El Malpais National Conservation Area
The El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA) was established in 1987 to protect nationally significant geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field. El Malpais translates to "the badlands" in Spanish.
The NCA includes dramatic sandstone cliffs, canyons, La Ventana Natural Arch, Chain of Craters Back Country Byway, Joe Skeen Campground, the Narrows Picnic Area, and the Cebolla and West Malpais Wilderness Areas. 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 the past. More than mere artifacts, these cultural resources are kept alive by the spiritual and physical presence of contemporary Native American groups, including the Ramah Navajo and Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni. These tribes continue their ancestral uses of El Malpais including gathering plant materials, paying respect, and renewing ties.
El Malpais National Conservation Area Community Art Program
Artwork by Christian Bigwater displayed at the El Malpais Visitor Center as part of the community art program.
The Public Lands Interpretive Association and the Bureau of Land Management invited artists from El Malpais' surrounding areas to participate in a unique collaboration: to create a narrative connection between art and land stewardship, history, culture, and land conservation. Highlighting the stewardship, history, culture, and land conservation of El Malpais NCA and celebrating local artists in showcasing the area and its communities for generations to come. Through this project, we hope visitors to the area can enjoy art while gaining knowledge about the importance of resources of this unique area of the New Mexico Landscape.
Learn more about the artists featured through the El Malpais Community Art Program:
Join the Adventure at El Malpais NCA!
The El Malpais NCA Junior Ranger Guide explores the amazing history, culture, geology, and other natural resources found in El Malpais NCA. The guide has a variety of educational activities, including word games, logic puzzles, and coloring activities. Download the guide to print at home. You can also request to have a copy mailed to you by calling the Rio Puerco Field Office at 505-761-8700.
When the guide is completed, you can take the oath with an onsite Ranger at El Malpais NCA, become an official El Malpais Junior Ranger, and receive your badge! If you are unable to complete the guide on site, mail your completed booklet to the address below and we will send your patch to you! 100 Sun Ave NE, Suite 330, Albuquerque, NM 87109.
Know Before You Go
- Open year-round.
- Note that use may be restricted periodically due to fire dangers or other management needs.
- BLM welcomes visitors back to the El Malpais National Conservation Area Ranger Station March 18, 2022! Come explore our new exhibit on reopening weekend from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., March 18 - March 20, 2022.
- Normal operating hours will be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Ranger Station is located 9 miles south of south of I-40 Exit 89 (Quemado) on NM Highway-117.
- Joe Skeen Campground: This campground is open year round with no reservations available. This area is first come, first served. There are no camping fees at Joe Skeen Campground. Restrooms are available.
- La Ventana Natural Arch Recreation Area and South Narrows Picnic Area: Parking and use are allowed from sunrise to sunset. No overnight camping is permitted. Restrooms are available.
- No Camping is allowed at the South Narrows Picnic Area/Narrows Rim Trailhead
- Note that the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, a National Parks Service area, closes at dusk.
- Learn more about National Parks Service El Malpais National Monument by visiting their website.
Safety: Visitors should be cautious during the monsoon season due to unpredictable weather and flash flooding. Any outing in El Malpais should include daypacks with water, snacks, rain gear, a first aid kit, and sunscreen. Visitors planning on hiking the lava terrain will need sturdy hiking boots. Trails can be uneven, steep and even icy in the winter. Exploring BLM lava tube caves requires being prepared with warm clothing, protective headgear, three sources of light, and leather gloves. To go caving in the national monument, you must have the appropriate gear and a free caving permit. Read our General Rules and Regulations.
INFORMATION ABOUT THE AREA
El Malpais Ranger Station: Operating hours will be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Ranger Station is located 9 miles south of I-40 Exit 89 (towards Quemado) on NM Highway-117.
Joe Skeen Campground: This high desert campground is set back from the highway. Each of the 10 free campsites (no reservation system/first come, first served basis) has a covered picnic table, fire grill, and tent space. There are two vault toilets. Some of the sites have pull through parking ideal for total lengths up to 50 feet. There is a steep arroyo at the entrance and drivers should inspect it before entering. The road is graveled and passable in most conditions, though visitors should wait for water in the arroyo to dissipate before attempting to cross.
There is a maximum of fifteen people and two vehicles per campsite. Stay is limited to 7 days per month in the campground and total stay in the NCA is limited to 14 days per month. Quiet hours are from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM. No livestock or horses are permitted in the campground. Collecting of firewood and any other natural or historic object is prohibited. Check with local authorities for open fire regulations for each day. No fireworks or firearms can be discharged in the campground. Hunting is prohibited within ½ mile of the campground and other developed recreation sites.
Volunteer camp host applications are accepted year round. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.
South Narrows Picnic Area: This day use area is set just off of NM Highway 117 and tucked against the sandstone cliffs among piñon and juniper trees. There are six covered picnic tables with fire grills available. The area also has two vault toilets. No overnight camping is allowed in the area.
