Updated: Jul 7, 2021
February 7th, 2020
If you’re looking for a scenic adventure close to Albuquerque or Santa Fe, one that promises a big return but requires little physical expenditure, travel the edge of El Malpais National Monument on the road to Quemado. Along this road you’ll find La Ventana Natural Arch, a massive sandstone arch that sits on the edge of a volcanic lava field.
Much of the New Mexico landscape was shaped by volcanic activity, especially some of the more unique features. When I moved to the state several years back, I knew little about its geology, so I could only identify volcanic features by given names: Albuquerque Volcanoes was an easy one to figure out, and Valles Caldera up by Jemez Springs.
New Mexico’s Volcanic Features
Just a little research into volcanic land forms can go a long way. Now I know how hard it is to miss the volcanic structures as you drive all the way up or down Interstate 25, from the Raton-Clayton Volcanic field of Northeastern New Mexico with the various cinder cones disappearing into the distant plains, through the central region of the state with Mount Taylor, the giant composite volcano looming to the west, then on to Southwestern New Mexico and the stunning landscape of the Gila National Forest and Wilderness Area once shaped by old super volcanoes.
In fact, “New Mexico has the largest number, range of ages, diversity of types, and range of preservation of volcanoes in North American”. Saying that New Mexico has the largest diversity of types of volcanic landforms, while true, is a little deceiving. The state actually exhibits all of the main types, from the ash-flow seen while hiking Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, to the Kilbourne Hole volcanic crater, to those listed above. Shiprock in Northwestern New Mexico is a volcanic neck and one of the more recognizable features to state and area residents.
La Ventana Natural Arch is located within the El Malpais National Conservation Area, and directly adjacent to El Malpais National Monument. While the arch itself formed in a sandstone bluff, this area boasts the McCarty lava field, one of the youngest lava fields in the world. El Malpais National Monument itself consists of “five distinct lava flows lie beside and atop one another, in some places 475 feet thick.”
The Road to Quemado and El Malpais
El Malpais is the badlands in Spanish. This stunning badlands area is about an hour and fifteen minutes west of Albuquerque on interstate 40. There are two ways to access El Malpais--one road skirting the west will take you to some of the main points of interest within El Malpais National Monument. For this adventure, you’ll want to take the road that skirts the eastern edge of the National Monument, but the western edge of the National Conservation Area. This road is NM 117 toward Quemado.
The road from Grants to Quemado offers some spectacular views of the sandstone bluffs and the lava flow beyond. The road winds south from Grants along a sandstone ridge that juts sharply up on the left. At most points along this drive it’s not visibly obvious that the edge of the McCarty lava field is only feet away, since sage brush and other vegetation has grown to mask the view. To see the scope and scale of this lava flow, pull onto the dirt road that leads to the Sandstone Bluffs overlook--you won’t be disappointed!
Outdoor Activity for Tough Joint Days
About eight miles south of the Sandstone Bluffs overlook is the parking lot for La Ventana Natural Arch. The arch sits back in a sort of cove in the wall of sandstone, already visible from the parking lot. A paved trail leads from the parking lot toward the arch and quickly turns to gravel. Less than a half-mile walk leads directly to the the base of the arch.
This particular evening we walked the trail to its end and admired the sandstone structure that formed over a period I cannot comprehend because it’s not at all relative to the time of a single human life. Instead, our visit was less than a blink in the lifespan of La Ventana. Wandering off the trail a bit we inspected the bluffs to the south and west of the arch, the juniper trees with their branches waving clusters of sapphire berries, and the cholla cacti popping up here and there in inexact and irregular shapes--some almost resembling crosses, some y-shaped, and others are large spiky desert bushes.
Stacia and I made the journey out to La Ventana Natural Arch on a day I was experiencing moderate joint pain from my Ankylosing Spondylitis. Exercise is a key component of managing AS, but it’s always a balancing act where too much exertion can easily tip the scales and cause more pain. On days like this, I needed to get outdoors, but was also distinctly conscious of the signals my body was transmitting. Therefore, I opted for a short, leisurely excursion.
I recommend this destination for those days when you just need to be engulfed in a beautiful, natural scene, and to do so with light physical exertion.