El Morro, El Malpais

April 10-17, 2023

Nearly every trip we take begins by traveling north on NM 180. On a long-planned trip with Silver City friends Dale and Rebecca, we left a day early to check out some possible camping spots we'd seen on previous trips.

Dennis at the cafe

Another reason for traveling on a Monday was to have lunch at the Adobe Cafe and Bakery on one of the two days a week they are open. It was fabulous as always!

Madeleine the cat

The campground at Armijo Springs was a muddy parking lot at the far end of residential development. We ran. The other two potential spots near Quemado Lake were a bit dicey, so we pressed on. But past Quemado, it's all enormous private ranches until you reach the outskirts of El Malpais.


We ventured several miles up a gravel road and were rewarded with a magnificent dispersed site. After a very late spring, the weather has suddenly turned very warm. We went for a sunset walk and were actually able to sit outside until well after dark. Peaceful and absolutely quiet night, except for the occasional coyote chorus.

view from the mesa top

In the morning we bushwhacked to the top of the mesa behind us, then scrambled down a side canyon and back to our rig.

enormous wash

The wash below us was completely dry, but was one of the widest I'd ever seen, with eroded banks 15 - 20 feet high.

campground from above

The next afternoon we united with Rebecca and Dale, fortunately arriving early enough to snag two spots at the very popular Joe Skeen Campground.


In the morning Rebecca and Dale headed for the Sandstone Bluffs, while Dennis and I decided to check out the ridge right next to the campground. While clambering up the rocky slope, I almost stepped on an enormous rattlesnake. Fortunately he was cold and sluggish, and barely hissed at us while we snapped a quick photo.

our rig from above

There were great views from the top. That's our rig.

zoom in on the campground

And there's Rebecca and Dale!

Sandstone Bluffs

Looking west towards the Sandstone Bluffs.

pottery shards

As we wandered across the top of the mesa, we stumbled upon an old sand road. At the summit, there were signs of prior habitation, including mounds, depressions, lots of pottery shards and possibly some scraping tools.

Mount Taylor

Once we rounded the summit, there were stunning views to the north of Mount Taylor, still covered in a gleaming mantle of snow. We continued making our way around the edge of the mesa, eventually negotiating a steep and rocky slope, and then following game trails over red sand swales back to NM 117.

polished stones

We thought we might join Rebecca and Dale at the Sandstone Bluffs. But — surprise! — both sides of the road were lined with sheep fence! By then the sun was already quite warm, and we were running out of water. Somewhere on the far side of 117, and whether it was dehydration or heat stroke, the ground was suddenly littered with what appeared to be pre-polished stones — tons of carnelian, agates and even some petrified wood.

cat napping

Time for a late lunch and a long nap!

lighted arch in Grants

An RV is a machine designed to shake itself apart, and no trip would be complete without at least one breakdown. This time it was Rebecca and Dale's water pump. We cruised into Grants, wondering if we'd find a part there, or if we'd have to detour to Albuquerque.

at the coffee shop

But as on previous trips, we found that Grants is home to some of the friendliest people in New Mexico. Over coffee at the Mount Taylor Coffee Company, fellow customers quickly came to our aid.

drinking coffee

Hooray, we found the part!

El Morro cliffs

In no time, we were back on the road and on our way to El Morro.

soaring cliffs

Dennis and I hiked the Headland Trail that day and nabbed a spot at El Morro Campground, while Rebecca and Dale tucked in at the Ancient Way RV Park and installed their new pump.

inscription from 1866

It was a cold and blustery morning, so we didn't take a lot of photos. We must have hiked this trail dozens of times over the last 20 years, but it's always deeply moving to view the inscriptions chiseled into the sandstone by passersby going all the way back to the 1500s.

banded cliffs

Travelers were drawn to this spot by a small pond at the base of the cliff, which was the only reliable water source for many miles. The pond is fed not by a spring, but by water that collects during the annual Monsoon season.

Madeleine and Buddha Cat

Buddha Cat photo bomb.

lava tube

Rebecca and Dale would take another day to enjoy El Morro, while Dennis and I moved on to the El Calderon area. This turned out to be a great hike, wandering across a high, rolling plain, past several prominent lava tubes.

cinder cone

The trail then climbs through a ponderosa forest to the top of El Calderon cinder cone, a small volcano that last erupted 30,000 to 60,000 years ago.


The trail encircles the caldera, only to plunge into the crater on a trail of old railroad ties.

Fun! Many cars came and went while we ate lunch in the parking lot. With one exception, they all used the restroom, discarded some trash — some of it on the ground — took a picture of the sign, and drove away. Americans enjoying their national parks ;-0

El Morro Lookout

Back at the Ancient Way, we climbed up an old road to the El Morro Lookout. Like most fire towers, this one is long since abandoned, but this was once the location of a 51' beacon, powered by two generators at the base of the hill, that helped guide pilots over the Continental Divide.

view toward El Morro

There were great views from the top. Here's looking west toward El Morro.

the road down

That night we returned to the place we had camped on our first night out, looking for a trail to some petroglyphs we had just learned about.


"Trail" is a somewhat approximate description of the route. There is a tough scramble to cross the wash, and it's easy to get lost in a spider web of game trails.

petroglyph panel

It was nearly sunset when we finally found them, and they were magnificent!

me at the petroglyphs

We were intrigued by the detail and the geometric designs, which reminded us of Hopi artwork.

crossing the wash

They may be associated with another nearby Anasazi site — one I'd never heard of before — which may, or may not be, a Chacoan outlier. Its builders are considered to be among the ancestors of the present-day Acoma people.

our rigs at Pueblo Park

For the last night of the trip, we chose Pueblo Park. Although we had backpacked and camped here, many times in the past, we got discouraged after floods turned the bucolic streamside trail into a boulder field. Then a major wildfire swept through the area in 2020.

me at the trailhead

We were delighted to discover that the campground was untouched by the fire. Rebecca and Dale joined us there for an impromptu picnic on a balmy evening in the shade of giant ponderosas. We walked what remains of the "Trail to the Past". The interpretive sign is now blank, but I recorded some of its information during a 2015 trip:

The path winds 1½ miles through the remains of a 12th century village inhabited by Tularosa people, a branch of the Mogollon family. Large pits and mounds marked the locations of kivas and pit houses that dotted this broad hilltop a thousand years ago. Tributaries of Pueblo Creek provided water for beans, corn and squash, supplemented by water from a nearby spring.
rocky stream bank

The trail along Pueblo Creek has been rebuilt to stay high on the bank, protecting it from recurrent flooding (thank you, Forest Service).

stream in the forest

It was the perfect end to a perfect trip!


Thanks, Rebecca and Dale, for being great friends and adventurous travelers!

red cat