The Narrows Rim Trail is located near the entrance at the south end of the picnic area. The trail takes you to the top of a 500 foot sandstone mesa where you will have scenic views of the lava beds and surrounding country along the way. At the end of the trail, you will have a great view of La Ventana Natural Arch. This trail is located in a designated Wilderness area and is not accessible by bicycle. The hike is approximately 8 miles round trip. Read more about the Narrows Rim hike. Take a virtual tour of the Narrows Rim Trail and Picnic Area.
La Ventana Natural Arch Recreation Area: This relatively easy trail is a quarter of a mile to the base of La Ventana, one of New Mexico’s largest natural arches. The trail transitions from paved to primitive as you enter the Federally designated Cebolla Wilderness surrounded by dramatic sandstone cliff formations, piñon and juniper trees, and a variety of shrubs and grasses. Please stay on the trail and help protect our fragile resources. Overnight camping and rock climbing are strictly prohibited. Restrooms are available at the trailhead.
Armijo Canyon: This is a pleasant, 4½ mile hike winds among piñon and juniper trees and will take you to a well preserved pueblo ruin and homestead. Keep in mind this trail can be very sandy. This is a designated Wilderness area and is not accessible by bicycle. The Dittert Site, a pueblo ruin, is at the mouth of Armijo Canyon. Read more about it here.
Driving Directions: Drive south on NM Highway 117 for 22.6 miles until you reach County Road (CR) 41, or “Pietown road.” Drive south on CR 41 for approximately 3.7 miles until you reach the Armijo Canyon sign, which will be on the east side of the road. Turn left and after approximately a mile and a half you will reach the parking area and trailhead. CR 41 and the road leading to Armijo Canyon may become impassable when wet, so please keep an eye on the weather.
Hole-in-the-Wall: This is a great hike for avid hikers and backpackers. Hole-in-the-Wall is a 6700 acre kīpuka that consists of ponderosa pine forests and open rangeland completely surrounded by lava. Accessing Hole-in-the-Wall requires hiking several miles across open plains and lava flows. This is a designated Wilderness area and is not accessible by bicycle. Please pack in plenty of water, as there are no reliable water sources in the area. Read more about Hole-in-the-Wall here.
Driving Directions: Drive south on NM 117 until you reach CR 42, also known as Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway. Turn on this road and proceed northwest for approximately 2.1 miles until you reach a fork in the road, take a right and proceed north for approximately 5 miles to the trailhead. Please keep an eye on the weather, CR 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail: The trailheads along CR 42 provide access to the 3100 mile long National Scenic and Historic Continental Divide Trail that follows the continental divide all the way from Mexico to Canada. This section of the trail winds among the Chain of Craters and passes through piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine and a variety of shrubs and grasses. It is approximately 20 miles from CR 42 trailhead to CR 42 trailhead. Pack in plenty of water as there are no reliable sources of water in the area. Please keep an eye on the weather, County Road 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.
Driving Directions: From NM Highway 53, drive southwest on NM 53 to CR 42 Turn south on CR 42 and drive approximately 5 miles until you reach the trailhead. Parking is available at the trailhead. The trail is marked with a rock cairn across the road from the parking area.
From NM Highway 117, drive south on Highway 117 until you reach CR 42. Drive approximately 9 miles on CR 42 to the trailhead. Parking is available at the trailhead and the trail is marked with a rock cairn adjacent to the parking area.
Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas: El Malpais National Conservation Area hosts a myriad of designated Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas, which allow visitors to experience primitive recreation, solitude, and breathtaking landscapes. Learn more about BLM Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas here. Find out more about wilderness in El Malpais below:
- Cebolla Wilderness
- West Malpais Wilderness
- Canyons Wilderness Study Area
- Chain of Craters Wilderness Study Area
- El Malpais Wilderness Study Area
National Parks Service: For information on the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, Acoma-Zuni Trail, the Lava Falls Area, Big Tubes Area, or general cave exploration please visit the NPS website.
El Malpais is located 80 miles west of Albuquerque and just south of Grants, New Mexico. Two state highways provide access to the NCA from Interstate 40. Exit 89, east of Grants, will take you along NM Highway 117 and provide access to the BLM Ranger Station, several developed recreation sites, and Cebolla Wilderness. Exit 81, west of Grants, will take you along NM Highway 53 which provides access to Continental Divide Trail trailheads, West Malpais Wilderness, Hole-in-the-Wall trailhead, and El Calderon (National Park Service). The BLM Ranger Station is located 9 miles south of I-40 Exit 89 on NM Highway 117. The GPS coordinates above correspond to the BLM Ranger Station. El Malpais National Monument Visitor Center (National Park Service): 1900 E Santa Fe Ave. Grants, New Mexico 87020 (505) 876-2783.