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On Walkabout At: The Carrizozo Malpais, New Mexico

Besides a visit to the old “ghost town” of White Oaks any visit to the Carrizozo area would not be complete without spending some time exploring the Carrizozo Malpais located in the Valley of Fires Recreation Area:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The word Malpais is a Spanish term for “badlands” often given to areas of volcanic lava flows and that is exactly what the Carrizozo Malpais is.  However, this lava flow was not originally formed by a classic volcano but instead by vents in the Earth that the lava flowed out of and across the valley’s floor 5,000 years ago.  The below satellite image. provides a good view of the shape of the Carrizozo Malpias as well as White Sands National Monument directly to the south.  The rugged White and Sacramento Mountains can be seen to the east of the Malpais as well:

The last lava flow in the Malpais occurred just 1,000-1,500 years ago and this was more of a classical lava flow from a volcano when Little Black Peak just 10 miles northwest of Carrizozo erupted.  There are plenty of look outs along highway 380 traveling west from Carrizozo to admire the Malpais, but best way to explore this lava field is to set out on foot.  The Valley of Fires Recreation Area features an excellent walking trail that circles around a stretch of the Malpais:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The recreation area is located on a sandstone “island” within the lava flow that features a small visitor center with a friendly staff and plenty of picnic areas to admire the stunning views:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

After checking out the visitor center my wife, my daughter in her stroller, and I descended down into the Malpais:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

This view of the trail shows how deep into the Malpais it does go:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The trail was very well maintained and we were able to push my daughter’s stroller the entire length of the roughly 2/3 a mile trail.

Here is an interesting fact for everyone, if someone asks you what New Mexico and Hawaii have in common you can now tell them that the olivine basalt lava at the Malpais is very similar to the lava rock found in that island paradise:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

Here are some more quick facts for everyone, this lava flow is 44 miles long and and 2-5 miles in width.  The average depth of the lava is 45 feet, but at its thickest point the lava reaches an impressive depth of 165 feet:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The terrain here is very rugged and if it wasn’t for the trail would be extremely difficult to navigate due to having to constantly climb over rocks and avoid holes in the ground:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The Malpais are filled with many small caves that are home to many bats:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

Also located in the Carrizozo Malpais are gypsum and ice caves that can only be reached with permission from park authorities.

Though the Malpais were named by Spanish settlers, they were far from being the first people to visit this lava flow. Native peoples have called this area of New Mexico home for approximately 12,000 years; well before the first lava ever flowed in the Malpais about 5,000 years ago.  These native people though would find use for the lava rock after it cooled.  Native-Americans such as the Mescalero Apache pictured below have used the lava rocks as grinding stones and the vegetation in the Malpais as a source of fibers & food for centuries:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

This sotol plant commonly mistaken for a yucca is an example of one of the plants that would have been useful to the Native-Americans for use as fiber for their baskets:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The sotol is protected in New Mexico, which makes it illegal to pick anything off the plant or to move it.   Here is a really nice picture I took during our walk in the Malpais of one of the most impressive sotols:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

Here is a picture of an actual yucca plant:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

This prickly pear cactus is an example of a plant that the Native-Americans would have found to be useful as a food source:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

What I find most interesting about the Native-Americans an the Malpais is the fact that the Mogollon people who would have lived in this area a 1,000 years ago would have been around to see the last lava flow into this “Valley of Fire” .  What must they have been thinking as they saw the red lava flowing from the Earth?

In this picture below I was able to easily see the crack in the Earth that the lava slowly flowed out of before cooling and hardening above ground:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

I wonder if any Native-Americans were around to see it?

Well I’m sure the ancestors of this guy below were around to see it though:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

The Malpais isn’t all lava rock, desert scrub, and lizards; it also has a few trees like this juniper:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

A juniper seed blew into this area of the Malpais 400 years ago and was able to grow because of the amount of dirt that had accumulated into a crack in the lava.  Here is another plant that was often spotted around the lava rocks of the Malpais as well:

Picture from the Carrizozo Malpais

All in all we spent about an hour walking the entire trail and really had a great time.  The Carrizozo Malpais is definitely a lot more than just some lava rocks; it is a diverse eco-system that has been created in one of America’s youngest volcanic areas.  This alone should make the Valley of Fires worthy of a visit.

Finally here are some administrative information for those interested in visiting the Malpais from the park’s website:

Fees
Day Use – one person in vehicle, $3.00.
Day Use – two or more in vehicle, $5.00.
Tent Camping – $7.00
Camping – with Electric, $18.00.
Camping – without Electric, $12.00.
Group Shelter – group use, $25.00.
Dump Fee – $15.00
Tour Bus – 15 or more persons on board, $15.00.
America The Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Passes are sold here.

Recreation Guidelines
BLM Recreation Guidelines

Special Rules
Quiet hours from 10:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m.
No hunting.
No Off-Highway-Vehicle riding.

 

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