Big Tubes

Caterpillar collapse
A rough but fairly level hike to and around two collapsed lava tubes. This trail takes you through an open forest containing a variety of trees such as aspen, ponderosa pine, piñon and juniper. The lava tubes to which you hike are large and long (one of the longest in North America). They are unlike anything else you will see while hiking.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; El Malpais National Monument
Region: West-central; El Malpais National Monument.
start: 7598ft; 2316m end: 7598ft; 2316m
min: 7598ft; 2316m max: 7637ft; 2328m
elevation gain/loss: 39ft; 12m.
Delta is max-min.
Length: 1.49mi; 2.40km.
surface: rock
condition: rough
ease of following: The cairns can be difficult to spot sometimes.
obstacles: The lava is rough at times.

Compasses are not reliable on the lava.

When standing at a cairn, you should be able to see the next cairn. Do not walk on without knowing where you are going. it is easy to get turned around, and all the lava looks the same, especially if you are lost.

Fee: $0.00.
Season: All year.

Snow or rain can make CR 42 such that it requires 4WD and high clearance to get to the trailhead. Call the El Malpais information center at (505) 783-4774 for road status.

Start early in the summer to avoid the heat.

Usage is medium in the summer, light in other seasons.

Dogs: No. Dogs are not recommended because the sharp lava is hard on their paws.
Bikes: No. The sharp lava will cut bike tires.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes:

The lava is uneven, so boots with good ankle support are important.

The lava is also very sharp; it tends to eat boots. The sharpness also means that a fall could lead to an unpleasant injury; bring a first-aid kit. One time, Diana cut her knee through a kneepad and three other layers of clothing.

Usage is medium in the summer, light in other seasons.

Trailhead facilities: picnic area, vault toilet(s).
Hike attractions: geology, scenery.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2000-09-16
Time it took us: 3:30.
Usage (people/hour): No data.
Cleanliness: 10.


Waypoint Type Description
4WINDOCave entranceFour Windows Cave entrance
BIGTUBTrailheadBig Tubes trailhead at El Malpais National Monument
BTSIGNTrail junctionBig Tubes sign
CTRPLRTrail pointCaterpillar collapse


Paper maps:
Map name Cartographer Year Scale Topo map? Online access Notes
El Malpais Recreation Map and Guide BLM 2008 1:100000 Y from Amazon (purchase) Great overview map for El Malpais area, including showing land ownership.
Geologic Map of El Malpais Lava Field and Surrounding Areas, Cibola County, NM USGS (Charles Maxwell) 1986 1:62500 Y No online copies. For sale at the three visitor centers (NPS, BLM, Northern NM) around El Malpais.
Guide to Indian Country of Arizona Colorado New Mexico Utah Automobile Club of Southern California 1998 1:0 N from Amazon (purchase) Good overview road map for northwest NM. No scale is given on the map. The corner coordinates are approximate.
Ice Caves USGS 1967 1:24000 Y from (free)
Wildernesses of New Mexico US Forest Service 1981 1:1000000 N No online copies. Base map with national forests, wilderness areas and highways.

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Getting to the trailhead:

Take exit 81 from I-40 and head south for a total of 23.9 miles. This is the El Malpais visitor center. It is a good idea to stop in here and inquire about getting to the trailhead. If it has rained recently, the road can be impassible. Also, check the forecast to see if rain is likely.
El Malpais Information center sign
Chain of Craters sign
Continue from the visitor center 3.6 miles to the junction with County road 42. Turn left onto 42. A sign indicating that this road takes you past the Chain of Craters will help you know you have found the right road.
Drive about 4.1 miles down 42. You will see a sign indicating a left turn to get to the Big Tubes area. Go left (this may be indicated as NPS road 300).
Big Tubes Area sign
Sign indicating turnoff to trailhead parking
After about 2.6 miles, a sign indicates the Big Tubes parking area to your left.
You have arrived. There is a small picnic area and vault toilet to the left of the trailhead. My photos are on the sign that is angled.
Big Tubes trailhead

About the hike:

Trailhead sign

The trail takes off from the east side of the parking lot This trail is a cairn trail. It is easy to follow, as the cairns are large and there are plenty of them.

