El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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El Malpais national monument

Because Interstate 40 winds its way through western New Mexico, many travelers are unaware of the high-desert beauty surrounding Grants, found halfway between Albuquerque and Gallup. Call it a hidden treasure to those unaware of the potential for photo ops. Grants is situated on one of the longer remaining portions of old Route 66. Though there are plentiful hotels from the modern to the vintage that make Grants a good base to work from, the area isn’t overrun with tourists who’ll interfere with your shots. Grants also is the home of the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center, situated at Exit 85 on I-40. Stop there first to get a good idea of all the things to see and shoot in the area, including El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais is home to a chain of volcanoes, El Morro National Monument with its inscription rock, Sky City at the Acoma Reservation and Cibola National Forest, including Mount Taylor, one of New Mexico’s largest peaks. To reach the Sandstone Bluffs (pictured here), from I-40 take Exit 89 and travel south for nine miles on N.M. Highway 117. Should you travel south once you leave the bluffs, you’ll find many trailheads that lead you on short walks through the lava fields where you can explore lava tubes and the beauty of the lava flows. Highway 117 offers a beautiful tour of the area.

Weather is moderate in the El Malpais ranges, though unpredictable. The monsoon season provides amazing imagery, but visitors also should be aware that monsoons could bring flash flooding and lightning. Typically, the monsoon season is July through September. Spring also brings stormy weather and extreme temperatures, while summer can be extraordinarily hot on the lava fields. In the winter, snowstorms are frequent, and night temperatures dip below freezing. Autumn is a great time to visit, as the season is moderate with cool nights and mild days. The fall season also brings colorful changing leaves.

Photo Experience
For shooting at the Sandstone Bluffs, I prefer using a circular polarizer along with a tripod and shutter release. Depending on the weather, I might also add a three-stop ND filter to allow for longer exposures with streaming clouds. I don’t recommend changing lenses in the field while shooting in the area, since dust can be a problem and leave your digital sensors spotted. My other key equipment is a tripod and shutter-release cable for the ability to shoot with small apertures and low ISOs. This photo was completed using multiple exposures at varying shutter speeds and high-dynamic-range software. For HDR work, a tripod and shutter release are essential for keeping exposures aligned.

Best Times
The best time to visit the bluff is at sunset, when you can take full advantage of the New Mexico sky colors and your choice of panoramas. Seasonally, to experience anything other than a plain blue sky, visit during the monsoon season, when large, puffy, white clouds are present. Though this is a desert region, the 6,000-foot-plus elevation means you won’t have to endure heat above 90 degrees. If you time your visit during the desert monsoons, you’ll be afforded the opportunity to photograph water in the small pools on the bluff. For your visit to the bluff, you’ll do fine in a good-grip, nonslip sneaker, but if you venture into the lava fields, you’ll want a much more rugged sole as the lava is hard on shoes.

Contact: El Malpais National Monument, (505) 783-4774, www.nps.gov/elma/.

Essential Gear
Polartec Polarfleece is light enough for extra warmth, as well as insulating for use under heavier coats. It’s a popular material with outdoor clothing manufacturers like The North Face and Patagonia, and it has been added to many of their products, like The North Face Denali jacket, for instance.