History & Culture

Two walls made of sandstone frame a pile of remnants of said house in between them.  Natural sandstone bluffs reach into a blue sky.
Not all sandstone features at El Malpais occur naturally.  Upon closer observation, man-made walls of old homesteads tell a story of human resilience in a harsh landscape.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

At Home in the Badlands

For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indian civilizations crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremony. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.

Clay pot fragments, or sherds, of varying shapes and sizes lie close to each other on dead pine needles.
Potsherds provide connections to past cultures at El Malpais.

Photo by John Kuehnert.

The jagged volcanic landscape of what is now El Malpais National Monument has challenged many cultures as they have interacted with it through the years. Native American Cultures have had a long and continuous tradition with this landscape, and continue to call it home thousands of years later.

A white, wooden ladder leans against a wall of a single-leveled pueblo. Rungs stretch between the three tree trunks that make its frame. Rungs start at the ground and end at the rooftop, while the ladder's frame stretches far above the roof.
Acoma Pueblo Street with white ladders against a pueblo building.

Photo by John Kuehnert.

A Living Homeland

The lands of El Malpais have played an important role in the cultures of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni for thousands of years. Puebloan Cultures and their ties to the land are still evident today in places like the Zuni-Acoma Trail, which was established as a way to connect Acoma Pueblo to Zuni Pueblo.

An oil painting depicting a massive group of Spanish explorers in 1600s-style armor, religious monks, horses, donkeys, and carts full of cargo marching away.
A Spanish Expedition explores the southwest.

NPS Photo.

The Area is Named

Early Spanish explorers came into what is now western New Mexico and El Malpais in search of wealth and new lands. When they encountered the rugged lava flows, they named this area El Malpais, Spanish for "the badlands" or "bad country." The phrase "el malpais" (pronounced ehl MAHL-pye-EES) already existed at the time, referring to rough and barren-looking landscapes typically formed from past volcanic activity.

Seven people riding on horseback are dwarfed by the sandstone landscape around them.  A cliff juts up behind four of the riders. (Archival photo)
Navajo people ride through Canyon de Chelly.

Photo by Edward Curtis.

New Neighbors

The Navajo, an Athabaskan-related people originally from northern Canada and Alaska, began to settle in the southwest around the 1300s. Already a hunter-gatherer society, their adoption of Spanish horses helped to dramatically expand their range. As such, their interactions with other tribes and explorers quickly increased.

Fort Wingate was established just south of modern-day Grants in 1862 to counter the increasing Navajo raiding parties. The area was already a stopping point along the edge of the malpais lava flows for people traveling west to Zuni Pueblo, but establishing a larger fort was a challenge because of the marshy terrain. The spring, then called Ojo de Gallo--later called El Gallo and then San Rafael--offered a rare source of water. The fort later played a small role in the Civil War.

A steam locomotive hauling cars full of timber logs (Archival photo)
A logging train in the Zuni Mountains.

NPS Photo.

Timber and Railroad Ties

By 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad forever transformed the malpais area. A small settlement soon grew up around the station which took the name of Grant. With the coming of the railroad and the establishment of Fort Wingate, the sheep and cattle industries flourished. As the railroad moved further west, new towns sprang up along the right of way. Logging in the Zuni Mountains soon began in earnest to supply the railroad, Fort Wingate and the new towns along the way.

Sandstone brick walls stand in the shape of a one-room house.  All walls are in different levels of collapse.  A large shrub grows inside the house's footprint.
The remains of a homestead at El Malpais.

Photo by John Kuehnert

Great Depression Homesteads

The Great Depression of the 1930s drew more newcomers to the area in search of new opportunity. Western New Mexico was one of the few remaining places to build a homestead under the Homestead Act. While some families were able to make a living, others moved away and left their homesteads behind. Numerous structures still dot the El Malpais today, telling the story of people seeking to find a better life.

A blurred pen tip points to a distant pile of rubble that inches just above the surrounding landscape.
The base is all that remains of McCartys Crater after its use as a bombing target.

NPS Photo

Volcano Target Practice

Although the El Malpais landscape witnessed historical events around it, McCartys Crater bears the scars of when the landscape was involved.

A nine-square-mile area within the lava flows was used for aerial bombing target practice that began in 1943. The McCartys cinder cone was intermittently used as a practice target for ten months. The range closed in April of the following year under the premise that "...construction and maintenance of targets is impracticable..." The same range was returned to the public in 1947, and unexploded ordinance collection efforts occurred in 1953 and 1990.

A uranium mine complex stretches across an open grassy area.  A large water basin is flanked by a small complex of single-story buildings and two larger processing structures.  (Archival photo)
Uranium mill near Grants, New Mexico.

NPS Photo.

Another Regional Boom

The 1950s ushered in one of the biggest changes to the malpais since the coming of the railroad: uranium. Large quantities of this chalky, yellow mineral were discovered around Grants. As demand grew during the Cold War, the town expanded rapidly to accomodate the new mine workers and their families.

A 1960s-era postcard displays a two-lane highway lined on both sides with tall piles of jagged, black lava.  The words "Lava Beds, U.S. 66, Interstate 40" creates a banner across the top.
A View of the lava flows from Historic Route 66.

NPS Photo.

Getting Kicks

Route 66 contributed to the growth of many communities its path, including Grants. Just as the Tanscontinental Railroad vastly improved transportation in the 19th century, Route 66 opened much of the American west as the nation's first all-weather highway linking the midwest to California. It also allowed millions of travelers to experience the scenic beauty and human history of western states like New Mexico.

A stucco visitor center sign displays the National Park Service arrowhead, monument name, hours of operation, and street address for El Malpais National Monument.
Stucco and lava cinders welcome travelers as they turn down the road to the visitor center.  Will the next traveler be you?

Photo by John Kuehnert

El Malpais Today

By the early 1980s, the market and demand for uranium waned. As it had many times before with different industries, this boom finally ended. In late 1987, after many years of negotiation, the malpais area finally became El Malpais National Monument.

Download a PDF of "In the Land of Frozen Fires A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country" for a more detailed and in-depth history of El Malpais.

Last updated: July 3, 2023

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Mailing Address:

1900 E. Santa Fe Ave.
Grants, NM 87020


505 876-2783

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