This is the final installment of this series! And I saved the most striking and picturesque part of El Malpais to feature last! This area of the park has an extensive geologic history, from the 200-million–year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, to the 3000-year lava that borders the bluffs.
Standing from the top of the bluffs, you can see the incredibly jagged terrain below. The land is covered in cooled, black lava that once poured out of a volcano called McCarty’s Crater. The lava tube cave system here extends at least 17 miles. The undulating fractures of the black crust are weird to see in person. From satellite views (such as Google Earth), it looks like a strange, giant lake.
There are no trails along the bluffs, so you have to be careful where you tread. It is a beautiful area to explore. As you walk, you will notice there are little potholes scattered along the lateral surfaces. These depressions fill up with water after rainfalls and create temporary miniature ecosystems for fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, spadefoot toad tadpoles, and water insects.
I am always amazed in harsh environments like this when vegetation takes hold and is determined to thrive. A walk through the bluffs reveals pinyon-juniper, ponderosa pine, and cholla cactus. How the trees can establish a foothold in the rocks is a mystery to me! In the processing of the photo below, I emphasized the fractured nature of the sandstone that surrounds a large ponderosa pine.
This solitary brave tree particularly endeared me. Undoubtedly, it has endured a harsh life at the top of a bluff, surviving countless storms and droughts. I enhanced the sky in this photo to add to the dramatic effect.