El Malpais national wilderness area offers a fine example of New Mexico's geological brilliance and sometimes forgiving landscape. It's just a 90-minute drive from Albuquerque, and if you do a little research, pack the proper gear and plan the trip with respect for the summer sun's afternoon fury, you can enjoy a great trip and keep it cool at the same time.
From I-40, take Exit 81 at Grants and head west on Hwy. 53. About 15 miles later, you'll enter the El Malpais National Conservation Area, a 250,000-acre ponderosa and piñon pine forest spread among a rugged, arid mass of lava.
One local I encountered a few weeks ago referred to the area's designated trail system as "a soft adventure." But let's be honest. If you go out unprepared and ill-informed, nature will treat your suffering with indifference and you will pay the usual price: sunburn, fatigue, dehydration or worse. However, if you carefully read the websites listed below and exercise some common sense, this short trek from the Duke City can make for an outstanding summer getaway.
The Bandera Crater and Ice Cave are a perfect combination of light hiking and sightseeing for anyone, especially families with small kids. Both destinations are privately owned and managed. Maps and educational materials are available at the Old Time Trading Post (read: gift shop) that sits at the base of the trailhead.
The trek to Bandera is about one mile round-trip with a slight elevation gain to the mouth of the volcano that was largely responsible for the creation of the area's surrounding lava tubes and rugged canyons. After the short hike, you'll be warmed-up for a refreshing visit to the Ice Cave, which is an easy quarter-mile walk from the trading post.
Although the Bandera Crater and the Ice Cave don't provide enough excitement to make a full day out of the trip, you can spend the morning on the trails and have lunch at the trading post's naturally shaded picnic area, which features a water sluice where kids can mine for gemstones (after purchasing a rigged bag of sand at the gift shop).
Jeff Alford, whose wife's great-great grandfather purchased the land more than a century ago, operates the trading post. But don't be totally fooled by the family vibe at the gift shop. The building was once a bustling saloon and dance hall whose owners mined the ice from the nearby cave to keep the beer cold. Ask Mr. Alford to share some local folklore with you if he's not too busy.
A few miles east of the Ice Cave is a three-mile loop called El Calderon that offers spectacular views of El Malpais and is partially mountain bike accessible.
There's very little shade on the trail, but if you are hellbent on an afternoon adventure far from the sun, you can explore Junction Cave. Some might consider this to be a fair introduction to spelunking, but heed the instructions at the cave's mouth before entering and take my advice that this is definitely not for kids. The cave is a typical lava tube, where the surface flow cooled and crusted while the hot lava continued to flow underneath, creating a hollow pipe. What's left is a rocky, steep caving structure. There is no pathway, so be prepared to climb carefully down this eight-story descent—in the dark! In other words, bring hiking books, flashlights with plenty of batteries, never go alone and remember—a helicopter rescue flight from Albuquerque ain't cheap.
Outside of lava tubing, El Calderon is a perfect place to enjoy a late afternoon hike and marvel at the surrounding sandstone cliffs and wide-open vistas to the east. The area is flush with wildlife including black bears, elk, mountain lions, bobcats, rattlers and wild turkeys. So don't forget your binoculars, Clark.
Best of all, El Calderon is home to a lava tube appropriately called Bat Cave. Show up at sunset, keep real quiet and prepare to witness the egress of some 20,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. (Hey, did you know that bats are the only flying mammals and comprise one-quarter of the Earth's mammal population?) Of course, if you bring truculent kids or act like rowdy yokels, you're screwed. The scout bats will be spooked and return to the cave, and you'll be waiting hours into the night for the exodus. And don't forget, at this elevation, once the sun sets, the temperature drops 25 degrees, so dress warmly.
The park service encourages folks to camp at El Morro National Monument, which is a few miles further west of El Malpais. They also offer evening activities, including astronomy discussions led by park staff and history lessons on "The Ancient Way," the traditional route between Zuni and Acoma Pueblos.
If you want to camp elsewhere, stop at the National Park Service information center along Hwy. 53 (you can't miss it) for a free backcountry use permit and notify them of your whereabouts. Most importantly, check the appropriate websites listed below for hours of operation and related fees. Always call ahead for more information.
Ice Cave and Bandera Crater
1-888 ICE CAVE (423-2283)
El Malpais National Monument
El Morro National Monument
El Morro Area Arts Council and Old School Gallery