Over 100,000 acres of twisted lava flows, yawning lava tube caves, sandstone cliffs and numerous volcanic cinder cones await the adventurous explorer in this rugged park. Be aware though, the name itself – “El Malpais” literally means “the badlands”.
We would see just a small portion of the area today, just that easily accessible from the highway.
One of the more outstanding features is the La Ventura Natural Arch. “La Ventura” means “the window” in Spanish. The arch rises a magnificent 165 feet in the air, making it one of New Mexico’s largest sandstone arches. A short hike takes one to a great vantage point, but to see how it got its name, a more energetic hike through more rugged terrain and bushes is required to literally see the “Window” to the Sky. We would only make it to the lower vantage point today.
The interpretive sign offers a descriptive visualization of how the arch formed:
“Over 140 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, portions of this area resembled the Sahara Desert of today. Large sand dunes were formed from wind-blown, rounded grains of sand. Try to visualize the dinosaurs coming to take advantage of the deep pools of clear water that were probably scattered throughout the area. The sand dunes were eventually buried by sediment. The weight turned the dunes to stone (Zuni sandstone). As time passed, the earth experienced some growing pains, causing the massive stone to crack. As water passed along the cracks, the cementing material holding the grains of sand together dissolved, widened the cracks…As the water froze, the cracks widened, eventually causing the sandstone to break away. forming the arch you see before you today.”
This explanation also explains the many dramatic geologic features in the area such as these.
We next returned to the Visitor Center (we had passed it too early for it to be open), where we learned more about the geologic forming of the area,...
By the 1880’s the pueblos dwellers were living alongside the newcomers in their hogans, the Navaho.
In the early 1900’s, sheepherders such as Jean Carrica moved into the area, changing the native’s way of life forever. His herd of 800o prospered on the sparse vegetation, and he remained a prominent sheep rancher until the 1960s.
Also in the early 1900’s settlers were moving into some of the last available land for homesteading. They found it extremely difficult to eke out a living in the inhospitable land near the lava flows however, and by by the end of the Great Depression, they were moving away as soon as their means would allow.
After perusing the materials in the Visitor Center, we continued our drive through El Malpais.
We stopped at a homestead site, where the ruins left behind remind you of those of the Ancient Ones.
We continued, stopping at a huge outcropping of sandstone bluffs to climb up for the view.
We continued onward south until we came to the Narrows Picnic area bordering the lava flows, then called an end to our day exploring El Malpais and returned home.