Riding El Malpais


On Thursday, May 11th we woke early and had a leisurely morning with tea and muesli, one of favorite breakfast meals. We had a nice easy 15 miles along NM 53 with a generous shoulder through the town of El Morro which seemed low key yet had amenities. There is an RV park that allows camping, a coffee shop that we passed up and a funky looking art gallery which wasn’t open yet. We passed through with some cheers from some relaxing RV’ers  and a word of caution from a woman watering her garden at the bookstore to be careful of the trucks.

Leaving El Morro

Art Gallery in the town of El Morro

A few miles further and our only turn of the day was onto the Chain of Craters Back Country Byway or County Road 42. The road was a little rough and full of deep sand in spots. There was no traffic anywhere in sight. We took a small detour to visit a recreation area called Big Tubes managed under El Malpais National Monument. George from El Morro National Monument Visitor Center suggested it as a place to hike and have lunch so we gave it a try.  All the caves in El Malpais National Monument are closed due to the risk of white nose syndrome affecting the local bat population-hasn’t happened yet. We were able to hike out a ways into the lava fields. This was an inhospitable place and you would not want to get lost out here  – you may never be found. Our hiking trail followed small piles of lava rock cairns and brought us to the entrance of Skylight cave and a place called seven bridges. This area consists of a 17 mile long, horizontal lave tube that has collapsed in places leaving bridges here and there. The hiking was rough and we didn’t get too far when we decided to turn back. The lava rocks hold heat and it just felt so bizarre on them. El Malpais (say el-mal-pie-EES) means “the badlands”, easy to see how it got it’s name. This area is real close to the continental divide and the weather gets finicky in the afternoon. Dark clouds loomed and we decided to get back on the bikes and push on with our little side loop off the main road.  It was a primitive road and slow going with deep sand in sections.  We finally connected back with the byway and continued on.

No cars….just bikes

Love the brilliance of cactus flowers

lava land

Tiny Bryan gives us some perspective on one of the natural bridges over a lava tube

Hot trail through the lava

Bryan holding strong in the sand on the primitive road

Rain clouds surrounded us for the rest of the day….it seemed as if the sky stayed clear just above us.  We just about finished the road, crossing a section of the Continental Divide Trail.  We camped 6 miles from the end in a quiet field with scrubby trees providing a wind break.

One of the craters in the chain

The bikes taking a break at the Continental Divide Trailhead

Sunset at the campsite in El Malpais

cooking dinner

Chain of craters sunset

With beautiful scenery and not a single car the whole day we loved every bit of the route.  If you’re considering taking it, on bike it’s a challenge and by car it would be even tougher. 4WD and high clearance are essential. Water isn’t available so carry plenty.

The next morning on Saturday May 12th we finished up the byway and got on some pavement, NM 117 and had a pretty much downhill route all day.  We took our time on this scenic road traveling through more of El Malpais. We were on the east side of the Monument. The scenery was jaw dropping…..rock faces with beautiful colors on one side of the road and then the lava beds on the other.

morning byway ride-pretty rough in parts but wide open scenery

Beautiful rocks surprise us in the distance

up close

Hard to keep our eyes on the road

sandstone from an ancient ocean

La Ventana, New Mexico’s largest natural arch

Beautiful country we live in

Just one more

Rock face texture

We camped at a free BLM campground called Joe Skeen.  We had a covered pavilion and plenty of afternoon left to read and relax. Sunday morning we departed and made our way to a section of Interstate 40. We had about 100 miles left to get to Albuquerque.  Plenty of reservation land in this area and we had marked a couple casinos on map because of their tremendous buffets.  We had a huge meal at Sky City Casino. Nothing satiates a hungry cyclist more than an endless supply of vittles especially when it is grilled salmon, shrimp and apple pie.  It was mother’s day and we shared our meal with many celebratory families.

Following a long break at Sky City Casino we continued onward and camped at the Dancing Eagle Casino RV Park.  Most of our route was on the old historic route 66. When we arrived at the RV park, which was essentially a parking lot, but for $10 we were given peace of mind and a voucher for a shower across the street at a Travel Center.  Lots of amenities here-groceries, restaurant, rv park.

Route 66

Casino camping

creativity with securing the tent

The next morning we left early and pedaled to Los Lunas, just south of Albuquerque. This part of the route included an unavoidable section on I-40 which actually turned out to be ok as we made good time.We decided that rather than bike directly into ABQ we’d take advantage of the Railrunner-a bike friendly commuter train. We hopped on the 3:15 train with plenty of smiles welcoming us on, totally hassle free for cyclists.  Bikes can be put in the front of every car with no extra charge! We arrived in ABQ to find our friend Ron waiting for us at the station ready to escort us by bicycle to his home.  We were looking forward to staying with Ron and Leslie, Leslie is Bryan’s Aunt Jan’s sister.

Bikes happily situated on the Roadrunner

Now some down time in ABQ,

Debi and Bryan


2 Responses to “Riding El Malpais”

  1. Gorgeous photos! Amazing stories. :) You’re making me want to hit the road to explore NM! I love that state. Are you guys making your way up to Mancos area? Let me know. I’ve got a camper with your name on it.

    • 2 thrubike

      Jaime-we are on our way! We are in Cuba, NM at the moment. We will be in a touch in a few days with a better idea of when we’ll be in Mancos. We’d love to stay with you and a camper sounds divine! Talk to you soon, Debi

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