The Beauty Behind the Badlands

By Jaclyn Waggoner

On a rainy and foggy morning in northwest New Mexico, I made my first journey through El Malpais as a park ranger.  Despite being born and raised in New Mexico, I had never before been to the area.  The fog from the recent rains danced around the tall sandstone cliff formations on one side of the road and skirted along the top of the jet black lava flows on the other.  I will never forget that gloomy and dark day because it was the day I fell in love with El Malpais.

A man wearing cold-weather gear looking at a natural stone structure.
The La Ventana Natural Arch in El Malpais National Conservation Area.  (BLM) 
El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA), managed by the BLM, and the adjoining El Malpais National Monument, managed by the National Park Service, were established in 1987 to protect “unique and nationally important geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources.”  The lava flows in the area constitute one of the most significant volcanic areas in the United States, comparable to Hawaii.  The name El Malpais is Spanish for “the badlands,” named because of the rugged lava terrain.  The lava flows in the area range from 3,000 to 3 million years in age and originate from the dozens of volcanoes within the region.  There are amazing viewpoints and overlooks of the 100,000 acres of lava flows in the national monument and several trails that lead visitors right out onto the rough terrain.

Perhaps the most famous site within the NCA is La Ventana Natural Arch, which, at 135 feet, is one of the largest sandstone arches in the state.  With easy access from Highway 117, visitors can see the arch from the road or take a short hike to it.  The 263,000-acre NCA also includes two federally designated wilderness areas that are rich in prehistoric archaeological sites, petroglyphs, historic homesteads, spectacular scenery, and, of course, great hiking opportunities, including a section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

So what is the story behind this scenic and historic area?  Rick Hanks, the area manager for the Rio Puerco BLM office in the 1980s, told me about his idea of starting a friends group for the area.  He was at a meeting discussing Mount Taylor, an area not far from El Malpais, and was intrigued by the attachment people had to the site.  “I wanted to create that kind of attachment to El Malpais.  To get the community engaged and the area being theirs instead of just belonging to the BLM.”  Los Amigos del Malpais sprang from that idea.

Sheila Brewer was one of the charter members and has volunteered at least 1 day a week since 1986 when the group was formed.  Brewer said that in the beginning, there were about 40-50 people involved in Los Amigos.  She recalled that a number of land acquisitions occurred to make the area what it is today.  Getting the area designated was no easy task, but with lots of support from Los Amigos del Malpais, the place soon gained federal designation.  Hanks said that Los Amigos played a vital role in the process.

Unfortunately, Los Amigos del Malpais lost momentum in the late 1990s because, as Brewer put it, “We all just got a little too old.”  But the legacy of the group and the hard work that it did to help get this area designated will live on forever.  Individual volunteers still play a major role in the daily functions within the NCA.

With visitation reaching 58,500 in 2010, the NCA is definitely being discovered.  Visitors today enjoy everything from taking in the picturesque views to hiking along the scenic trails to participating in ranger-guided programs that explore the historical and cultural past of the region.  Hanks’ original vision of a public connection to these remarkable lands is coming to fruition.  Something as simple as the openness and the ability to see for miles without a power line, building, or highway are things we often take for granted in the beautiful realm of the badlands of El Malpais.

Jaclyn Waggoner is a native of New Mexico.  She is currently a ranger at El Malpais National Conservation Area in BLM’s Albuquerque District.  A graduate of the University of New Mexico, she has worked for the BLM since 2003.