Hike Through Volcanic Rock and Ice Caves at This National Monument

The floor is literally lava—and it gets fewer than 150,000 visitors a year.

Contrary to popular belief, Iceland isn’t the only “Land of Fire and Ice” (and the other one isn’t in the Game of Thrones universe, either). In this case, we’re looking at the very real American Southwest state of New Mexico

Just outside Albuquerque, a barren volcanic landscape—dormant but not extinct—dominates the shrubby desert terrain, so desolate and raw it was once considered a possible detonation site for the atomic bomb. This is El Malpaís—literally, “the badlands.”

Massimo Strazzeri Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Not quite 4,000 years ago, one of the largest basalt lava flows on record inundated New Mexico. Today, the aptly named El Malpaís National Monument and the adjoining El Malpaís National Conservation Area comprise nearly 400,000 acres of basalt fields, lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones, and steam-explosion craters. Where the lava didn’t touch, you’ll find sandstone arches, cliffs, canyons, and some of the oldest Douglas firs in the Southwest.

Millennia may have passed, but the scene is still reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. In fact, what you’ll see here is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian-style volcanism,” and you’ll hear Hawaiian terms thrown around—for example, pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), a word for ropey, slow-cooling lava, the same pillowy dark stuff you’ll see beneath your feet.

Skylight Cave
Flickr/NPS Natural Resources

The “Land of Fire” moniker should be obvious by now, but what about the ice? Wander inside a lava tube and you’ll quickly understand: the tubes trap cold air, forming underground ice caves. “The ice has been forming for thousands of years and can be many feet thick,” explains Mark Abetz, Lead Park Ranger at El Malpaís National Conservation Area. Despite being in the high desert, he adds, the caves rarely rise above freezing. 

But it’s the caves’ human history that might be the most fascinating. “These caves have been used as shelter, storage, and for many other uses by people in modern times on back to Indigenous cultures,” Abetz explains. Soot stains in the caves point to Ancestral Puebloans melting ice during periods of drought.

Which begs the question: Did ancient Indigenous groups actually live among active lava flows? According to Abetz, probably not—but they very well may have seen, stumbled upon, or traveled to them. “When we’re talking 3,900 years ago, we’re looking at hunter-gatherers from the Archaic Period. There is evidence to show that people have been at least visiting this land for over 10,000 years.” Either way, it’s incredible to imagine our ancestors watching New Mexico glow bright orange where we now see little but barren rock and tubes of ice.

la ventana arch
Daniel A. Leifheit/Moment/Getty Images

What to do in El Malpaís 

Hitting the trails is the big thing to do in El Malpaís. Both Big Tubes and El Calderon have great trails, but the Narrows Rim Trail in El Malpaís National Conservation Area is can’t-miss: The 4.5-mile trek follows the edge of the most recent lava flow, where the streams of blazing-hot magma met 500-foot sandstone cliffs. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, not far from Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, also winds through here.

You’ll also want to bookmark a few iconic sights: La Ventana Natural Arch, one of the largest natural arches in New Mexico; the Bandera Volcano, a 20,000-year-old dormant volcano on the Continental Divide that guests can explore on foot; and the Ice Cave, an underground “ice box” found within a twisting lava tube system formed by the Bandera’s ancient explosion.

junction cave
Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images

How to prepare for a visit to El Malpaís

Nab an 8am breakfast burrito in nearby Albuquerque, and by ten you could be standing amongst volcanic carnage and sharp, craggy basalt that stretches as far as the eye can see. But before you head into El Malpaís, be sure to grab a bike helmet, gloves, knee pads, and a headlamp if you’re looking to go underground. You can nab a permit from either El Malpaís Visitor Center or El Morro Visitor Center and go caving on your own. (Note: The caves are currently closed to the public due to COVID-19; check the monument’s website for updates.)

But before you go traipsing off into the volcanic fields and lava tubes, know what you’re in for; Abetz has seen a lot of guests arrive ill-prepared. “They look at a topo map and don't see much elevation change on the lava fields. Those hard, uneven surfaces can actually be strenuous to hike on. Sturdy, well-cushioned footwear can be more important than ever on lava.” 

And then there’s the second mistake hikers make: not bringing enough water. "Remember that El Malpaís is in a high desert, and natural water sources are scarce,” notes Abetz. Hikers should plan ahead and carry the water they need, especially when hiking through open land. Luckily, the national monument has a bit more infrastructure, with water and restrooms available.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.