlight this week. The southern portion of this multi-part WSA is characterized by lava flows old enough to have well-developed soils with grass, juniper, and piñon pine concealing the lava underneath. The WSA is within an area formerly designated, by BLM in 1974, as an Outstanding Natural Area. It was so designated to recognize and protect the volcanic features in their natural condition for scientific study and public enjoyment. At the time of designation, the public was encouraged to visit on foot. Today, visitors can hike the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST), which was designated in 1978 and passes through this part of the WSA.
In our January 22 Wilderness Wednesday, we described how WSAs are subject to a four step process: wilderness inventory, wilderness study, suitability recommendation, and Congressional action. The El Malpais WSA is an example of an exception to that process. Areas designated as “natural” or “primitive” prior to 1976 skipped the inventory step. In New Mexico, three areas met this condition. In the past, these were referred to as “Instant Study Areas,” signifying that they skipped the inventory step and proceeded directly to the wilderness study step.
To reach the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in this area, drive NM 117 south approximately 34 miles south of Interstate 40 to CR 42. Drive northwest on CR 42 approximately 2¼ miles to the intersection with a road on the right (This is a dirt road and may be impassible when wet). Turn right (north) and drive approximately ½ mile to a point at which the CDNST crosses the road. There is no trailhead; you must follow rock cairns and posts marking the trail. Hike east into the WSA.
For more information, please visit the El Malpais WSA website.
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