Scenic USA - New Mexico
El Malpais Scenic Highway
|Photos by Ben Prepelka
Scenic USA Artist Website
New Mexico's Route 117 leads sightseers through the state's high desert; a diverse land of cinder cones, lava tubes, ice caves, sandstone bluffs and fields littered with black lava. The lava rock is quite young in geological terms, making its way to the surface just a few thousand years ago. Streaming from the McCartys Crater, this recently active volcanic probably erupted several times over the course of many years.
These massive volcanic eruptions covered large areas, now protected by the El Malpais National Monument, an area of 350,000 acres when coupled up with the El Malpias National Conservation Area.
Less than 10 miles south of I-40, a side road from 117 leads to the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook where an unusual mix of sandstone cliffs and lava fields are spread throughout the valley. The Zuni Mountains and Mount Taylor create the backdrop on the western horizon. Several natural arches line the bluff-line, creating the opportunity for exploration and creative hiking.
Further to south, the scenic route approaches the Zuni-Acoma Trail which traces a seven mile pathway connecting the two old pueblos. Many of the rock cairns and lava bridges built by the Ancestral Puebloans are still used to hike the route today. The rugged terrain will slow everyone on this hike, and may take six to seven hours one way.
One of the popular stops on the byway is New Mexico's largest natural arch, La Ventana and a wall of sandstone. These 500 foot high cliffs go by the name The Narrows Rim. For an added adventure for 4 wheeling enthusiasts, the Chain of Craters Backcountry Road offers more sights of El Malpais. This 36 mile route follows the Continental Divide and a chain of cinder cones. If hiking, caving and exploration are among the things you love, this a great opportunity to discover the highly unusual.
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