Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title

El Malpais

National Monument

New Mexico

cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Black and white photo of horse and rider at El Malpais
El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Where Sharp Lava meets Smooth Sandstone
In satellite photo images of New Mexico, lava flows blanketing much of El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area look like a huge lake southwest of Grants. The imagery betrays only dominant landscape features - lava flows, mountain ranges, mesas - that in reality mask a myriad of mysteries and wonders. El Malpais means "the badlands" in the Spanish language and is most commonly pronounced ell-mal-pie-ees. Its volcanic features include:

  • jagged spatter cones,
  • a lava tube cave system extending at least 17 miles, and
  • fragile ice caves.

There is much good in these badlands; the area offers diverse natural environments and tantalizing evidence of American Indian and European history. More than mere artifacts, these cultural resources are kept alive by the spiritual and physical presence of contemporary Indian groups, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo. These American Indians made their homes here and continue their traditional uses.

Paradoxically, the El Malpais landscape is at once primal, pristine, ancient, and surprisingly modern. Here is a living remnant of the Old Southwest approaching the 21st century as virtual terra incognita or unknown lands. With continuing research, new knowledge is revealed. Lava that poured out of McCarty's Cone established a new land surface 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Elsewhere, ancient Douglas-fir trees thrive in the midst of rugged lava terrain. The diversity of life tells a story of unique adaptation to a challenging environment.

Many landscape features in El Malpais bear Hawaiian names because early scientific knowledge of volcanoes was developed in the Hawaiian islands. Kipukas are undisturbed areas that lava flows encircled but did not cover. These ecological islands of vegetation are living remnants of native plant and animal communities. Study of these kipukas will provide benchmark information for restoring disturbed portions of El Malpais. Lava types bear Hawaiian names, too. Smoother, ropy-textured lavas are pahoehoe (pronounced pah-hoy-hoy). Sharp, jagged lavas that rip up all but the sturdiest hiking boots are aa (pronounced ah-ah). By studying active volcanoes, geologists can determine how similar features formed at El Malpais.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for any park-specific geology education programs or activities.

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/elma/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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