History & Culture

Homestead at El Malpais.
A lonely homestead lies next to a lava flow in El Malpais.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

At Home in the Badlands

For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indian civilizations crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremony. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.


Potsherds are traces of the past at El Malpais.
Potsherds provide connections to past cultures at El Malpais.

Photo by John Kuehnert.

The jagged volcanic landscape of what is now El Malpais National Monument has challenged many cultures as they have interacted with it through the years. Native American Cultures have had a long and continuous tradition with this landscape and called it home for thousands of years.
View of Acoma Pueblo with white ladders against a wall.
Acoma Pueblo Street with white ladders against a pueblo building.

Photo by John Kuehnert.

The lands of El Malpais have played an important role in the cultures of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni for thousands of years. Puebloan Cultures and their ties to the land are still evident today in places like the Zuni-Acoma Trail.
Spanish Expeditions explore the southwest.
A Spanish Expedition explores the southwest.

NPS Photo.

Early Spanish Explorers came into what is now western New Mexico and El Malpais in search of wealth and new lands.When they encountered the rugged lava flows, they named this area El Malpais, a Spanish term for the badlands or bad country.
Navajo people ride through Canyon de Chelly.
Navajo people ride through Canyon de Chelly.

Photo by Edward Curtis.

The Navajo, an Athabaskan related people originally from northern Canada and Alaska, settled in the southwest between four sacred mountains that mark their homeland. One of those sacred mountains is Mt Taylor or Turquoise Mountain. These hunter-agriculturalists became a wide roaming people after the acquisition of Spanish Horses. Prominent and well known springs just to the south of modern day Grants, the Ojo de Gallo were long a stopping point for travelers heading west to Zuni Pueblo. San Rafael, also known as El Gallo, is that same spring located near the malpais. In 1862, it was selected as the location of a military post named Fort Wingate. This post was established to counter Navajo raiding parties.
Logging Train in the Zuni Mountains.
A logging train in the Zuni Mountains.

NPS Photo.

By 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad forever transformed the malpais area. A small settlement soon grew up around the station which took the name of Grant. With the coming of the railroad and the establishment of Fort Wingate, the sheep and cattle industries flourished. As the railroad moved further west, new towns sprang up along the right of way. Logging in the Zuni Mountains soon began in earnest to supply the railroad, Fort Wingate and the new towns along the way.
Ruins of a homestead at El Malpais.
The remains of a homestead at El Malpais.

Photo by John Kuehnert

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more newcomers entered the area in search of new opportunity. Here in western New Mexico, this was one of the few remaining places to build a homestead under the Homestead Act. Numerous homesteads still dot the El Malpais today, telling the story of people seeking to find a better life.
Uranium mill near Grants, New Mexico
Uranium mill near Grants, New Mexico.

NPS Photo.

The 1950s ushered in one of the biggest changes to the malpais since the coming of the railroad: uranium. Large quantities of this chalky, yellow mineral were discovered around Grants. Fueled by the Cold war and great demand, the malpais area once again boomed.
View of Historic Route 66 with black lava flow along the road.
A View of the lava flows from Historic Route 66.

NPS Photo.

Just as the Tanscontinental Railroad vastly improved transportation in the 19th Century, Route 66 was the nation's first all- weather highway linking the country with California. Route 66 contributed to the growth of many communities along the way. It also allowed millions of travelers to experience the scenic beauty and human history of western states like New Mexico.
El Malpais National Monument Sign
El Malpais National Monument Entrance Sign.

Photo by John Kuehnert

By the early 1980s, the market and demand for uranium was waning. As it had many times before with different industries, this boom finally ended. In late 1987, after many years of negotiation, the malpais area finally became El Malpais National Monument.

To download a copy of "In the Land of Frozen Fires A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country" click the highlighted link.

Last updated: July 12, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1900 E. Santa Fe Ave.
Grants, NM 87020


(505) 876-2783
This number calls the El Malpais National Monument Visitor Center. Rangers are on staff from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM to answer calls.

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