On the way home from an informal adventure-writers’ retreat/brainstorming session in Santa Fe (with my co-author David Wood and new friend Nick Thacker) we made a restroom stop at the El Malpais National Monument visitors’ center. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know this place existed until I saw the signs on the outbound leg of the trip.
El Malpais (Spanish for “the Bad Country”) is a protected federal area at the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Recent volcanic activity (in the geological sense) has left the area covered in lava flows, and honeycombed with lava tube caves, although even more spectacular are the ancient Sandstone Bluffs, which have been weathered into amazing arches and pinnacles that loom over the landscape.
We backtracked a bit to State Highway 117 and headed south, hoping to find the Dittert site—an Anasazi ruin we’d read about at the visitors’ center. On the way, we stopped off at the Sandstone Bluffs. A short drive on a gravel road brought us to the top of the bluffs overlooking the lava flows.
After playing on the rocks for a while we got back on the highway and continued south for about half an hour until we reached County Road 41—a well-maintained gravel road—which brought us to York Ranch and Armijo Canyon road—a much less well-maintained narrow dirt road with no room to turn around. I’ll admit, I was a little worried about getting high-centered or knocking a hole the oil pan. We were in a rental car and I’d paid the damage waiver, but even so, this did not seem like a good kind of place for a breakdown.
The road went right past the GPS coordinates for the site—no sign of any ruins—and eventually brought us to a turnoff and a flat area in the middle of a pasture, where we could turn around. I wasn’t sure if this was the 'parking lot' we were supposed to be looking for, but I wasn’t going to pass up this possibly only chance to avoid driving back to the county road in reverse.