El Malpais National Monument
- Closest city: Grants, NM
- Visitor’s Center: 1900 E Santa Fe Ave, Grants, NM 87020
- Monument hours: Open year-round, trailheads are open from sunrise to sunset
- Camping: There’s many options for BLM or primitive camping in the area, no overnight parking or camping at trailheads.
- Dog Friendly (pets must be leashed)
From the city of Albuquerque, head west on I-40 towards Grants, NM. Stop at the Visitor’s Center for information and caving permits if needed. From there, depending on what part of the monument you wish to visit, you will take either NM-117 or NM-53 from Grants.
El Malpais National Monument is huge and incredibly diverse. We went with a few things on our to-do list, and left with a longer to-do list than when we came! Needless to say, we’ll be back for round two! Here’s the spots we hit on this trip: Sandstone Bluff Overlook, Sandstone Bluff Arch, La Ventana Arch, Junction Cave, and Double Sinks.
From Grants, we took NM-117 south to our first stop, Sandstone Bluff Overlook. The view from this day use area is beautiful! We had a gps coordinate for Sandstone Bluff Arch, so we picked a route and started wandering. Long story short, we did some very unnecessary scrambling and free climbing looking for this arch haha. I’m going to share the easy way to get there to save you some time! Park at the overlook parking area, then head back down the road you came up and hop on this social trail just off the road to your left. Take this trail for about a half mile due north (the opposite way you drove in). Once you think you’re close to Sandstone Bluff Arch, you’ll have to do some wandering around the rocks and cliffs to find this somewhat hidden arch. You’ll be positioned above it and will have to be close enough to be able to look down and see through it! Once you’ve caught a glimpse from above, there will be a way to climb down on the right side of the arch through a small “slot” that has a tree in it. Follow this small slot right up to the edge of the arch, shown in the photo on the right below.
After wandering back to the parking area, we hopped in our van and drove the 15 minutes to La Ventana Arch. We made it just before sunset! This large arch is visible from the road/parking area and it’s just a short few minutes of walking to get to the base. Please note that because this arch is in a wilderness area, you ARE allowed to leave the designated trail and hike on the social trails that already exist below it. HOWEVER, the BLM rangers who oversee this area ask that you stick strictly to the prominent social trail (pictured below on the left) and do not leave it or create new ones. This will decrease impact on the landscape and keep this place looking beautiful.
After the sun went down, we drove back to Grants and got dinner before heading down NM-53 on the other side of the monument. We found a primitive camping area near El Malpais Trailhead and spent the (cold!) night in our van. The next morning, we slept in to let it warm up a bit and then made it to the El Malpais Trailhead about 10:30 am. This trailhead gives you access to some lava tubes and cool caves, including Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave. It’s important to note that entering these caves requires a free permit and proper caving equipment (helmets, headlamps, etc). The caves were actually closed when we visited in early December 2020, so we just looked inside the entrance to Junction Cave and then checked out Double Sinks.
After visiting this trailhead, we did more research and realized that there’s even more caves in El Malpais than just the ones accessed from this trailhead. When the caves are open again for exploration, we’ll be back with our gear for sure! From El Malpais, we headed to El Morro National Monument just down the road- make sure to tag on this cool spot while you’re in the area!
As aways, please practice Leave No Trace and leave this beautiful place better than you found it!