Originally posted May 2020; Revised and migrated February 2021
Travel Date May 2020
Just a few days after we left Dallas Texas on our way to Zion National Park in Utah, we arrived at the El Malpais National Conservation Area and National Monument. Along our route, we’d spent two nights in Childress, TX, and a quick night at the Edgewood, NM Walmart. We were excited to make the most of our 48 hours at El Malpais by hiking and exploring the area.
Cheap RV diesel: Fleet Discounts Save Us Big
The drive to El Malpais was uneventful which is always a blessing when traveling in an RV. We saw the lowest diesel prices we’ve seen in our 6 years of owning Pippi and were able to fill up our tanks at $1.58/gallon using our fleet discount program.
If you own a diesel truck or RV, a fleet discount program is a great deal. We usually get between a 15-40 cents discount off the gallon price posted. The only drawback is we pay using our bank account rather than earning points on our rewards credit card.
Low Humidity States
Thankfully we’ve had sunny blue skies and cool nights since leaving Texas. The daytime highs were only hitting the low 80s with very low humidity and nighttime temps were dropping into the 50s.
After seeing 1% humidity on our digital weather station in New Mexico, I googled to see if that is even possible. I grew up in the humid Southeast United States so this was new for me. 1% humidity is legit and it is very comfortable compared to the Texas heat.
It may be obvious to others but the dryness had near-immediate impacts. Our printer ink dried out within days, my skin became super dry (peeling palms) and I couldn’t drink enough water. I suppose everything has pros and cons.
El Malpais, located near Grants, New Mexico, is part of the national parks system. It consists of El Malpais National Conservation Area and the El Malpais National Monument.
Based on my research, I knew the visitor center, ranger station, and restrooms at the park were closed due to COVID-19 but that most surface trails were still open to visitors.
We planned to hike several trails in the National Conservation Area including:
- Narrows Rim Trail
- La Ventana Arch
- El Cauldron
- Continental Divide
- Big Tubes
What is a National Conservation Area? What is a National Monument?
A National Conservation Area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and set aside for present and future generations’ enjoyment. National Monuments protect a specific feature. This website does a great job explaining the difference between types of public lands.
What is El Malpais known for?
El Malpais is known for the amazing caves caused by volcanic activity in the area. With the ranger station closure, caving permits are not being issued. Climbing into a dark cave didn’t appeal to my slight claustrophobia so I was happy to visit despite the closures.
What does El Malpais mean?
El Malpais was named by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s. It means “the bad country” or “badlands”. I suppose navigating the rough rocky terrain wasn’t easy in those days, earning it the name.
Joe Skeen Campground: Free camping at El Malpais
Our intended destination was Joe Skeen Campground, in the National Conservation Area. It is a free National Forest Service campground with pit toilets, 10 gravel campsites with fire rings, covered picnic tables, and grills.
The NPS website didn’t mention the campground in the closures and with Joe Skeen being unstaffed and first-come-first-serve, I expected it to be open. We arrived early in the day in hopes to find a campsite before all the good ones were taken.
Unfortunately, we discovered the campground was also closed due to COVID19 however dispersed camping in the area was still allowed.
The main rules for dispersed camping in the area were to remain within 25ft of the road and leave no trace.
In my opinion, leave no trace is a standard courtesy for all camping. This just means not harming the area by destroying or defacing vegetation and packing out your trash. The 25ft from the road rule was specific to El Malpais.
What is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping, aka boondocking, aka dry camping is camping without electric, water, or sewer connections. Pippi has solar panels and large storage tanks for fresh water and wastewater so lack of connections doesn’t affect our quality of life. To learn more about how we added solar and upgraded our electrical system, check out this blog.
Dispersed camping on public land is free for everyone, usually with 14 days stay limits to protect the land and prevent permanent residents from dominating the available spots. Established free campgrounds with amenities are less common but do exist.
What to do if Joe Skeen campground is closed?
Full-time RV travel is about flexibility. Plans often go sideways and being flexible is important to your sanity. We arrived to find Joe Skeen Campgound closed and didn’t have any other information on the area.
We didn’t have cell service and weren’t sure if Pippi would fit in any other spots, so we decided we could camp in a large sandy turnaround in front of the campground gate.
The site we chose had a few stone campfire rings and it had clearly been used as campsites by others before us. We decided to park Pippi there for the time being and take our car out to explore the area.
We drove approximately 30 miles further into El Malpais which included a lot of dirt roads and cow pastures. It was calf season and we saw some really cute little ones. During the entire journey, we never found any cellular reception.
