The phrase El Malpais originates from Spanish conquistadors and translates to "the badlands." El Malpais National Conservation Area was established to protect a rare, semi-desert, volcanic landscape that contains significant geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the Grants Lava Flows.
The semi-desert climate of El Malpais receives only 15 inches of rain annually, with most coming during the summer monsoon season between July and September. Situated between 6,500 and 8,000 feet above sea level, the vegetation varies from low shrubs of piñon and juniper to ponderosa pine woodlands.
A prime example of (geologically) recent volcanic activity, the landscape of Malpais is dominated by swirling lava flows, cinder cones, craters, caves, and complex lava tube systems. Although some natural wonders within the boundaries of the joint National Conservation Area and National Monument are well known, many others are yet to be discovered. Popular destinations for visitors include Four Windows, Big Skylight Caves, El Calderon, Braided Cave, La Ventana Natural Arch, Perpetual Ice Caves, Sandstone Bluffs, Lava Falls, Big Tubes, and Chain of Craters. The National Conservation Area contains two designated wilderness areas -- West Malpais and Cebolla. Hiking and horseback riding are permitted in these parcels, where almost 100,000 acres are protected as wilderness.
The Grants Lava Flows are home to a unique series of "melanistic adaptations," by which evolutionary pressure has left many species of animals black in color. Larger wildlife is also abundant, including golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, prairie falcon, great-horned owl, bear, deer, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, elk, and mule deer. Herds of antelope can be seen in an area known as Hole-in-the-Wall, a beautiful green island of ponderosa pine parkland set in a sea of black lava.
People have explored the wild landscape of El Malpais for over 10,000 years. Ancient petroglyphs and relics bear silent witness to the passage of generations of early Americans. Contemporary Indians including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna and Zumi, and the Ramah Navajo still revere the sacred cultural sites and continue ancestral uses of this land.