El Malpais is located about 20 miles south of Grants, New Mexico and is a National Monument that explores a region that was once home to an active volcano. The lterrain is now covered with volcanic rocks and there are lava tubes that wind their way underground throughout the park. There is a huge area of this that is actually a Ntional Conservation Area maintained by the BLM. The National Park administered section has a scenic drive, a good hike to El Claderon (which is not as exciting to see as the hike getting there), chain of craters road, and many underground lava tubes that can be explored. The visitor cneter is mostly just a book store and the only audio-visual information we received was from the very friendly and helpful ranger who was on duty when we visited on October 4, 2006.
In addition to the activites that are presented by the NPS, there is also a private business located in El Malpais. The Ice Caves tourist trap offers a hike to another caldera, one much younger and more impressive looking and then a hike to a cave that maintians a 31 degree temperature year round and is full of ice. It's pretty weird.
We hiked the trail to El Caldera, partially in the rain and we stopped and checked out the Lava Tube cave at the beginning of the trail. We went down inside, but only to the tiny mouth as we did not have caving gear. A trail guide is provided by the NPS visitor center which interprets the things and places you see along the trail. There are a couple of lava sinkholes, a "bat" cave, etc. It is a nice hike (even in the light rain!) that is about 2 miles long. I recommend you take a snack and of course carry plenty of water! The trip back is along a dirt road, which is less scenic, but easy walking.
We did NOT visit Chain of Craters road partially due to the weather and the roads. We were told, however that there are many lava tubes to explore back there as well as some amazing hiking along beautiful scenery created by the lava flow. We were not prepared for a caving experience, which is a major attraction at this park. If you want to do some caving, bring caving gear and no matter which part you plan to visit, you'll want good sturdy hiking boots and plenty of water. This is a park that is created for those who are interested in actually getting out there and doing some activities. There really isn't much to see from the comfort of your vehicle and the visitor center did not offer a lot. I do recommend that you stop by the Ice Caves area, though as that ice cave is really something to see and the caldera you can visit there looks just like you think it should.
El Malpais is located in an area that is full of things to do, however, including El Morro National Monument, an amazing park just 20 miles south of El Malpais. Further along the highway, you also can visit native american pueblos and a wolf center. It's an area that can keep you busy for a day or a week. Grants, NM has plenty of lodging options for visiting this area and don't miss the North West New Mexico visitor center which has information on EVERYTHING in the area.
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