The Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza sent expeditions north in search of the rumored Seven Cities of Gold; The second capitol of Puerto Rico was set directly on the wide bay in a new settlement called Sa Juan.  Many of its original buildings remain in Old San Juan today.
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El Malpais National Monument

Grants, New Mexico

El Malpais Lava fields

View of the El Malpais lava fields
Atrributed to Bryce Chackerian, Public Domain



For over 10,000 years, people have occupied the area of New Mexico that is now a part of El Malpais National Monument, a land covered in old lava flows, sandstone bluffs, ice caves, and lava tubes. By the mid 1500s, early Spanish explorers named this area El Malpais, meaning “the bad country” or “badlands” because they found its 40-mile length of jagged and jumbled black rock treacherous to navigate. For thousands of years American Indians have found ways in which to live in and around these “bad lands.”

While archeological evidence proves that people interacted with the El Malpais landscape for more than 10,000 years, human occupation was the greatest between 950 A.D. and 1350 A.D. Around this time, Puebloan ancestors built the first permanent structures in the area. During the early years of their occupation, the ancestral Puebloans constructed pit houses and masonry structures. Eventually, in large part due to the influence of the extensive Chaco system (the Chaco system was a large political, economic, and spiritual system located 80 miles north of El Malpais), the ancestral Puebloans built complex, multi-story structures. The presence of Chaco-style architecture throughout El Malpais suggests that ancestral Puebloans were in contact with the Chaco system through economic exchange and religious pilgrimages. The presence of kivas, or ceremonial chambers, indicates that religion was an important element of the ancestral Puebloan way of life.

Visitors will encounter evidence of these early inhabitants in the archeological sites and petroglyphs at the Sandstone Bluffs. The ancestral Puebloans established their communities along the edges of the old lava flows adapting to their environment and finding useful purposes for the lava and the surrounding landscape. They used lava tubes as places of refuge during periods of extensive heat, and utilized ice from neighboring caves by allowing it to melt in storage jars. The Puebloans also manipulated pieces of lava rock into tools for grinding, weaving, painting, and hunting. Surrounding mesa tops and valleys became the locations for domestic dwellings or agriculture.

By creating rock bridges to fill crevices and rock cairns (stacks of rocks) for trail indicators, ancestral Puebloans were able to use and navigate the “bad lands.” Rock cairns are still a valuable tool for navigating trails at the Monument today.

Through their farming, navigation, religious, and economic systems, the ancestral Puebloans sustained their communities in and around El Malpais until the mid 1200s. Archeological remains suggest that the ancestral Puebloan people left their communities around 1250 and likely moved to the pueblos of Acoma or Zuni. The Zuni resided on the western side of the lava beds, while the Acoma Pueblo was to the east.

Zuni-Acoma Trail, which has been used for over 1,000 years
The Zuni-Acoma Trail has been used for over 1,000 years
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The pueblos of Acoma and Zuni are connected by one of the oldest highways in the area, the Zuni-Acoma Trail, which has been used for over 1,000 years. This trail cuts right through the spiritually significant lava flows that separate the two communities. Visitors can hike this trail even today. People of the ancient Pueblos of Acoma and Zuni likely built this trail to facilitate religious and economic pursuits. The trail helped move people across the lava flow as quickly and efficiently as possible. Parts of the trail lead to sites that suggest there may have been places of spiritual significance along the lava flow. Visitors can hike the 7.5-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail across the northern portion of the Monument in an environment that has not changed very much since people inhabited the area hundreds of years ago. The Zuni-Acoma Trail has had spiritual and religious significance for the Pueblos of Acoma and Zuni over 1,000 years ago and still does today.

The first known European record of El Malpais is in the diary of an early Spanish explorer. The Spanish began official and unofficial expeditions into New Mexico in the mid-1500s, where they searched for rumored cities of gold. They found none, but during their excursions they kept records of the landscape and its inhabitants. In March 1583, explorer Diego Pérez de Luxán wrote about his party’s struggle to travel around the “waterless malpais,” the first written description of entry into the lava beds. Luxán was a member of the Antonio de Espejo expedition, which sparked new interest in the territory. Fifteen years later, Governor Don Juan de Oñate officially colonized New Mexico for Spain.

American Indian, Spanish, and Anglo cultures have all played a role in the history of this cultural landscape--from the Puebloans to the Spanish explorers to the homesteaders who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna Pueblos and the Ramah Navajo all value this area as part of their history and culture.

Plan your visit

El Malpais National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located near Grants, NM. The Monument is south of Interstate 40 and is bordered by NM Highway 117 on the east, NM Highway 53 on the west, and County Road 42 on the south. The El Malpais Information Center is located 23 miles south of Grants, NM on NM 53. Visitors can also obtain information from the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center, located south of I-40 at exit 85. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service jointly run this center.

El Malpais National Monument is open year round at all hours except for the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, which closes at dusk. For more information, visit the National Park Service El Malpais National Monument website or call one of the following numbers, El Malpais Information Center 505-783-4774; Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center 505-876-2783; BLM Ranger Station 505-280-2918.

The El Malpais National Monument is featured in the National Park Service's Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary.

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