El Malpais

From Sandstone Bluffs Overlook (10 miles south of I-40 off NM 117), many craters are visible in the lava flow, which extends for miles along the eastern flank of the Continental Divide. The most recent flows are only 1,000 years old; Native American legends tell of rivers of "fire rock." Seventeen miles south of I-40 is La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest accessible natural arch in New Mexico.

From NM 53, which exits I-40 just west of Grants, visitors have access to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient Pueblo trade route that crosses four major lava flows in a 7 1/2-mile (one-way) hike. A printed trail guide is available. El Calderon, a forested area 20 miles south of I-40, is a trail head for exploring a cinder cone, lava tubes, and a bat cave. (Warning: Hikers should not enter the bat cave or otherwise disturb the bats.)

The largest of all Malpais cinder cones, Bandera Crater is on private property 25 miles south of I-40. The National Park Service has laid plans to absorb this commercial operation, known as Ice Caves Resort (tel. 888/ICE-CAVE or 505/783-4303; www.icecaves.com). For a fee ($9 for adults and $4 for children 5-12), visitors hike up the crater or walk to the edge of an ice cave. It's open daily from 8am to 7pm in summer and from 8am to 4pm in winter (generally closing 1 hr. before sunset).

Perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon of El Malpais is the lava tubes, formed when the outer surface of a lava flow cooled and solidified. When the lava river drained, tunnel-like caves were left. Ice caves within some of the tubes have delicate ice-crystal ceilings, ice stalactites, and floors like ice rinks.

El Morro National Monument

Travelers who like to look history straight in the eye are fascinated by "Inscription Rock," 43 miles west of Grants along NM 53. Looming up out of the sand and sagebrush is a bluff 200 feet high, holding some of the most captivating messages in North America. Its sandstone face displays a written record of the many who inhabited and traveled through this land, beginning with the ancestral Puebloans, who lived atop the formation around 1200. Carved with steel points are the signatures and comments of almost every explorer, conquistador, missionary, army officer, surveyor, and pioneer emigrant who passed this way between 1605, when Gov. Don Juan de Oñate carved the first inscription, and 1906, when it was preserved by the National Park Service. Oñate's inscription, dated April 16, 1605, was perhaps the first graffiti any European left in America.

A paved walkway makes it easy to walk to the writings, and a stone stairway leads up to other treasures. One entry reads: "Year of 1716 on the 26th of August passed by here Don Feliz Martinez, Governor and Captain General of this realm to the reduction and conquest of the Moqui." Confident of success as he was, Martinez actually got nowhere with any "conquest of the Moqui," or Hopi, peoples. After a 2-month battle, they chased him back to Santa Fe.

Another special group to pass by this way was the U.S. Camel Corps, trekking past on their way from Texas to California in 1857. The camels worked out fine in mountains and deserts, outlasting horses and mules 10 to 1, but the Civil War ended the experiment. When Peachy Breckinridge, fresh out of the Virginia Military Academy, came by with 25 camels, he noted the fact on the stone here.

El Morro was at one time as famous as the Blarney Stone of Ireland: Everybody had to stop by and make a mark. But when the Santa Fe Railroad was laid 25 miles to the north, El Morro was no longer on the main route to California, and from the 1870s, the tradition began to die out.

If you like to hike, be sure to take the full loop to the top of Inscription Rock. It's a spectacular trip that takes you along the rim of this mesa -- offering 360 degree views -- culminating in an up-close look at Anasazi ruins, which occupy an area 200 by 300 feet. Inscription Rock's name, Atsinna, suggests that carving one's name here is a very old custom indeed: The word, in Zuni, means "writing on rock."

Cibola National Forest

Cíbola National Forest is actually a combination of parcels of land throughout the state that total more than 1.6 million acres. Elevation varies from 5,000 to 11,301 feet, and the forest includes the Datil, Gallinas, Bear, Manzano, Sandia, San Mateo, and Zuni mountains.

Two major pieces of the forest flank I-40 on either side of Grants, near the pueblos and monuments described above. To the northeast of Grants, NM 547 leads some 20 miles into the San Mateo Mountains. The range's high point, and the highest point in the forest, 11,301-foot Mount Taylor, is home of the annual Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon in February. The route passes two campgrounds: Lobo Canyon and Coal Mine Canyon. Hiking and enjoying magnificent scenery are popular in summer, cross-country skiing in winter.

Just the Facts -- For more information about this section of Cíbola National Forest, contact the Mount Taylor Ranger District, 1800 Lobo Canyon Rd., Grants, NM 87020 (tel. 505/287-8833). For general information about all six districts of the National Forest, contact Cíbola National Forest, 2113 Osuna Rd. NE, Suite A, Albuquerque, NM 87113-1001 (tel. 505/346-2650; www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola).

A modern road stop on I-40 heading west, 17 miles before Gallup, is the Pilot Travel Center (tel. 505/722-6655). This is my idea of what a space station would be like. Not only can you get gas here, you also can also fill up at a Subway. There's also a full restaurant with a salad bar and hot food bar. The center has plenty of pay phones, clean bathrooms, a post office, and a video arcade.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.