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Forged by fire

The Ventana Arch is a must see when visiting the area. It is one of the largest natural stone arches in the state. (Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

With New Mexico residents once again facing stringent lockdowns with no end in sight, finding ways to recreate safely to maintain sanity becomes paramount.

El Malpais National Monument ( south of Grants is a relatively close, wide-open space that lends itself easily to social distancing while providing an expansive exploration opportunity.

Cairns mark the way at Lava Falls Trail in El Malpais National Monument.

“A lot of these national parks tend to funnel people through visitors centers or trailheads,” said Ernie Price, chief of visitor services and interpretation for El Malpais and neighboring El Morro National Monument. “You can enjoy these trails safely if you plan ahead. So maybe this isn’t the time to go the visitor center.”

Actually, El Malpais visitor center at Grants is closed except for the vestibule to allow access to restrooms and area maps, most of which are available on the website.

But the trails are wide open and absolutely worth the effort, Price said.

A good place to start is the Lava Falls Trail, 36 miles south of I-40 on NM 117 at the southern reaches of the monument.

It’s a one-mile loop trail, “but it takes a little longer to hike,” Price said. “It’s almost pure lava. It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. But any of these trails, add a little extra time more than you would think for that distance.”

The youngest of the lava fields in the area, Lava Falls Trail includes a short spur at its midpoint that edges out to a vast natural amphitheater.

“It’s like walking into an arena,” he said. “It’s like a Roman theater and is definitely worth seeing.”

About halfway along the northern loop, gazing northwest is a small hill in the foreground known as McCartys Crater. A small shield volcano with a cinder cone near the top was named for a nearby small village. During World War II, the U.S. Army used the nine-square miles surrounding the crater as a practice bombing target.

A hiker takes a break along the Zuni-Acoma trail to enjoy the diversity of the landscape.

Just before the spur on the northern loop, a small fall of lava can be seen. Formed when one lava flow slowly dripped over the edge of a prior one, the small area behind it is a perfect habitat for moss and algae.

Just after the spur, a pygmy forest of mini ponderosa and piñon pines eke out existence within the flow. The twisting of the trunk and branches mimics the gnarling of the roots below the surface.

The loop trail also is a good spot to practice route-finding skills as the trail, per se, is more a series of rock cairns that mark the way.

Driving NM 117 south also takes visitors past La Ventana Arch on Bureau of Land Management acreage.

“La Ventana Arch is a must see if going down 117,” Price said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

An easy, quarter-mile trails leads up to one of the state’s largest natural arches.

And the Sandstone Bluffs area provides a bird’s eye view of El Malpais, as well as Mount Taylor to the north.

Lava within El Malpais takes numerous forms, including this example of ropy pahoehoe. (Courtesy  Jim Glover)

For experienced hikers, the rugged, 7.5-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail slices through the heart of El Malpais.

“It’s a very cool hike,” said Jim Glover, an advisory board member of the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division. “The cairns you follow, from cairn to cairn, have been there for hundreds of years. Because it’s lava on lava, it’s sometimes hard to spot. But that’s part of the fun challenge.”

A small lava falls along Lava Falls Trail in El Malpais National Monument. Courtesy National Park Service/John Kuehnert

The trail that exists today is a piece of what has been used by both Zuni and Acoma people to connect with each other for at least a thousand years, and continues to be used to this day

He recommends taking two cars, leaving one at either side of the trail and shuttling back to avoid having to back track.

“There are a lot of interesting things out there,” Glover said. “The Continental Divide Trail goes right through and sometimes you run into people hiking the trail going north to south.”

The area also has two significant lave-tube cave systems, but because of the pandemic, all caves have been closed to the public to protect the bats that call them home, Price said.