Big Tubes Area

A wide rock trench with a reddish-black arc that forms a bridge between the trench walls.  The trench floor is covered with boulders.
The Big Tubes area has numerous lava bridges.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

Geological features abound at Big Tubes with lava bridges, collapsed tubes, ‘a‘ā lava flows, and lava tube caves. Hiking at Big Tubes can be a rewarding challenge for those prepared to hike a rugged landscape marked by cairns.

Download the Big Tubes Area Trail Guide or pick one up at the El Malpais Visitor Center before heading to Big Tubes. The trail is approximately two miles long and makes a rough figure-8 shape, so the hike can be made shorter if desired. This trail is considered extremely strenuous due to the uneven ‘a‘ā lava flow terrain, and keep in mind that help is far away if issues arise.

Free caving permits are required to visit all lava tube caves in El Malpais National Monument. All caves are undeveloped wilderness caves meaning there are no established trails, steps, or lights within the caves. Safety gear - including a helmet, gloves, and kneepads - is highly recommended to explore any lava tube caves in the park. Many caves are closed to protect sensitive natural resources that can only be found in cave ecosystems. Other caves may close during the summer to protect bat maternity colonies. Please check the caving page for before planning a visit to any caves.

Driving to Big Tubes can be an adventure on its own. To reach the Big Tubes Area, drive down County Road 42 to the Big Tubes Road (NPS 300) and travel 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to the parking area. High clearance and four-wheel-drive vehicles are highly recommended, as road conditions can vary greatly throughout the seasons. The road is often impassible during the winter months and monsoon season in late July and August. Speak with a ranger at the El Malpais Visitor Center for road conditions.

Picnic tables and pit toilets are available for day use at the trailhead. Camping at the trailhead is prohibited.

Pile of rocks marks a trail in a shrubby desert landscape.
Piles of rock called cairns mark the route on many trails at El Malpais. Please do not disturb these cairns or build new cairns to prevent confusing other hikers.

NPS Photo by John Kuehnert

Hiking Cairned Routes

Sometimes the only trail markers along El Malpais trails are cairns: a series of rock piles used to trace a route across the land. Cairns are common on lava landscapes where creating a traditional trail or footpath is impossible because of the extreme nature of the terrain.

Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. As you travel, make sure you have the next cairn in sight before moving on to the next one. Keep your eyes on the land while walking; the uneven nature of the terrain demands it since there is no even surface. If you want to enjoy the views, stop first to get a secure footing, and then look around. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes.

Please take care not to disturb cairns as you hike. Do not build new cairns. Building cairns off the intended route may cause other hikers to become disoriented and lost.



Last updated: June 28, 2023

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