Lava Falls

The McCarty's Lava Flow at Lava Falls.
The McCarty's Lava Flow along the trail at Lava Falls.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

Venture out onto the youngest lava flow in El Malpais on the Lava Falls Trail. This cairn-marked trail winds through a geological wonderland of basaltic lava flow features like ropy pāhoehoe (pronounced pah-HOY-hoy), ‘a‘ā (pronounced ah-ah) lava flows, squeeze-ups, pressure ridges, and fissures. Explore a pygmy forest of ponderosa and piñon pine to see the incredible ways life has adapted to this young, unforgiving landscape.

The Lava Falls Trail forms an easy one-mile loop with a short spur trail leading into a natural amphitheater of lava. This trail is marked by cairns that lead over the lava. While the Lava Falls Trail is considered easy, the trail surface is very jagged and uneven, and you may have to step over deep fissures in the lava. Hiking here with pets is not advised due to the courseness of the lava.

The Lava Falls Trail is located 36 miles south of I-40 on NM 117.

Please be prepared before setting out on this or any other hike. Remember to look for the next cairn before leaving the one closest to you.

Lava cairns mark the trail at Lava Falls.
Piles of rock called cairns mark the route on many trails at El Malpais. Please do not disturb these cairns or build new cairns to prevent confusing other hikers.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

Hiking Cairned Routes

Sometimes the only trail markers along El Malpais trails are cairns: a series of rock piles used to trace a route across the land. Cairns are common on lava landscapes where creating a traditional trail or footpath is impossible because of the extreme nature of the terrain.

Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. As you travel, make sure you have the next cairn in sight before moving on to the next one. Keep your eyes on the land while walking; the uneven nature of the terrain demands it since there is no even surface. If you want to enjoy the views, stop first to get a secure footing, and then look around. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes.

Please take care not to disturb cairns as you hike. Do not build new cairns. Building cairns off the intended route may cause other hikers to become disoriented and lost.


Last updated: January 5, 2021

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