Several thousand years ago, vents in the earth opened up at what is now called Little Black Peak near Carrizozo, New Mexico. Over the next 40 years, molten lava poured out, creating what is called the Carrizozo Malpais. In Spanish, malpais translates to “badlands,” but in actuality, this area is teeming with life – a variety of desert plants and wildlife.
The Valley of the Fires Recreation Area is located four miles west of Carrizozo on U.S. Highway 380. This small mile-long park provides an easy way to learn about and experience the lava flow. It has been run by the Bureau of Land Management for about 25 years. Before that, it was state park. The rest of the 127-square-mile lava field is also on BLM land.
“It has its own unique beauty to it,” said Jose Saenz, an outdoor recreation planner for the BLM with the Roswell Field Office.
The park doesn’t have “a lot of bells and whistles,” but you can experience an incredible feeling of peace and solitude, especially when you are out walking through the lava fields, said Saenz, who oversees Valley of the Fires.
“You look at it from satellite images or Google Earth, it is a very solid, black-dominant formation,” Saenz said. “But once you start walking out there, you see lots of vegetation, lots of life out there.”
The park contains a paved and fully accessible nature trail – about a three-quarter-of-a-mile loop – that takes you up close and into the lava field. Besides the dramatic black lava rock, the park contains lots of vegetation – a variety of desert plants including cacti, yucca and flowers if you come during the right time of year.
It even has a gnarled juniper tree that is estimated to be 400 years old.
If you are lucky, you might be able to see wildlife like oryx, foxes, lizards or even a golden eagle. You can go off trail to take photos or to do more extensive exploring. If you do plan to hike through the lava beds, park officials recommend that you let them know your plans.
The lava beds were created about 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. During a period of about four decades, lava escaped from the earth through vents leading to the surface. There was no major eruption or explosion associated with this formation, Saenz said. It is one of the youngest lava fields created by lava vents in the nation.
David Briggs and his wife, Cheri, from Poolville, Texas, stopped by Valley of the Fires on their way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. They were truly impressed by what they discovered.
“It is just fantastic,” Briggs said. “The geological features are what brought us here – the lava flows. You are surrounded by mountains. It is just beautiful.”
The park also features a beautiful campground with spots for recreation vehicles and tents. Most of the campground is on a ridgeline overlooking the lava field, providing a dramatic vista. The park also has two large day-use shelters that can be reserved. Other amenities include a modern restroom and super clean shower area. There is also a small visitors center that includes a bookstore.
To the east, you can see spectacular views of the Sacramento Mountains which can have a dusting of snow on them even into late spring.
Saenz has plans to help improve the visitor experience at Valley of the Fires. In the next several years, he would like to add a playground and a splash pad.
In addition, Saenz also envisions adding a short trail out to Little Black Peak, where the lava flow started. It would be accessible from a county road on the other side of the lava field. An easement across private property would have to be negotiated first, he said.