Exploring The El Malpais National Monument

About 100 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico sits the El Malpais National Monument which takes its name from the Spanish word Malpaís, meaning badlands. With a name like that full of danger and foreboding is it any wonder that Willow and I decided to give it the once over. If you were wondering about the answer… no, no it is not. As we regularly do on our adventures we head towards something or some place that, in general, sounds interesting and many times without knowing the full scope or history of said thing or place. Usually this results in an even greater level of discovery and wonder and then, if the thing or place holds our interest we do a more thorough bit of research so we can share it with you, our esteemed readers, without sounding like we’re just making stuff up. That process seems to work out for the best… most of the time.

The 114,276 acres of the Monument are surrounded by a National Conservation Area (NCA) and punctuated by several Wilderness Areas within. In fact 85% of the Monument is designated as Wilderness Study Area. As part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, the second largest volcanic field in the contiguous United States, the vast majority of the Monument is covered by an expanse of ancient lava beds as well as some of the most recent lava flows in the continental United States which occurred around 3000 years ago.

satellite picture of the lava field
The Dark Expanse Of The Lava Field From Space

This ecosystem of hardened, sharp rock makes the lives of most plants and animals who spend their lives here more a matter of surviving than thriving and weeding out all but the most hardy and adaptive species.

We were going to stop into the Ranger Station to ask about camping opportunities and arrived during the posted business hours but found that, for some unexplained reason, it was closed until further notice. Since we had entered the Monument late in the day and now had zero official input we decided to make camp at the first suitable spot we came across. That happened to be all of a couple of miles further down the road from the closed Ranger Station. Luckily we were driving slowly enough that we saw the inconspicuous sign and were able to pull of to the side of the road, turn around and make the entrance. The Joe Skeen Campground sits at an elevation of close to 6900′ and offered us a nice, clean, uncrowded, simple and Free camping spot. This became our base of operations for the next two days. It was too dim when we arrived to take photos and so all the following pictures were taken during our second day here.

Entrance Sign for the Joe Skeen Campground
Entrance To The Campground
Vault Toilet
One Of The Vault Toilets
Shaded Picnic Table And Fire Ring At Each Campsite
Shaded Picnic Table And Fire Ring At Each Campsite

When we pulled in we saw only one other site occupied and we nicely (and correctly) chose a spot as far from them as possible. At this elevation the site had an unimpeded view out across almost the entirety of the Monument. As a nice, unexpected bonus AT&T also worked at a level noticeably above than their usual suck factor. As I was unpacking all of our stuff from the camper shell Willow broke the rules and went on a very thorough, unleashed reconnoiter around the perimeter of the campground. I glimpsed her return out of the corner of my eye about 30 minutes later but was focused on preparing dinner. About 10 minutes after she got back, when I realized she had not come and said “hi, I’m back” to me I looked around to see her, very intently working on something in the tall grasses that surrounded our campsite. When I went to investigate I realized that she had found and brought back a local, all-natural chew toy.

Deer leg chew toy
She Had Worked It Down To The Bone

So…yeah…no kisses for you tonight girlie. This also meant that an apex predator was at work in the area and so we would have to curtail her unsupervised explorations so that she would not become a chew toy. The other campers strolled by as we were cleaning up after dinner and they had in tow a young Aussie Shepard named Rumplestiltskin who they called Rumple for short. He and Willow got along famously and they romped hard within the safe confines of our campsite while us humans chatted. They were a nice couple from Québec on a six month road trip all over the United States in their pop-up tent trailer. They were keeping a blog of their travels as well but, sadly I do not speak french and am too lazy to do the machine-translation thing – some nice pictures on their blog though.

The next morning we were awoken right before sunrise by someone driving by our campsite. A couple of hours later we were sitting enjoying the brisk morning, me with my coffee beverage and Willow lounging on her pad crunching her breakfast biscuit when Rumple and his humans strolled by. As Willow and Rumple romped hard once again I found out that Rumple’s humans had met the early arrivals and were excited to find they were also from Québec. What are the odds?

We spent only two days exploring the area but had a great time and experienced several stunning places and iconic vistas. Among the highlights was our quick trip from the campground to the La Ventana Arch, several hours spent carefully exploring the Lava Falls and a look out over much of the Monument from the Sandstone Bluffs.

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