Lava Tube Caving

Three cavers stand on a floor of boulders beneath a craggy lava tube ceiling.
Lava tube caving at El Malpais requires a well-prepared group of adventurers.

Image Copyright--Kenneth Ingham

Lava Tube Caving

All lava tube caves are closed seasonally from November 1st through April 30th to protect hibernating bat populations. Currently two caves are open in the summer: Giant Ice and Lava Bomb. All other caves are closed to protect bat maternity colonies.

Caving in the lava tube caves of El Malpais offers a challenging adventure for the well-prepared. All of the lava tube caves in El Malpais National Monument are undeveloped wilderness caves, meaning there are no permanent trails, steps, or lights through the caves. Caves are strenuous and require scrambling over large piles of rubble collapsed from the cave roof and walls. Route finding abilities are required to navigate to and within these caves. Caving at El Malpais is not recommended for children under 10 years old. Many caves are located down rugged dirt roads that require a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle and are sometimes impassable during summer monsoons or winter snows.

For those up to the challenge, a fantastic subterranean wonderland of natural formations await within the lava flows of El Malpais.


How to Prepare for Lava Tube Caving at El Malpais

  1. Check to see if caves are open - All lava tube caves are closed from November 1st through April 30th, and many caves are closed at other times temporarily or permanently for resource protection. Check the park website for park alerts about cave closures or call the El Malpais Visitor Center. Find a list of open caves farther down on this page.
  2. Bring a friend - Caving alone is NEVER a good idea. Permits will not be issued to individual cavers, so be sure to bring a friend along to share in the experience.
  3. Gather your safety gear - Lava tube caves are dangerous environments. We highly recommend bringing at least 3 sources of light and wearing a helmet, knee pads, gloves, and close-toed shoes with good tread in all lava tube caves.
  4. Plan what to wear - You don't need to make a fashion statement in our lava tube caves, but what you wear is incredibly important. Clothing must have never been worn in a cave where white-nose syndrome has been detected. If clothing has been worn in another cave, it must be laundered before being worn in caves at El Malpais. Caves are cool environments - warm clothing is advised.
  5. Check road conditions - Many of our lava tube caves are miles down rugged dirt roads. These roads are often impassible after rain or snow. Check with rangers at the El Malpais Visitor Center before heading down any dirt roads for an update on current road conditions.
  6. Pick up your caving permit - Caving permits are required for entry into lava tube caves. These are offered in person on a first-come, first-served basis at the El Malpais Visitor Center and the El Morro Visitor Center. A limited number of permits are issued per cave per day, and each cave has a weekly capacity limit.
  7. Decontaminate your gear - Any caving gear or clothing that has been in another cave outside of El Malpais must be decontaminated prior to entering lava tube caves in the park to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. Any gear or clothing that has been in a cave where white-nose syndrome has been detected is NOT ALLOWED in lava tube caves in El Malpais. Park rangers will provide decontamination instructions when you pick up your permit.

Cave Safely, Cave Softly

Cave Safely

Don't Go Alone - Group exploration makes caving safer. Keep together, warn others about hazards or fragile formations, and always tell someone where you are going and when you will return.

Prevent Exposure and Injury - Dress appropriately for caves. Ambient temperature in most caves is around 42°F (6°C) year-round, some are colder. Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots, and gloves. Cave ceilings are sharp; use helmets to protect your head.

Lots of Lights - Each caver should carry three light sources and extra batteries. A cell phone is NOT an acceptable light source.

Know Your Limits - Injuries and disorientation are more common when you are tired. Always choose a cave that is easy enough for the least experienced member of your group. Caves are not safe for small children and service animals due to the rugged nature of the terrain.

A caver stands in front of a roped-off mossy spot on boulders.
Cavers view fragile moss gardens growing under the skylight of a lava tube cave.

NPS John Kuehnert

Cave Softly

Leave No Trace - Do not eat, drink, smoke, litter, or leave human waste inside caves. Many cave formations are delicate and can easily break - do not touch them.

Cultural Artifacts - Do not touch or disturb cultural artifacts such as pottery, arrowheads, or animal bones.

