New Mexico’s Land of Fire & Ice: Hike through Volcanic Rock and Ice Caves at This National Monument

The floor is literally lava—and it gets fewer than 150,000 visitors a year

Your dreams of a Canadian Rockies road trip this summer just went poof! On Friday, Canada extended restrictions on nonessential travel across the US border until July 22. Those restrictions have been in place since March 2020 when countries across the globe shut down international travel to curb the spread of COVID.

Many are, in a word, frustrated

The US and Canada’s economies are more intertwined than CatDog (animated TV series that follows the life of a conjoined cat and dog). And while goods can be shuttled between the two countries, the tourism and services industries on both sides of the border are feeling the pinch. Lawmakers and businesses in both the US and Canada have lashed out at the Canadian government for what they say is putting politics over science.

“The complete lockdown we’ve experienced is not consistent with science and it’s very, very bad for our economy,” said US Rep. Chris Jacobs of New York.

“We need to open the border for fully vaccinated travelers immediately,” Harley Finkelstein, the president of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify, tweeted.

About those vaccinations…to keep the virus at bay, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the border would stay mostly closed until 75 percent of the population has received the first dose and 20 percent have been fully vaccinated. As of yesterday, 65 percent had received the first dose and nearly 17 percent had been fully vaxxed, per the COVID-19 Tracker Canada project.

Big picture: Canadian and American businesses that rely on cross-border traffic are getting FOMO (Fear of missing out) as other countries open up to international travelers. Yesterday, the European Council recommended that EU countries gradually lift restrictions on non-essential travel from 14 countries including the US.

Canadian Snowbirds: This decision muddies the water for travel to Sunbelt states this winter. Will these restrictions be lifted in time or is it another winter hibernating in the Great White North?

And now onto the “Land of Fire & Ice”…

Contrary to popular belief, Iceland isn’t the only “Land of Fire and Ice” (and the other one isn’t in the Game of Thrones universe, either). In this case, we’re looking at the very real American Southwest state of New Mexico

West of Albuquerque, a barren volcanic landscape dominates the shrubby desert terrain so desolate and raw it was once considered a possible detonation site for the atomic bomb. This is El Malpaís—literally, “the badlands.”

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not quite 4,000 years ago, one of the largest basalt lava flows on record inundated New Mexico. Today, the aptly named El Malpaís National Monument and the adjoining El Malpaís National Conservation Area comprise nearly 400,000 acres of basalt fields, lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones, and steam-explosion craters. Where the lava didn’t touch, you’ll find sandstone arches, cliffs, canyons, and some of the oldest Douglas firs in the Southwest.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scene is reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. In fact, what you’ll see here is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian-style volcanism,” and you’ll hear Hawaiian terms thrown around—for example, pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), a word for ropey, slow-cooling lava, the same dark stuff you’ll see beneath your feet.

For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indigenous peoples crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremonies. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The “Land of Fire” moniker should be obvious by now, but what about the ice? Wander inside a lava tube and you’ll quickly understand: the tubes trap cold air, forming underground ice caves. The ice has been forming for thousands of years and can be many feet thick. Despite being in the high desert the caves rarely rise above freezing. 

But it’s the caves’ human history that might be the most fascinating. These caves have been used as a shelter, storage, and for other uses by people in modern times on back to Indigenous cultures. Soot stains in the caves point to Ancestral Puebloans melting ice during periods of drought.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do in El Malpaís 

Hitting the trails is the big thing to do in El Malpaís. Both Big Tubes and El Calderon have great trails but the Narrows Rim Trail in El Malpaís National Conservation Area is can’t-miss: The 4.5-mile trek follows the edge of the most recent lava flow where the streams of blazing-hot magma met 500-foot sandstone cliffs. This is an amazing trail with incredible views. It is rough and there’s not a lot of shade so make sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and maybe a snack. Also, check the weather before you go.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), not far from Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, also winds through here. The trailheads along CR 42 provide access to the 3,100 miles long CDT that follows the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. This section of the trail winds among the Chain of Craters and passes through piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, and a variety of shrubs and grasses. Pack in plenty of water as there are no reliable sources of water in the area. Keep an eye on the weather, County Road 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.

La Ventana Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also want to explore the iconic La Ventana Natural Arch, New Mexico’s second tallest arch. This is a world-class arch! It faces southwest so the lighting can be even more spectacular before sunrise and afternoon in the fall, winter, and spring.

Curious how the arch formed? Thinking freeze-thaw? You’re getting warm. It’s from the daily temperature swings of over 50 degrees on the rock’s surface throughout the year. The sandstone expands in the day and cracks apart from the still cool rock hidden behind. The rock at the base and in the center was under the greatest load stress and cracked then failed first. Over time this created an arc that grew from the base as more rock failed and collapsed.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a real experience, in contrast, visit the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, “The Land of Fire and Ice,” right on the Continental Divide. Walkthrough the twisted old-growth juniper, fir, and Ponderosa pine trees over the ancient lava trails down into the cave and into a dormant volcano. The Ice Cave, an underground “icebox” is found within a twisting lava tube system formed by the Bandera’s ancient explosion. Take a walk around the 20,000-year-old dormant Bandera Volcano and view one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to prepare for a visit to El Malpaís

Before you head into El Malpaís be sure to grab a bike helmet, gloves, knee pads, and a headlamp if you’re looking to go underground. You can nab a permit from either El Malpaís Visitor Center or El Morro Visitor Center and go caving on your own. (Note: The caves are currently closed to the public due to COVID; check the monument’s website for updates.)

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But before you ramble off into the volcanic fields and lava tubes, know what you’re in for. Many visitors arrive ill-prepared. They look at a topo map and don’t see much elevation change on the lava fields. Those hard, uneven surfaces can be strenuous to hike on. Sturdy, well-cushioned hiking boots can be more important than ever on lava.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring lots of drinking water. Remember that El Malpaís is in a high desert and natural water sources are scarce. Hikers should plan ahead and carry the water they need especially when hiking through open land.

Worth Pondering…

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.

—D.H. Lawrence