Traveling west on Interstate 40, along the south side of the freeway in the last 10 mi or so before you hit Grants, you'll catch your first glimpse of the stark, volcanic-rock-strewn El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area. Take Exit 89, on the east edge of the flow, and travel south on NM 117 about 18 mi to La Ventana, New Mexico's largest natural arch. Before you get to that sandstone wonder, you might pull off at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) El Malpais Ranger Station (it's about 9 mi from the exit) for maps and information about the conservation area's miles of hiking trails; the nearby Sandstone Bluffs overlook offers a grand view across El Malpais ("the Badlands"). Alternatively, proceed into Grants, stopping at the comprehensive Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center (Exit 85 505/876–2783) for maps and info, then continue west on Interstate 40 to Exit 81, then southwest on NM 53 to the monument area, which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS)
and has an information center about 23 mi to the south. El Malpais is not much of an attraction for the just-passing-through visitor, but it's well worth spending a full day or two exploring the park in depth. Popular for hiking as well as caving in the miles of lava tubes—but it's best to venture forth with extremely sturdy soles and lots of water—its some 40 volcanoes dot 114,000 acres. (A quick snapshot of the volcanic landscape may be gained from the Ice Cave and Bandera Crater.) BLM's Joe Skeen Campground has 10 basic sites and a vault toilet; backcountry camping permits are available at the NPS visitor center, though camping is very primitive—no facilities exist.