El Malpais: ‘The badlands’ of northwestern New Mexico

Located in northwestern New Mexico near Grants, “El Malpais” is Spanish literally meaning “the badlands,” due to the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic fields that cover much of the park.

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Located in northwestern New Mexico near Grants, “El Malpais” is Spanish literally meaning “the badlands,” due to the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic fields that cover much of the park.

I visited the El Malpais National Monument Headquarters and learned some of the oldest Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziessi) on the planet are living in El Malpais Monument although you wouldn’t think it just looking at them. They are short, scraggly, rough-looking trees not more than the size of a tall shrub. In other words, nothing to write home about.

Historically speaking, the area surrounding El Malpais was used for human settlement, gathering resources like firewood, travel by American Indians and Spanish conquistadors, and pioneer exploration. Archeological sites that show these activities are abundant within the park.

In the 1940s the Malpais lava field was one of eight candidate sites considered for the Manhattan Project to test-detonate the first atomic bomb. However the Trinity Nuclear Test Site to the south was chosen to test the atomic bomb, at White Sands Proving Ground.

The Department of Defense did use El Malpais as a bombing range to train pilots during World War II. After the war the U.S. Bureau of Land Management became the administrator of the area, and in 1987, President Ronald Reagan created El Malpais National Monument and designated it a unit of the National Park Service. Today it is jointly managed with nearby El Morro National Monument.

We can’t talk about El Malpais without defining what a lava tube is. A lava tube is a natural conduit formed by flowing lava which moves beneath the hardened surface of a lava flow. Lava tubes can be actively draining lava like on the Big Island of Hawaii or it can be extinct like on El Malpais National Monument. On extinct lava flows, the lava flow has ceased and the volcanic rock has cooled and left a long, cave-like channel on the landscape.

And in the words of Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump …“that’s all I have to say about that.”

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