In our exploration, we saw several other smaller RVs. We even found one who had set up a really nice camp about 2 miles down one of the long dirt roads we explored.
After identifying a few other overnight parking options, we decided the sandy turnaround outside the campground was the best option for us. It was close to the entrance, level, and we were already there.
Overall, we were happy with our choice. There was little traffic and we only had neighbors one of the two nights.
How do you find hikes?
After lunch, we decided to check out some of the area’s hiking trails. I used the free version of the AllTrails app to find local hikes however without cellular service I had to do some improvisation.
Kevin was not amused after the first half mile led us to a dead end. It turned out I didn’t have the location of the Narrows Rim trailhead exactly right but thankfully we found the actual trailhead near the front of the parking area (not the back).
I have since purchased the AllTrails Pro membership and now download offline maps for planned hikes. The app is not perfect and the buggy nature frustrates me. But it’s better than flying blind without any map when we don’t have a cell signal.
Narrows Rim Trail: Hiking in El Malpais
The Narrows Rim trail is a moderate 3.3mi out and back trail. I knew we didn’t have enough daylight to complete the whole trail and we ended up turning around about halfway into the trail.
The parking lot was at the bottom of the mesa, but the majority of the hike was along the rim. So, we had a little climbing to get to the rim trail.
The afternoon sun was warm and we were thankful for a stiff breeze and some shade along the trail.
Overall I agree the trail is moderate but had great sweeping views of the area.
La Ventana Arch: El Malpais
We ended our day on the east side of El Malpais with La Ventana Arch. This 0.4mi hike rated as easy. However, I was surprised to find paved sidewalks and a very well-kept gravel path leading to the arch. It was not really a hike but still worth the time and effort.
This is a great short walk for young kids or the elderly to see the largest sandstone arch in New Mexico.
El Malpais: West Section
The next morning we ate a quick breakfast, packed a lunch, and drove to the west side of the National Conservation Area. There were no roads directly connecting our campsite near Joe Skeen campground on the east side.
El Cauldron Trail: Hiking in El Malpais
If we could have flown there, the El Cauldron & Continental Divide trailhead was only 10 miles from our campsite near Joe Skeen campground but instead, we drove 45 miles to get there.
El Cauldron was a scenic hike around volcanic caves and cinder fields. I really enjoyed this trail because it was on the easier side of moderate.
The footing was solid but there were some more challenging uphill sections.
Continental Divide Trail: Hiking in El Malpais
We added on an extra 2 miles for the Continental Divide trail because we were feeling good and it was too early to break for lunch.
Big Tubes Trail: Hiking in El Malpais
The Big Tubes trail is only for the truly devoted and I am proud to say we did it.
Lava Tubes in El Malpais
Big Tubes is a moderately rated hike that explores another lava field including several large lava tubes (caves). Even though I knew the trail description, I was not mentally prepared.
County Road 42 to Big Tubes Trail
First, we had to drive 9 miles of red dirt roads to get to the trailhead. Our “toad” (vehicle towed behind our motorhome) is a Ford Fusion, a low clearance sedan. I am certain our car is not what the county road engineers had in mind with County Road 42.
We saw a warning sign at the start of the road stating something to the effect of your 4×4 will get stuck in wet conditions on this road so don’t call us because we warned you. Maybe I am paraphrasing but it was a sternly worded warning. The area is under burn bans due to lack of rain so we decided to take our chances in the Ford.
Kevin had a lot of fun playing Dukes of Hazzard but our car was completely coated in the dust by the time we got to the trailhead. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the shady picnic tables in the parking area before starting the trail.
Can I do the Big Tubes Trail hike in El Malpais?
The afternoon was warm on the black lava trail. The term “trail” is used loosely because we spent the majority of the hike climbing over various shapes and sizes of lava rocks. I didn’t have to use my hands very often but it was precarious walking.
Some rocks were larger than me and some were as small as golf balls which drastically slowed our pace.
The 1.92mi hike took us 1hr 42min and we didn’t take a break during the hike. Even in my very sturdy hiking boots, the soles of my feet were sore from stepping on pointed rocks for nearly 2 hours.
I felt a great sense of accomplishment at the end of the short Big Tubes trail.
Is El Malpais worth it?
After spending much longer than expected in Dallas due to COVID-19, we really enjoyed our time in El Malpais National Conservation Area. We spent two nights outside Joe Skeen campground and two days hiking the area. Honestly, I am not sure if we were just elated to finally get on the road but we loved the El Malpais National Conservation Area and National Monument.