New Mexico: El Malpais National Monument

View of the El Malpais lava fields
View of the El Malpais lava fields

Atrributed to Bryce Chackerian, Public Domain

The part of New Mexico that is now in El Malpais National Monument is a land covered in old lava flows, sandstone bluffs, ice caves, and lava tubes. People have adapted to and used this diverse and mysterious landscape for a myriad of purposes for more than 10,000 years. By the mid 1500s, early Spanish explorers named this area El Malpais, meaning “the bad country” or “badlands” because they found the jagged and jumbled black rock treacherous to navigate. For thousands of years American Indians have found ways in which to live in, around, and sometimes on 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, economical, 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, provides evidence 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. They adapted to their environment and were able to find many 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. They manipulated pieces of lava rock into tools for grinding, weaving, painting, and hunting. The people also utilized surrounding mesa tops and valleys to build domestic dwellings or conduct agricultural pursuits.

By creating rock bridges (ancient bridges where rocks were used to fill crevices, allowing passage to the other side) and rock cairns (stacks of rocks that are used as trail indicators), ancestral Puebloans were able to use and navigate the “bad lands.” Rock cairns are still used and are 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. Around 1250, archeological evidence suggests that the ancestral Puebloan people left their communities and likely moved to the pueblos of Acoma or Zuni. These two major American Indian tribes flanked the malpais during this time. The Zuni resided on the western side of the lava beds, while the Acoma Pueblo was to the east.

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 and experience 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 with evidence that suggests that they that 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, which had spiritual and religious significance for the Pueblos of Acoma and Zuni over 1,000 years ago, still does today.

American Indian, Spanish and Anglo cultures have all played a role in the history of this cultural landscape--from the Puebloan cultures who settled here more than over 1000 years ago, 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.

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 and 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.

Last updated: August 7, 2017