El Calderon Loop

Diana hiking on the trail
The El Calderon Loop trail is a scenic trek past several caves, sinkholes, lava trenches, and a cinder cone.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; El Malpais National Monument
Official URL:El Maplais National Monument
Region: West-central; El Malpais National Monument.
Length: 3.19mi; 5.14km.
surface: gravel
condition: Excellent
ease of following: Easy
obstacles: None
You walk past sinkholes and caves. Parents should keep control of children to avoid accidents.
Fee: $0.00.
Season: All year. Snow can make the trail difficult. Recent rain can render the last mile of the trail a muddy mess.
Dogs: Yes. on leash
Bikes: No.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: To enter the caves, you must first stop at one of the park information centers and obtain a free cave permit.
Trailhead facilities: None other than parking.
Hike attractions:

When we hiked it:

Date: 2014-05-11
Time it took us: 3:09. Moving time 1:21.
Usage (people/hour): 2.22. Many people go to Junction cave, but they are not counted in the people per hour rate because they are on this trail for such a short time.
Cleanliness: 10.


Waypoint Type Description
ELCALDTrailheadEl Calderon parking area and trailhead


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 sar.lanl.gov (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:

From I-40 , take exit 81 (Grants). Head south on NM 53.

After about 19 miles, you will see a sign indicating the El Calderon area is to your left.

Take this turn and go about 1/4 mile on a all-weather gravel road to a parking area with a few picnic tables and a vault toilet. The trail takes off from the southeast corner of the parking lot.

The trailhead is here at the sign.

trail leading away from a vertical informational sign

About the hike:

junction with a trail taking off to the left
Very shortly after you leave the parking area, a trail takes off to the left. This trail goes to Junction Cave. You can enter the cave only if you have stopped at the visitor center to get a permit.

You want to continue straight.

The trail is gravel, and easy to follow. It gently climbs the hill in amongst Piñon and Juniper.
The eastern of the double sinks
You also go between the Double Sinks, two deep holes. Watch your step, because there are no railings to prevent you, your kids, or your pets from falling in.
After walking about 20 minutes (0.7 mi, 1.26 km), you reach stop 3 on the trail. This is the overlook into Bat and Xenolith Caves. Bat cave (the one you can see) is closed for health reasons (to protect your health). Xenolith can be visited if you have obtained a permit from the visitor center.

In the summertime at dusk, you can see bats leaving the cave to find their breakfast of insects.

trail marker 3 and the entrance to Bat Cave
looking down into the cinder cone
At GPS: El Cald x1, the trail meets an old road. The trail turns to the right.

After a short distance, you come to another junction, GPS: El Cald x2. This is a trail to the cinder cone, El Calderon itself. You should take it the 0.1mi (0.16km) to look down into the source of the lava around you. Imagine being here when it was erupting! Now, in calmer times, it is stop 5 on the trail.

You return back to the junction to continue on the trail.

At this point, the trail is now in an open, ponderosa pine forest.
Diana kiking on the trail near a ponderosa pine
Diana at the junction of the trail and the road.
At GPS: El Cald x4, the trail meets a road. When we hiked the trail, this was the end of the trail and you had to take the road back to the parking lot. However, now the trail continues independently of the road back to the west side of the gravel parking lot where you started.

Plants we saw along the trail:

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