The primeval black basalt terrain of El Malpais was created by volcanic forces over the past million years. Molten lava spread out over the high desert from dozens of eruptions to create cinder cones, shield volcanos, collapses, trenches, caves, and other eerie formations. This stark landscape preserves one of the best continuous geologic records of volcanism on the planet.
El Malpais offers everything from easy drives, scenic overlooks, and short walks to strenuous trails, caving, and rugged backcountry. Take your pick of many great outdoor sights and spectacles that encompass the geology, history, and culture of the region.
Lava tube caves, with their fascinating geology and hidden ice formations, await your careful exploration. Caving permits are available at the El Malpais Visitor Center. These permits are free, but visitors will need to speak with a ranger about previous caving experience and receive cave safety and conservation information.
In El Malpais many trails are actually routes marked with cairns. Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are very common on lava landscapes, where creating a traditional trail or footpath is impossible because of the extreme nature of the terrain. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes.