El Malpais National Monument

When Spanish explorers came through this area in the early 1600’s they encountered ancient lava flows that had piled up and hardened over the valley floor making travel on horses impossible and crossing on foot difficult. They called this area “el malpais” or “the bad lands”. El Mapais National Monument protects not only the lava flows in the valley but also the sandstone bluffs raising from the valley floor. The mostly smooth sandstone faces creates a juxtaposition of terrain against the black jagged lava.

BELOW: The 8 mile Acoma-Zuni Trail, an ancient Indian trail, crosses the lava field in El Malpais National Monument. I didn’t want to get out onto the uneven lava rock so went only about 1/2 mile on the trail. The trail started out as sandy, with the sand created by eons of erosion of the sandstone bluffs surrounding the valley. But soon it became strewn with fist and football sized jagged rock then large slabs and car-sized rock. The trail is marked by cairns, stacked up rock that have been placed by National Park Service personnel. Soon I could see ahead of me and beside me the broken up slabs and chunks of lava rock. I did not think with my klutziness it would be good for my ankles if I kept going even though I had sturdy, ankle high boots and a hiking pole.

I have included in the pictures below a few of the plant life that is trying to establish itself in such hostile circumstances. I especially like lichen. It is found in a large array of colors from gray-green, to yellow, to orange. About 70 different types can be found in El Malpais. From a NPS guide: “Lichens are a combination of algae and fungus and help to break down rocks by way of a chemical reaction between itself and the rock. The by-product of this chemical reaction make the rock more susceptible to the elements and weathering.”

Largest Rock Arch in New Mexico