Respect Bats - Observe closures to protect bats while they are hibernating or raising their young. If you do see a bat, stop talking, keep your light pointed away, leave the area as quietly as possible, and report the sighting to a ranger. This will help protect these important animals.

Prohibited - Campfires, smoking, camping, pets, and candles are not allowed in caves. These activities, along with vandalism - including marking or defacing cave features - are illegal and punishable by law. Refer to the El Malpais Superintendent's Compendium for a full list of prohibited practices in the park.


Open Caves

Two wilderness lava tube caves are currently open: Giant Ice and Lava Bomb. PERMITS ARE REQUIRED TO ENTER THESE CAVES. Permits are available at the El Malpais and El Morro National Monument Visitor Center daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Permits will be issued for a minimum of 2 people and a maximum of 10 people for all caves currently open. Only 10 people will be permitted in each per cave per day.

A park ranger in caving gear stands in an enormous cave covered in extremely large boulders.
Giant Ice is a large, shallow cave that requires strenuous scrambling over large boulders to experience.


Giant Ice Cave

Giant Ice Cave is a large but shallow cave located in the Big Tubes area. In winter and spring, temporary columns of translucent ice can grow to several feet high near the center of the cave.

Drive to the Cave – Moderate to Difficult/Impassable

Reaching Giant Ice Cave requires an 8 mile drive down unpaved roads that can be impassable after rain or snow. High clearance is always recommended, and 4 wheel drive is sometimes required.

Hike to Cave – Difficult

The route to Giant Ice is marked by cairns (rock piles) and is approximately a 1.2 mile round trip hike over rugged lava flows.

Caving Difficulty – Very Difficult

There is no established trail through the cave. The climb down to the cave is moderately difficult, but the route from there to the cave is over large, unstable boulders and is very challenging. This is not a cave for the inexperienced or poorly equipped, as the cave floor consists almost entirely of unstable “breakdown.”

A park ranger in caving gear stands next to an oddly shaped rock at the bottom of a cave with two large openings.
The large lava bomb in Lava Bomb Cave (the oddly shaped rock next to the ranger) created the skylight feature at the roof of the cave when it crashed into the lava tube during the volcanic eruption of Hoya de Cibola about 17,000 years ago.

NPS Kern

Lava Bomb Cave

Lava Bomb is a small cave located near Hoya de Cibola – one of the rare shield volcanoes in El Malpais. This shallow cave features a spectacular skylight created when a large projectile, called a lava bomb, erupted from the nearby volcanic vent and crashed into a lava tube. You can still see the lava bomb on the floor of the cave under the skylight it created. The route to Lava Bomb passes through ponderosa forests and follows the rim of the Hoya de Cibola vent feature. The route also passes several surface tube features.

This cave is located deep in the heart of the El Malpais wilderness. This cave is NOT RECOMMENDED for those unfamiliar with wilderness exploration or those who lack route finding experience. There is NO MARKED TRAIL to Lava Bomb Cave. You will need to be able to navigate using a topo map and/or GPS.

Drive to the Cave – Difficult, Often Impassable

The most difficult challenge of caving at Lava Bomb is driving there. Lava Bomb is located down primitive dirt roads approximately 4 miles past the Big Tubes Trailhead. The road beyond Big Tubes is significantly more difficult to drive than the road to Big Tubes. High clearance is required and 4WD is highly recommended and may be required. Do not attempt during or recently after rain.

Hike to Cave – Moderate

The trail to Lava Bomb largely follows an old mining road. The road has not been maintained and disappears as you near the cave. Because this is a true wilderness area, there are no route markers or trails. Reaching the cave requires navigational skills using GPS and/or topo maps, but it is relatively easy to find while following the terrain.

Caving Difficulty – Moderate

There is no established trail into or through Lava Bomb cave. Climbing down into the cave requires scrambling over relatively small, often unstable boulders. Once in the cave, the floor is covered with breakdown that requires careful navigation. Near the lava bomb feature, the cave floor is relatively level.

Last updated: April 30, 2024

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