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West Malpais Wilderness

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Large Ponderosa pine trees dot grassy rolling hills
Library image #4187: Open ponderosa forest


The United States Congress designated the West Malpais Wilderness (map) in 1987 and it now has a total of 39,540 acres. All of this wilderness is located in New Mexico and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.


El Malpais is Spanish for "the badlands," a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico, where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years' worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatter cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.

Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.

Be prepared for heat and high winds. Some hikers escape a fierce dry wind cutting across the lava beds by dropping into the shadowy pleasantness of a convenient lava tube (formed by molten lava cooling faster on the surface while a hot river of lava continued to flow underneath, thus leaving a cave). The average high temperature in July is 89 degrees Fahrenheit and the average low in December is 20 degrees with an average annual precipitation of 14 inches. The Wilderness gradually slopes upwards as it moves west from just of 7,000 feet to nearly 7,600 feet.

You may see antelope here, and during summer a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats migrates between some of the caves. Other common wildlife includes deer, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks. Bring several flashlights and protective clothing to explore the miles of lava tubes, but stay out of the bat caves. No groundwater exists in the entire area, so pack plenty.

Planning to Visit the West Malpais Wilderness?

Leave No Trace

How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the West Malpais Wilderness.
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information on Leave No Trace, Visit the Leave No Trace, Inc. website.

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