El Malpais
Charles H. Maxwell


 Anyone who has traveled 1-40 between Albuquerque and Grants, New Mexico, must see and wonder about the stretch a few miles east of Grants where the highway passes over and through a basalt field containing rough and contorted black tendrils of lava. Few of the passersby realize that this forbidding bit of primordial landscape is only the last dribble of a large and spectacular badlands that extends south-ward for another 48 km (30 mi) or more and widens out to 29 km (18 mi) or more. This piece of tortured earth is known as El Malpais, or as the Grants Malpais, to distinguish it from other malpais areas in New Mexico. El Malpais was long known only to the Acoma Indians, or the Anasazi, whose ancient footpaths snake across the badlands following routes that avoid the sink holes, chasms, and fields of aa lava liberally sprinkled over the area. They marked their paths with blocks of sandstone or low rock cairns, many of which are still visible.

Pottery fragments and molds of corn cobs in and under the lava prove that humans occupied the area before the lava did. And, indeed, Acoma legends include many tales about the fire-rock and its effect on their lives. Folklore of the Malpais, generated after the European and American invasions of the region, includes many intriguing treasure tales such as the story of a pair of silver church bells hidden in a cave, a stolen gold-laden mule train hidden in the Malpais, and many other stories of lost treasures including even the lost "Adams Diggings." And, of course, no one was ever able to recover the caches because of the deceptive sameness of the terrain. Many treasures of another sort have been recovered from the Malpais—uncounted and unreported numbers of pottery vessels of various sizes, shapes, and decoration have been found over the years and have been carried out of the Malpais by residents of the region. The pottery was undoubtedly hidden there by the Indians for storage of food and water against an incursion of marauding nomads.

The Malpais provides a fascinating area of study for geologists, biologists, and archaeologists alike, and for anyone with curiosity, interest, or adventurous spirit. Most of the physical features of lava eruptions including cinder cones, spatter cones, blocky flows, grooved lava, squeeze-ups, pahoehoe, aa, ropes, collapse depressions, pressure ridges, lava tubes, and ice caves, are present at one place or another.

Wildlife abounds in the Malpais, though many of the "sport" animals have been decimated by hunting and poaching. The region is host to more than 100 species of birds, both resident and migratory, 39 species of mammals, and 9 species of reptiles and amphibians (Bureau of Land Management, 1981). Larger animals are restricted to areas where water is readily available, mostly from wells pumped by windmills, but water is present in caves and sinks in many of the depressions. These areas host enclaves of wildlife especially adapted to conditions in the Malpais, including some animals not commonly seen in the region.

Rock structures, presumably built by the Indians, can be found throughout the region. Many are in unlikely places deep inside the Malpais. Most are simple little shelter walls or half walls across cave mouths but some are large, complex, well-built structures which might look like gateposts and flanking curved walls at the entrance to a ranch, or like large, symmetrical beehive cairns. Perhaps they are the work of bored sheepherders.

Several concerted efforts were made during the past 20 years to have the Malpais declared a National or State Park or Monument in order to preserve the area from development or vandalism and to make the area more accessible for recreation. Formal action began in 1969 when the Bureau of Land Management declared the area eligible to be a National Natural Landmark. It was designated an Outstanding Natural Area in 1974, and during 1978-80, studies were made to determine the feasibility of including El Malpais in the National Wilderness Preservation System. It is currently a Proposed Wilderness Area (Bureau of Land Management, 1981).


  1. Maxwell, Charles H., 1982, El Malpais, in: Albuquerque Country II, Grambling, J. A.; Wells, S. G., New Mexico Geological Society, Guidebook, 33rd Field Conference, pp. 299-301.

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