El Malpais – A Moonlight Exploration of the Badlands of New Mexico

A couple miles west of the small town of Carrizozo in New Mexico is a totally other worldly place called the Malpais. Malpais means “Badlands” in Spanish and if it was the Spaniards who named this place, it sure was fitting. The Malpais is a solidified river of lava that oozed out of several vents around Little Black Peak roughly 5,000 years ago. The lava itself is similar to the lava found in Hawaii as it is dark black basalt. According to the park service information panel, this lava flow is one of the youngest and best preserved flows in the United States.

The Malpais is 44 miles long with an average width of 2.5 miles. The flow covers 127 square miles and is anywhere from 45 to 165 feet deep. The eruption lasted for about 30 years but it was not a cataclysmic eruption, but rather lava flowing from an open vent creating lava tubes, dams, ice caves and collapsed bubbles. The Malpais is an interesting place which harbors a striking diversity of desert plants and provides a home for all kinds of critters such as coyote, rabbits, ringtail cat, bats, snakes and lizards.

Even though the terrain is rough enough to shred the best boots in short order, plants find this place at 5,000 feet in the high desert, a good place to live. Average precipitation is only around 12 inches annually but because water from rain and snow pools on the rocks and runs off into crevices, there is a much greater abundance of plant life within the Malpais than there is outside of it. In the winter the black rock absorbs the heat from the sun and radiates it back during the night keeping the area a bit warmer than the surrounding desert. In the summer when it is 100 degrees outside, down in the deep fissures it is nice and cool and in the lava tubes there may even be ice.

Humans have inhabited the area around the Malpais for 12,000 years and some of the ancient ones may have even witnessed the lava erupting and flowing in a red glowing river in the night from the slopes of the White Mountains or Carrizo Peak. These people and even the Mescalero Apache afterwards, utilized the many useful desert plants that grew in the area such as the Sotol, Yucca, Agave, Cholla and Prickly Pear. They wove mats and baskets out of Yucca fibers, made rope out of Sotol leaves and utilized black, sharp obsidian for spear points.

There is a great parking area and trailhead at the Malpais which provides access to a wheel chair accessible, paved path through the lava that is.38 miles long. I think it is most excellent that provision has been made, if even for a short distance, so that those with disabilities can also enjoy the outdoors. I was thinking this could be a model for many other places. When the pavement ends the trail continues a loop winding up at the starting point in another 2/3 mile. This seems short but in the heat of the summer it is probably more than most would want.

I had been fascinated by the stories of this place for years reading Louis L’amour books about how the hero “Flint” would hide out in an oasis that no one could find in the center of the Malpais so I had to check this place out for myself. I got that chance one weekend when I escaped duty at Fort Bliss and drove north to get away from that place. The following is an account of one evening when I shared the Malpais with the Moon.

I’m sitting by a positively ancient juniper tree in the Malpais lava flow of Lincoln County, New Mexico. I’m watching the sunset paint the Western cotton sky in shades of pink and orange. Most people would be searching for an endgame to their day as the sun sets but not me, I’m gonna enjoy the badlands as I have them all to myself. There is a light breeze blowing and I can hear the crickets and all kinds of other LOUD and completely annoying night bugs. I started my hike out onto the lava around 6pm. There were all kinds of mean plants on the lava and I got impaled several times by Sotol spears and it really hurt.

The stars have now come out and there is one cloud above me in the sky. It is shaped like a thumbprint with the dark blue of the night and the stars behind it. It’s warm out here in the night by my Juniper. This twisted gnarled old Juniper was hundreds of years old when Billy the Kid was running from Sheriff Pat Garrett and the Mescalero Apache were on the war path. The lava is so very black and thick – piled in ropes and mounds.

I can hear an owl out there in the black. It was a difficult thing to negotiate the badlands. I left the trail and headed west out onto the Malpais. Great folds, depressions, cave ins and crevasses had to be negotiated. Some parts of the surface were crumbling piles of broken lava; others were solid surfaces of seeming frozen mud. Some of the ropey flows were nearly vertically piled and I easily climbed up and over them and down the other side – all the while thankful for my leather gloves and heavy boots. There were great cracks in otherwise solid lava masses and there were sandy bottomed hidden little valleys, depressions or bowls that were surrounded by 30 plus foot lava piles on all sides.

I’m sitting here waiting for the moon to come up over Carrizo Mountain. Just before dark out on the lava the bats of varying shape, size, disposition and color came out. I counted four distinct types of bats. They flew every which way haphazardly out of the dark places as if swirling leaves being driven by the wind. I wish I could find all of those loud bugs and squash em. At least the bats are coming for em. One of the bats was strangely red and looked like a giant butterfly.

The angry looking moon seems to be the searching eye of Sauron peering out across Mordor. Thin clouds hovering around Carrizo Mountain are screening the eye. It is now rising like a great orange jackolantern through some Juniper branches on the horizon. It is completely full and it is a remarkable sight to watch that celestial object pilot through the clouds. If it was Halloween it would be perfect with that creepy moon and bats doing fly bys too close for comfort.

The moon is like a great spotlight now, casting shadows from every rock, tree, and shrub. No flashlights necessary tonight. If you have ever stood under a pale white blue street lamp in the late night you can relate to what the entire desert and sky looks like. I explored several crevices. The deepest one was about 30 feet deep and I had to use extreme caution descending to its floor which was tan sand. It is similar to being in a narrow slot canyon in southern Utah as I could touch both walls of the chasm with arms outstretched.

I’ve been hearing coyote somewhere out there in the night and it sounds like a ghostly Apache war cry. What our Government did to those people on the banks of the Pecos is a tragedy. I am glad that the Mescalero Apache were allowed to go back to Sierra Blanca and claim the head of the “noisy water” Ruidoso for themselves. I will never forget how the big dipper was brightly dipping into the cotton candy cloud looking sky.

Someday when I’m old and broken, I will come back to this one of my favorite places and sit and visit with the old Juniper, its neighbor the Cholla, the crickets, the wind, Carrizo Peak and my New Mexico sky. Cholla are casting strange and melancholy shadows on the trail. It is muggy and hot in the breaks when the wind has stopped but you can smell the rich pine scent of the Juniper. I thought about how snakes get along out here as it seems they would be cut to ribbons by the lava.

There were deciduous hard wood trees with grey trunks in some of the chasms with years worth of shed leaves around their base on the chasm floor. There were red bulbous fruits on the prickly pear and strange bright yellow golf ball sized fruits on the Cholla. Found a strange plant with large pear like fruits. Come to find out these are banana Yucca and they were a staple crop for the Indians back in the day.

Looking out over the Malpais in the moonlight I can imagine old John Chism and his riders chasing rustlers to the edge of the lava and losing them in the breaks. I sat and wondered if maybe Billy the Kid himself at some point hid out in these rocks. I had myself quite a night out there in the badlands, just me, the moon, an owl, a coyote and a bunch of bats and bugs. Such a strange place with a certain quality to it that creates a feeling all its own… especially on a summer night with a full moon.

If you ever visit the Malpais make sure that you take plenty of water with you. After a few near death experiences of my own in the desert my rule of thumb is to estimate how much water you think you will need and then double that. It’s the campfire in the winter principle when collecting wood. Anyway, a good pair of leather gloves and a sturdy pair of boots are a must too because the sharp basalt will shred ordinary shoes in short order. If you are dumb enough to hike alone like I often do, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.

The Malpais is a strange and magical place that can be fun to visit. Just be prepared and avoid disaster. This place isn’t called the badlands for no reason. It is a tough unforgiving terrain, but if you are prepared, you will be safe and have fun.