You start out walking in amongst Aspen and Ponderosa pine. The aspen end not long after you start, replaced by piñon and juniper.

Some of the trail is across aa lava. This lava is rough, sharp, and often clinks as you walk on it. Often, aa is formed of varying-sized, loose pieces of rock. It is easy to twist an ankle, so watch your step.
Aa lava
Pahoihoi lava
The other predominant form of lava out here is pahoehoe. It is smoother, sometimes ropy in appearance. You appreciate these differences in lava after hiking on both of them. The pahoehoe is much easier to walk on.
This photo was taken by Diana Northup.
After a little more than a quarter mile (about 0.5km), you come to a sign indicating various choices you can make (GPS: BTSIGN). For this hike turn left, heading towards Caterpillar collapse. You will return from the right.
Big Tubes sign
Collapsed lava tube with a cave at the end
Off on your right is one of the large lava tubes with portions collapsed. This trench contains Big Skylight cave. Note that all caves are currently closed on the monument, so do not enter them.
The trail follows this trench for a while. Besides getting different views of the trench, you get a chance to see some of the plant diversity out here. For example, the trail goes past some wild grapes (pictured here).
Wild grapes
The entrance to Four Windows Cave
You cross the trench at caterpillar collapse (GPS: CTRPLR), and then follow the other side of it down until you reach Four Windows Cave (GPS: 4WINDO). Remember that the caves are closed due to concerns about White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

You leave Four windows and cross a bridge across the trench, where you will find a sign and a cairn. You can return to Big Skylight cave by following the cairn trail which takes off behind you as you look at the sign. However, doing so would prevent you from seeing Seven Bridges. Therefore, follow the cairn trail which leads to the right of the sign. A view up the trench showing one of the bridges is to the right.

From here, follow the cairn trail up the trench and back to Big Skylight Cave, where you find the trail back to the parking lot.

Looking down the trench toward the seven bridges

Plants we saw along the trail:

Reader comments about this hike:

On Mon Jun 19 10:54:30 2006 Ron Fernandez from Albuquerque,NM said:
This is an excellent review of this trail, with good directions to find the trail head. Finding the trail head could be difficult without these directions. I have hiked this trail several times and explored the lava tubes. Please be aware that safety equipment is very important in the lava tubes, follow advisories regarding 3 light sources, helmets, gloves and good sturdy hiking boots.

Thank you for your professional descriptions of this hike, and all of the attachments.

On Fri Jul 7 21:14:08 2006 jay davis from mcqueeney,Texas said:
If you get off the main trail it is easy to get lost.Take plenty of water,also a whistle or small airhorn.The lava absorbs sound so hollering cant always be heard easily. i got lost for 6 hours on july 04 2006

On Sat May 10 17:31:18 2008 Joe Bertrand from Somewhere said:
Just got through hiking the trail. FABULOUS. I am a little out of shape (but not bad for a 45 yr old)so my quads were a little shaky 1/2 way into the trail. Going inside the tube was very interesting and going up the hole to get out was somewhat thrilling.

Going down to Caterpillar Crawl I saw a baby rattlesnake. Not sure what kind, but it sure was cute.

On Sat Jun 14 12:33:03 2008 Dennis from Duncanville Texas said:
In the early 1970's I hiked with Albq Sierra Club to a BLM-controlled area (not El Malpais) where we explored several subway tunnel sized lava tubes. (I toted a car headlight wired to a gel cell battery for light.) We also took a side trip to a small and steep, closed-ended tube that was full of ice. Inside, past a tight squeeze, were walls covered with ice crystals, while the rear of the cave was thick with what someone called fossil ice. Buried in the ice at the floor was the top of a ladder. Speculation was that the cave was used as cold storage by indians and possibly by guanno miners. I have a few B&W photos of the cave, but there isn't enough detail in them to reveal anything useful.

I've long forgotten how to find this cave and every time I mention it I get the same answer, the known ice cave is the commercial one near Grants.

Does anyone know how to find this BLM cave, and, more importantly, will they admit it?


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