El Malpais means “the Badlands,” a moniker Spanish conquistadors gave this area a few centuries ago. That’s because it’s bad to the bone! Conquistadors wanted nothing to do with this nasty, gnarly place. They sure weren’t going to take their horses across it.
Most commonly pronounced el mal-pie-EES, this national monument and national conservation area lies on the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. The closest town is Grants, pop. 9,182 on a good year.
“Badlands” accurately describes the ancient lava flows that once ran as rivers of fire. Some of those flows came from Mt. Taylor, just north of here, about 2.5 to 3.7 million years ago. Scientists from nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory also have dated 74 younger volcanoes erupting 200,000 years ago to about 3,000 years ago. That’s a whole lot of volcanoes, and it seems this badlands goes on forever. In fact, the national monument and national conservation area combined is 376,000 acres of gnarly, nasty A ‘a lava, formed by fast-moving lava flows that shred tender feet, hands or paws; and Pahoehoe lava, with its ropy, coiled texture.
Know what else is found here? Bats. Know why? Bat caves. Here’s how they were formed: Hot fluid lava flowed from the base of many cinder cone volcanoes for several years. As the outer layer of lava cooled and hardened, it insulated the fluid lava flowing within. Eventually, that stopped flowing too, emptying downhill and leaving behind a 17-mile-long lava tube system. It’s one of the longest in the Continental U.S. In fact, lava tubing – or caving – is the major recreational activity at this national monument. Even in the hot summer the lava tubes keep underground temperatures quite cool. But many of the largest caves are closed, especially in winter, to protect hibernating bats. At least 14 bat species are found here. They depend on these lava tubes for shelter, reproduction or hibernation. One spot – actually called Bat Cave – is home to a summer colony of 40,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats. It’s the only colony of its kind for hundreds of miles.
There’s more to see if you venture to El Malpais. You’ll pass an ancient ice cave that back in the 1930s kept the beer cold for the saloon and dance hall built next to it. The saloon is now a rustic old trading post dealing in jewelry, pottery, rugs and other contemporary Native American arts. You also can check out the inside of the Bandera Crater, a short hike above the ice cave. And then, there’s La Ventana Natural Arch, one of New Mexico’s largest natural arches.
But you shouldn’t go there quite yet! We are still in the midst of a pandemic. So, be cool, stay home, and check out this short video. Then, when we’ve gotten through this difficult time, go hug your health care providers, and take ’em on a trip to El Malpais.
Special thanks to old buddy and former Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Kirk Navo for the cool bat photos, and to Jubal Fulks and Daniel Shlosberg for the great music!