By Julianna Falcomata

El Malpais National Park is a hidden gem tucked away in Northwestern New Mexico. Thousands of people drive past ancient lava flows every day on the interstate, bypassing such an interesting area. They might become intrigued by the sandstone cliffs that rise above the black volcanic rock, and ponder its formation for a split second as the continue on their way. I was one of these people, until I took a leap of faith, and discovered the beauty and mystery of El Malpais.

Figure 1: Ancient Lava Flows at El Malpais

El Malpais, the name given by Spanish explores meaning “The Badlands” which is quite fitting. The park consists of around 114,00 square acres of lava flows, with sandstone cliffs rising to the East, and the lush Zuni mountains to the West. The basalt is very sharp and rugged, and given the large amount of it, the landscape is very unforgiving. Sparse vegetation, combined with limited water sources and the desert heat make living in this area a daily fight for survival.  The plants and animals in the area have adapted incredibly well. People have been trying to tame the land for thousands of years, with little luck.

Figure 2: El Malpais means Badlands, the name given by the Spanish explorers

Figure 3: Sparse vegetation and an unforgiving landscape

Due to the size of the park, there is a lot of geologic variation. The park includes most of the lava flows, the sandstone cliffs, and the forest land the flow invaded. From bats and fairy shrimp to moss gardens and Douglas firs, there is a lot going on here! I was given the opportunity to visit many different places within the park, including their caves, the sandstone bluffs, and various cinder cones and lava flows.


One of my favorite places here is the caves. These caves were formed from lava cooling on the outside very slowly, while still being liquid on the inside, eventually all emptying out. The process resulted in the formation of hollow lava tubes. There are dozens of caves here at El Malpais, and several of them are open to the public. Many of the caves have skylights, and some of the caves are home to hibernating bats and other wildlife. I was captivated by these massive formations. I felt like an ant inside some of these caves. I am excited to see what the next couple of weeks have in store for me!

Figure 4: The lava caves make me feel like an ant!

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