Lava Tubes and Caving

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(c) Kenneth Ingham 2013

Lava tube caves, with their fascinating geology and hidden ice formations, await your careful exploration. With a free caving permit and the proper equipment, you can experience these magnificent underworlds. For more information, such as which caves are available for entry, permitting requirements, recommended equipment, maps to caves, etc., please download a copy of our caving brochure.

Cave Permits

Caving permits are available at the El Malpais Information Center or at the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center. These permits are free, but visitors will need to speak with a ranger about previous caving experience and receive cave safety and conservation information. Cave permits are only valid for the months indicated and for entry into specific caves. A new permit is required if visitors go to caves outside the monument and then return to re-enter caves here at El Malpais.

The Caves

NOTE: Junction Cave is closed seasonally to protect hibernating bats. Please call 505-876-2783 for details on the caving season at Junction Cave.

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A map showing the locations of caves open for recreational caving with a mandatory permit.

El Calderon Area
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(c) Kenneth Ingham

Junction Cave

The easiest cave to access, Junction is a great "first cave."

Map & Guide

Xeno150

(c) Kenneth Ingham

Xenolith Cave

Some of the most challenging, and rewarding, cave exploration in the park.

Map & Guide

Big Tubes Area

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(c) Kenneth Ingham

Big Skylight Cave

After a rugged hike into the lava flow wilderness, this grand cave must be seen to be believed.

Map & Guide

Giant Ice Cave

A small floor of ice lasts year-round at the back of this cave; a cool retreat on warm summer days.

Map & Guide

How Lava Tubes Form

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Modified from Bruce Rodgers, USGS

Lava tubes can form in two ways: as shown above, and another way not illustrated here, when new lava pushes in underneath older layers of lava flows, "inflating" them from underneath. These inflated areas later drain and leave behind empty lava tubes, usually very wide and low in cross-section profile. Many of the caves in the monument formed this way.

The Lava Flows

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A history of the lava flows in El Malpais National Monument and surrounding area.

The El Malpais lava flows are of different ages and origins. The youngest is the McCarty's Flow, which is roughly 3,000 years old and can be seen on the east side of the monument along Hwy 117. The flow creates a stunning landscape in the Lava Falls area and the Lava Falls Loop Trail offers visitors an up close look at many pahoehoe lava features. The oldest volcanic rocks in the area are hard to see - dust, soil, and plants have covered them. However, the cinder cones of the Chain of Craters are still impressive for their 0.6-0.7 million year age. Mount Taylor and associated lava flows, northeast of the monument near Grants, are even more ancient at 1.5 to 3.3 million years old.

Did You Know?