Wandering Around the Sandstone Bluffs of El Malpais


A week ago I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Stephen Ausherman, the author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Albuquerque. During the talk he mentioned that many of book’s hikes are not on established hiking trails but are rather places to wander and explore. In short, his book is loaded with ideas for places to wander.

One of the hikes he described in his talk was in the Sandstone Bluffs area of El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. El Malpais is west of Albuquerque and is an area with dramatic lava flows. The Sandstone Bluffs are on the edge of the lava flow and provide a great place to get above the flows so you can look across them. Some of the flows are over twenty miles long. The view is very impressive and for many people that is enough.

But if you wander away from the parking area, there is an amazing world to explore. Those who make it to the base of the bluffs and walk along them can find natural arches, places to scramble, Native American rock art and much more. If you explore some more, you’ll find several archaeology sites. The general area is rich in archaeological sites, but you’ll have to look for them. They all require some hiking.

I decided to follow Steve’s advice and went out to the Sandstone Bluffs area to wander. You can find more information on how to get there on page 322 of the Second Edition of his book. His description of the area provides a framework for getting around. Where you go, how much time you spend, and what you see is up to you.

When we reached the parking area, there were several families enjoying the view and playing hide and seek in the rocks on top of the bluff. We were the only ones venturing to the base of the bluffs. Getting to the bottom required navigating a break in the bluff, but once we were on the bottom the walking became easier.

If you want to reach the base from the parking area, you’ll have to navigate through this break.

Once you reach the bottom the navigation becomes much easier.


You can’t drift too far from the base because you’ll run into this impenetrable lava flow.

As you walk along the base you’ll find impressive walls almost 200 feet tall.

Eventually you’ll come across a natural arch. I found a total of three arches. You can’t see them from the top.

You’ll find plenty of features along the way. That tall mountain in the distance is Mount Taylor.

You’ll also find plenty of side canyons to explore.

If you look on the ground, you might find a small broken piece of pottery.

If you walk up hill from the first piece of pottery you might find more potsherds. If you look around you might even find an archaeological site. Regardless of what you find, leave everything where you found it. That’s where it belongs.

If you look carefully you might see tracks of small birds or other animals.

You might even find other signs of animals.

If you look on the rocks walls you might see interesting erosional features. There is so much to see no matter which way you look.

Eventually you’ll reach another natural arch. This one is high above.


Here’s a closer look.

Go even further and you’ll reach this natural arch. This is the last of the three I found.

Look around and you’ll find this collection of prehistoric rock art etched into the sandstone wall.

Do you think people from one thousand years ago thought about getting their ducks in a row?


By the time we found the third natural arch we had spent three hours wandering along the base and it was time to head back. We found a place to get to the top and almost immediately ran into broken pieces of pottery. We followed the potsherds to this site. The picture is not very good, but that jumble of rocks was at one time a structure of several rooms.

As you can see the quality of the pottery was very good. For much of the walk we couldn’t go more than fifty feet without seeing pottery. Without trying we found a few more sites on our walk back to the car.

We eventually started walking along the edge of the bluff and had views like this for much of the way back. At this point the lava flow is over five miles wide.

The only thing I can add is that the Sandstone Bluff area of El Mapais offers a complete wandering experience. I hope you have as much fun there as I did.






  1. we just visited the Ventana arch but did not know there was a way down! Next time!

    • Thanks for the comment. The 3rd Edition (released in February of this year) of “60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Albuquerque” describes an easier way to get to the base of the Sandstone Bluffs. I’m sure you’ll love the hike. Thanks again, David Ryan

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