El Malpais is the name of this geologic treasure and its literal translation from Spanish means “bad country” which is pronounced as “el mal-pie-ees”. It’s also known as the “Trail of Ancients” for his incredible ancient history. And given its name, this place is bad, bad to the bone, and no matter from which way you enter the park, you’re going to see something entirely different, and here’s why:
Entering the Trail of Ancients from I-40 West:
The park is home to New Mexico’s second largest natural arch. Nestled amidst the green of the high desert and devilishly aromatic sagebrush isVentana Arch. It was created from the freezing of glacial waters within the rock that later thawed, causing much of it to break away. What’s left is a sturdy, slightly blackened arch formation framed by New Mexico’s unforgiving clear blue skies and a pinot-juniper forest.
Further along on this trail of ancients is a wild world of enjoyable views and forever changing landscapes. Formed by three volcanoes that channeled into the area during a massive prehistoric eruption, the space today is a series of uneven lava terrain and extreme backcountry spectacles. As one enters the national preserve, one is immediately engulfed by the complexity of monumental rock that has been charred black from years of oxidization.
Juniper and wild Russian sage take over one’s senses entirely, further adding to this unique scenic experience. Russian sage is an invasive species not actually from Russia but native to Southwestern and Central Asia. It was introduced to the steppes of 19th century Russia and remains a popular flowering perennial plant of the area to this day.
The bad country’s volcanic fields span for miles and miles and are punctuated with several cinder cones and lava tube caves. This feature is named Pahoehoe and A’a’lava after the indigenous Zuni-Bandera and Acoma Puebloans who settled here in antiquity.
Entering the Trail of Ancients from Highway 53 South:
Since well before the birth of the United States, travelers passing through today’s territory of New Mexico would hit a particular spot on the Trail of Ancients that today is known asEl Morro National Monument. Not located within El Malpais National Conversation Area like Ventana Arch, but rather situated further west, El Morro is considered one of New Mexico’s most important historic gems and it provides insight into a history shrouded by wars, secrecy and our human lust for adventure.
Since ancient times, many generations and types of travelers have left their inscriptions and stories engraved in the sandstone rock face, known today as Inscription Trail. Their inscriptions highlight the difficulties that they faced and the treasures they wished to find along their way.
Some famous signatures are those of the brave men, women and children who traveled in the Rose-Baley Party headed for California. This was the first European American emigrant wagon train to traverse the 35th parallel route known as Beale’s Wagon Road. How they came to be at El Morro is a story very typical of its time: while en route to California, the party was ambushed by Mohave warriors who killed thirteen and injured another thirteen members of the Rose-Baley Party. In an effort to avoid further assaults, the party backtracked to today’s site of El Morro, left their signatures for all to know that they had been and never continued on their way to California.
El Malpais is a wonderful adventure site with ancient ruins and cliff etchings, as well as the signatures of Spanish Viceroyalty nobility and Territorial Period adventurers. It is a must-see destination on your way through the American Southwest and you’d be highly remiss if you’d miss it on your way through.
El Malpais and El Morro are both free-of-charge locations to visit and both are located about a 2-hour drive west from Albuquerque, New Mexico.