El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands," a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico, where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years' worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatter cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.
Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.
Be prepared for heat and high winds. Some hikers escape a fierce dry wind cutting across the lava beds by dropping into the shadowy pleasantness of a convenient lava tube (formed by molten lava cooling faster on the surface while a hot river of lava continued to flow underneath, thus leaving a cave). The average high temperature in July is 89 degrees Fahrenheit and the average low in December is 20 degrees with an average annual precipitation of 14 inches. The Wilderness gradually slopes upwards as it moves west from just of 7,000 feet to nearly 7,600 feet.
You may see antelope here, and during summer a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats migrates between some of the caves. Other common wildlife includes deer, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks. Bring several flashlights and protective clothing to explore the miles of lava tubes, but stay out of the bat caves. No groundwater exists in the entire area, so pack plenty.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the West Malpais Wilderness.
Hole in the Wall Trails (south)
From Interstate 40, drive NM 117 south approximately 34 miles to CR 42. Drive northwest on CR 42 approximately 2¼ miles to the intersection with a road (a West Malpais Wilderness sign is located at this intersection). Turn right (north) and drive approximately 4.4 miles to a locked gate, which is the trailhead for the Hole in the Wall. Note that at 3½ miles you will encounter an intersection with a road leading to the right which looks better maintained. This road leads to a private residence and only authorized vehicles are allowed on it. The Hole in the Wall trails are occasionally used by the rancher with motorized vehicles, under permit, for livestock grazing management.
Hole in the Wall Trails (north)
From Interstate 40, drive NM 53 south approximately 26 miles to CR 42. Drive CR 43 approximately 4½ miles to the Big Tubes Road. Drive this road 3.3 miles (passing the Big Tubes parking area at 2¾ miles, on the left) and take the left fork. Continue 1¼ miles and take the right fork just past a stock pond at the western edge of the lava flow. Continue 0.4 miles to the southeast and take the left fork, heading east. Continue 5.4 miles (crossing a cattle guard at 0.2 miles and entering the forested area at 1¾ miles) to the Cerro Encierro trailhead. Note that this is a very rough road and that the road and trailhead are located on National Park Service lands. Anyone wishing to park overnight should contact the National Park Service to inquire about requirements. The Hole in the Wall trails are occasionally used by the rancher with motorized vehicles, under permit, for livestock grazing management.
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) (east)
The CDNST passes through the southern portion of the Wilderness. To reach the east side of the trail, from Interstate 40, drive NM 117 south approximately 34 miles to CR 42. Drive northwest on CR 42 approximately 2¼ miles to the intersection with a road (a West Malpais Wilderness sign is located at this intersection). Turn right (north) and drive approximately ½ mile to a point at which the CDNST crosses the road. There is no trailhead; you must look for rock cairns and posts marking the trail. Note that both the east and west ends of the trail are accessed from and connected by CR 42.
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (west)
The CDNST passes through the southern portion of the Wilderness. From Interstate 40, drive NM 53 south approximately 26 miles to CR 42. Drive CR 42 approximately 22½ miles to a trailhead on the south side of the road. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the road from the Wilderness. Note that both the east and west ends of the trail are accessed from and connected by CR 42.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
(No official title, designates New Mexico wildernesses) - Public law 100-225 (12/31/1987) To establish the El Malpais National Monument and the El Malpais National Conservation Area in the State of New Mexico, to authorize the Masau Trail, and for other purposes
More information (brochures, maps, directions to trailheads, etc.) about the West Malpais Wilderness is available at the Rio Puerco Field office in Albuquerque, NM.
Information can also be accessed online via this website link: https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/new-mexico/west-malpais-wilderness
You may call for further information (505-280-2918)
In general, the area offers opportunities for hiking, camping, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
The West Malpais Wilderness is a landscape of volcanic lava flows, mostly flat, and encompasses three main ecotypes. The southeastern portion of the wilderness is a grassland with wide open expansive views. The western area is a piñon-juniper woodland. Ponderosa pine is prevalent in the northern portion of the Wilderness. The most distinctive landform within the West Malpais Wilderness is a 6,700-acre kipuka (a Hawaiian term meaning island of fertile ground) in the north part of the wilderness called Hole-In-The-Wall. Ponderosa pines are sprinkled through the grassland of the kipuka, which is ringed by a sea of broken, jagged basalt where ponderosa are plentiful. The Wilderness is located within the El Malpais National Conservation Area.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
There are no reliable water sources in Cebolla Wilderness or in the surrounding area. Visitors must carry all the water they will need for the duration of the trip.
Safety and Current Conditions
Dirt roads in this area can become very slick, sticky, and sometimes impassable during and after rain and snowfall. Check local weather information or contact the El Malpais Ranger station (505-280-2918) prior to travel. The multi-agency visitor center in Grants, NM, can also be contacted for weather information at 505-876-2783.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.