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“It’d be really easy to cut your head, or even knock yourself out.” For , it seemed worth it, since I hoped to avoid traumatic brain injuries while exploring the lava tubes at El Malpais National Monument.

El Malpais — Spanish for The Badlands, pronounced el-mal-pie-EES — is the common name for the Zuni-Bandera Volcanic Field, a petrified sea of buckled and bulging basalt that sprawls over 100,000-plus acres, an hour west of Albuquerque.

His name tag said “Anthony Sandoval,” and based on his tattoos — one of an antler, the other of a deer’s head inside an outline of the Land of Enchantment — I assumed he liked venison. Sandoval recommended that I buy the “bump cap.”“It’s completely dark in the caves, and the ceilings are all jagged,” he said.

Walls of rock solidify along the sides of the molten river, and a hard crust encases the top.

Hot lava pumps through this basalt pipeline, channeling deeper into the earth until the eruption stops. The caves at El Malpais are completely undeveloped.

” Ranger Sandoval asked me.“No,” I said, and was quickly given a permit.

Had I said yes, the rangers would have wiped my caving gear with disinfectant before issuing the permit. Sandoval told me that Big Skylight Cave and Giant Ice Cave, both in the remote Big Tubes area, weren’t too challenging; the hardest part would be climbing down into the lava trench that runs between them.

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