Our trip to the southwest on historic Route 66 has taken us through some beautiful scenery, but in reading about the area we saw in New Mexico, some of the best lies off the beaten path. Two of those scenic gems are El Malpais (Spanish = the bad lands), a place where sharp lava meets smooth sandstone, and nearby El Morro (Spanish = the headlands), towering sandstone headland where prehistoric and historic travelers found reliable water and left their inscriptions. They are close together, so if you get off I-40 to see one, the other is so close you'll kick yourself if you miss it!
This combination of National Monuments, National Park, and Conservancy District are intertwined so as to defy short explanation. In general we recommend taking NM State Route 53 for 20 miles south of Grants, NM on I-40. You will be driving through a golden tan sandstone landscape. You will come to El Calderon Area where black lava flows have created lava tubes. Close to the parking lot is the entrance to Junction Cave, and a nearby second entrance, and a volcanic cinder cone. Farther along SR 53 is the El Pais Information Center where you can learn about the vast expanse of other features including a 17-mile long lava tube. One could easily spend a day exploring El Malpais including the massive sandstone La Ventana natural arch on the opposite side of the park.
We chose to continue farther along SR 53 about 15 miles until we saw the 500-foot tall sandstone headlands of El Morro gleaming in the sunlight. It's a photo magnet because it looks different at every turn. From the interpretive center there are several trails. Inscription Rock Trail is a 0.5 mile loop that takes you past early prehistoric petroglyphs, Spanish explorers' inscriptions, U.S Army scouts, and pioneer wagon train travelers. A 200,000 gallon rainwater pool provides reliable water year around, and has for seven centuries.
A second longer two-mile trail leads upward to the top of the mesa where the ruins of a large Atsinna people pueblo have been stabilized. Around year 1275 some 1000 to 1500 Puebloans built pit house structures of flat sandstone slabs, a village measuring about 200 x 300 feet.
El Morro National Monument has a Visitor Center and a first-come-first-serve free campground with limited spaces — fine for Class Bs and PopUp campers (no electric or water). Anyone loving spectacular scenery, history, or adventure will enjoy these rare gems in a vast land of incomparable beauty.