Around 5,000 years ago, a volcano known today as Little Black Peak, erupted filling the Tularosa Basin with molten rock. The resulting lava flow was 44 miles long and 6 miles wide and, in many places, 160 feet thick. Only a ridge of Dakota sandstone overlooks the lava, extending to low hills over 10 miles away. The ridge the only remnant of the land before the eruption — it was just high enough to remain uncovered.
The Malpais Lava Flow is one of the youngest in the continental U.S. and is extremely well preserved, even if it is starting to be overgrown by plants. The lava is called the Malpais, which is Spanish for ‘badlands.’ It is a name also given to several other flows in New Mexico, including the even larger deposits in the El Malpais National Monument near Grants, 130 miles northwest. The flow contains many interesting geological features including lava caves, pressure ridges, collapsed gas bubbles and two types of lava — rough blocks and ropy flows — making a visit well worth it.
The Valley of Fires, adjacent to the flow, looks desolate at first glance. However, dozens of plants and animals call this tormented terrain home, including bats, roadrunners, quail, cottontails, mule deer, barberry sheep, and lizards. It’s also a virtual birdwatcher’s paradise with great horned owls, burrowing owls, turkey vultures, hawks, gnat catchers, cactus wrens, sparrows and golden eagles. A great way to see the scenery, plants and animals is to hike the Malpais Nature Trail (3/4 of a mile) with its interpretive displays. An unmaintained path at the south edge of the ridge is another option if you are interested in hiking. However, the ground off these paths can be unstable, sharp and rough hiking, so if you do go off trail, be extremely careful.
Located four miles west of the town of Carrizozo on US 380, camping is allowed in the area, but camper should be warned that it is often extremely windy due as the site is very exposed. The Visitor’s Center offers gift options and information about public lands in New Mexico. The nearest city with hotels is Ruidoso, which is 36 miles away.
The most popular time to travel to the Valley of Fires is in Spring or Fall when the weather is moderate, however, mild winter days are also a good time to visit.