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Great Hikes: Lava Falls Trail, Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Tom Lohr is an avid fan of science, space travel and exploration. He has spent 13 months at the science station at the South Pole.

Welcome to Planet X

Welcome to Planet X

Lava Falls Trail

If you find yourself in western New Mexico, take the opportunity to learn about the Land of Enchantment's violent and volcanic past. El Malpais National Monument, close to Grants, New Mexico, offers some spectacular examples of what happens when large amounts of molten rock solidify and becomes a prominent feature of the geography. The Lava Falls Trail is on the southeastern side of the National Monument and offers a quick sample of the gigantic lava field.

The Hike

Lava Falls Trail is advertised as a one-mile loop, but in reality, it is closer to a mile and a quarter. Expect to spend at least 45 minutes hiking it. The uneven ground will keep you from reaching full hiking pace and you will also want to stop and take in the rich blackness of the landscape. Simply start at the trailhead lot and follow the cairns. In three-quarters of an hour, you will have taken in some of the best of Malpais National Monument.

Navigation along the loop can be a bit tricky. You will never get completely lost since it is mainly a large, quasi-flat area, but keeping to the loop so you can see all of the sights requires attention. The trail is mostly marked with rock cairns. The cairns are made from the same black lava as the rest of the landscape, so finding them can take some concentration. They are plentiful with very little distance between them so look for the next one before taking off from the one you are currently at and things should go smoothly.

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Dogs are allowed on the Lava Falls Trail, but I would only recommend taking Fido during the winter months due to the temperature of the lava and how it would feel on your pet's paws. Also, the abrasion factor on paws is not to be underestimated. Personally, I would not take my canine companion on this short hike.

Typical Trail Cairn

Typical Trail Cairn

Do Not Fall Down

Hiking on the the black lava is love/hate experience. While the porous rock offers excellent grip and traction for your shoes, it is full of divots of all sizes that can make the journey a little wobbly and therefore somewhat hazardous. Falling onto the lava field is going to require a little more than a band-aid. Hiking poles are strongly recommended for better stability. If you do not have a set, a durable and very affordable option are BAFX trekking poles. I have used them on numerous hikes and they have saved me from more than a few tumbles.

The Spooky Trees

The Lava Falls Trail is not to be missed if in the area. It is probably the closest you will ever come to walking on a barren, alien planet. Even the trees have an otherworldly appearance. The tree seeds dropped by birds eventually sprout in the deep crevices of the lava. The trees have to twist their way up through the non-yielding rock and as a result, have very twisted trunks. They look like trees from your average evil forest of fairy tale fame.

Twisty Tree

Twisty Tree

Getting There

From Interstate 40, take exit 89, just east of Grants. Go south on NM 117 approximately 40 miles and look for the signs for Lava Falls trail. The road from I-40 is paved and the road to the trailhead is well maintained.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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