Off the Beaten Path: Sandstone & Lava Gems

 Off the Beaten Path: Sandstone & Lava Gems

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!

Lava Tube Cave
Lava Tube Cave Entrance

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.

Inscription Rock
Inscription Rock

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.

First English Signature
First English Inscription

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.

Roger and Lynn Brucker

Roger Brucker and his wife Lynn have been Roadtrekkers since 2009. Both are retired, Roger from a Business-to-Business advertising agency and from teaching marketing for 25 years at Wright State University, Dayton, OH. Lynn is an electronics engineer, retired from the USAF Research Laboratory. Roger has authored or co-authored five books on cave exploring. They are cave explorers, kite flyers, and have four Standard Poodles. Their home base is Beavercreek, OH, a Dayton suburb. “We’ve done a lot of camping and long distance tandem bicycle riding, including an unsupported San Diego to St. Augustine ride in 2000,” said Lynn. Roger says, “But we love our 190 Popular Roadtrek because we can go anywhere on a moment’s notice, and stay off the grid for a week.” They are known to many Roadtrekkers for contributing ideas and suggestions on the Roadtrek Yahoo Forum and Cyberrally. Some of their modifications to Red Rover, their Roadtrek, are documented at

Join the RV Lifestyle community!

Subscribe to the newsletter and get a free Packing List for your next trip + free perks, discounts, and exclusive RV travel tips!