|Overlook at Sandstone Bluffs|
|Pano view of overlook at Sandstone Bluffs, taken by the Bear|
El Malpais National Monument is located in western New Mexico, not far from the city of Grants. The term El Malpais comes from the Spanish word malpais, meaning "badlands." El Malpais is named for the rough and rocky landscape that developed because of ancient volcanic lava flow. This barren plain is covered in black igneous rock, making it difficult to traverse. The nearby grassland areas are dotted with cattle and sheep, as well as diverse wildlife, but historically, this area was quite inhospitable to exploration or development. Horses were injured on the sharp lava rock; if you were to hike here today (and many people do), you would be wise to wear good boots.
Across the lava field, you can see ancient cinder cones standing tall above the wide, flat expanse of black rock and scrub. You can drive along State Highway 53 for miles and miles through the monument, winding around long sandstone bluffs. The pale, smooth bluffs rise from the vast plain like ships on the sea. Some bluffs have interesting natural formations like Ventana ("window") Arch, a natural bridge carved by erosion from a huge wall of stone. The bluffs cast long shadows over the surrounding plain and the roadway. Cows graze in the sunny patches. On the day we were there, in late March, light snow fell and the shaded sides of the bluffs were frosted white.
If you go, bring your boots, wind-proof clothing and sun protection; it's very high desert territory. For all its desolation, El Malpais's history bears testament to the adaptability of life. While the Spanish tended to avoid El Malpais, the "badlands" of New Spain, later pioneers sometimes eked out a living in mining or farming. Native Americans continue to live nearby today. Plants and animals are tough here; some of the oldest Douglas fir trees on the planet live in El Malpais, and wildlife - including birds and deer - abounds in the open grasslands. The land is toughest of all, such that it became part of the culture, woven into stories passed down for generations. Early settlers of El Malpais sometimes called it "the land of frozen fire," in honor of its lava-rock landscape and sleeping volcanoes - a picturesque name, I think, for a place that is both exacting and starkly beautiful.