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PUBLIC LANDS

Southern New Mexico

A Mecca for the adventurous

by JAY W. SHARP



More than three decades ago, when my wife, Martha, and I moved from Texas’ Galveston Bay area to the Chihuahuan Desert basin and mountain range country, we experienced some environmental shock.

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Organ Mountains, west side, after a winter storm. Purportedly, the mountains were named by the early Spanish, who saw a resemblance to the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of their home country. (Photo by Jay Sharp)

In our old neighborhood, oak and loblolly pine trees towered above the houses and arced across the streets. Dense growths of shrubs and vines choked pathways through the woods. The land lay virtually flat. The soil — fine-grained, dark and rich — bore no stones whatsoever. Two nearby bayous teemed with estuarine species and yielded up occasional alligators. The daytime sky, deep blue between cloud banks, changed continuously. The nighttime sky, frequently overcast, clouded our view of the stars. Rains came in steady drizzles and, in many instances, thunderous downpours. (We once got some 23 inches of rain in 24 hours — about as much as we had during the years 2012 through 2014 in southern New Mexico and far west Texas.)

In our new home, scattered creosote bushes, mesquites and cacti grew across the open desert landscape, and juniper, pinyon pine and Gambel oaks grew along the lower mountain drainages. A nearby range rose thousands of feet above our neighborhood. A dry arroyo ran 100 feet deep immediately behind our back yard. Distant ranges, thinly veiled by desert haze, lay on the desert horizon. Sandy, rocky soils spoke of long-past flash floods and river flows. The daytime sky, typically a faded blue with scattered gossamer clouds, changed little from early morning to late afternoon. The nighttime sky, with the desert haze cleared, offered crystalline views of the stars, the planets and the full moon. Rains, when they came, usually fell randomly, in scattered showers.

At first, we missed the rich greens of our former, wooded home near the Gulf Coast, although I can’t say that we ever longed for the steamy summers or relentless rainfall. We never yearned for mosquitos buzzing around our faces or ticks embedded in our dogs’ ears.

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Prehistoric Trackways National
Monument, a 280-million-year-old
track, which predates the dinosaurs
by tens of millions of years.
(Photo by Jay Sharp)

Then, thanks to friends who had spent lifetimes in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, we would discover over time that we had moved to one of the most diverse arid regions in the world, a land magical for adventurous residents and adventure travelers, a land, the Spanish would say, that often has “duende,” or “a mysterious and ineffable charm.” At length, it drew us, in 1996, to the Las Cruces and Mesilla area.

We would soon learn that that our new communities — along the rich Mesilla Valley — lay in a land grandly sculpted by the geological forces of Rio Grande Rift, one of only five such active continental fractures in the world. We would see plant and wildlife communities remarkably adapted to desert aridity, spotty and irregular rain showers, blistering summer temperatures and, sometimes, below zero winter temperatures. We would find that we lived at the junction of two of the most historic trails in the Americas — John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company Trail and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road to the Interior). Within a day, we would soon realize, we could visit — or even discover anew — records of our area’s prehistoric and historic human history. Moreover, we could contemplate our new-found life in museum-like historic buildings, over a good dinner with fine local wines.

After more than 30 years in the region, we have found our home, but we’re still discovering new wonders, nearly all accessible because they lie within public lands.


Prehistoric Trackways National Monument

For instance, on the western side of the Rio Grande, just northwest of Las Cruces and Mesilla, you can find stunning tracks of wildlife and imprints of plants’ stems and foliage left in the mud of what was a tidal flat some 280 million years ago, tens of millions of years before the dinosaurs. Now designated as the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, covering some 5,200 acres, it ranks as the world’s most important known fossil record of its kind and time — the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era. With some 150 Permian Period sites discovered in the monument so far, the area has yielded, investigators say, unparalleled insights into the animals and plants of the period, with lifetimes of discovery awaiting.


Cooke’s Canyon

About 60 miles west of Las Cruces and Mesilla, a few miles northeast of Deming,

for another example, you can explore perhaps the most infamous segment of the trail that John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company stages and many other travelers followed across the desert Southwest. About six miles in length, it threads through Cooke’s Canyon, at the southern end of Cooke’s Range — named for Captain Philip St. George Cooke, who guided the Mormon Battalion through the mountains in 1846. “A journey of death,” W. Thornton Parker, M. D., called the canyon passage in his Annals of Old Fort Cummings, New Mexico, 1867-8. “… in this Canyon many an emigrant train, and travelers, and hunters, as well as soldiers of the regular army,” said Parker, “have gone to their deaths at the hands of the cruel (Chiricahua) Apaches.”

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Frying Pan Canyon rock art, near west end of Cooke’s Canyon, Massacre Peak in background. Spear point shapes on boulder suggest an age of 2000 years or more. (Photo by Jay Sharp)

At the east end of the Cooke’s Canyon, at Cooke’s Spring, you will come upon the ruins of Fort Cummings, a Butterfield way station, and a spring house (don’t drink the water). Nearby, you can wander through the fort’s cemetery, which recalls, hauntingly, the dangers and hardships of the frontier. If you have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, you can still follow the trail — the “journey of death” — westward from Fort Cummings, through the canyon, possibly coming across isolated stone-covered graves of those who perished along the way.

Near the western end of the passage, you can still see trail remnants and the iconic hill called “Massacre Peak,” for reasons you can imagine. Near the mouth of Frying Pan Canyon, at a site overlooking the trail, mysterious images engraved into stone surfaces — “petroglyphs” — some by prehistoric people millennia ago, stand as symbols of long forgotten faiths and beliefs. At the nearby Pony Hills formation, more petroglyphs, these left by a prehistoric people mere centuries ago, whisper of different faiths and beliefs, and at least one image indisputably points to contact with the great city-states of Mesoamerica.


Rock Art Sites

If prehistoric images on stone — rock art — should seize your interest, becomes your “thing,” you will find many more sites to explore not far from Las Cruces and Mesilla. For just a few examples, rock art imagery left by prehistoric peoples decorates stone surfaces in the Tonuco and Doña Ana Mountains and in Lucero Canyon to the north; along a lava flow near the Rio Grande’s western escarpment to the south; and in Fort Bliss’ Castner Range area within El Paso’s Franklin Mountains.

At Texas’ Hueco Tanks State Park and Historical Site, located about 30 miles east of El Paso, prehistoric images painted on stone surfaces — “pictographs” — in secluded alcoves and caves suggest a rich story of the mystical beliefs of early spear-carrying hunters and gatherers and, particularly, more recent Puebloan farmers and Apache raiders. Depictions of goggle-eyed figures, plumed serpents and a collared jaguar suggest contact with Mesoamerica. Masked ceremonial figures may speak to the origins of the Pueblo Indians’ Kachina masked dancing cults. Historically, Butterfield’s coaches paused at Hueco Tanks as they traveled over the desert. The fabled Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, located about 30 miles north of Alamogordo, near the western slopes of the Sacramento Mountains, offers more than 20,000 images of humans, wildlife, plant life, and geometric and abstract designs. These petroglyphs, many of them probably produced by Jornado Mogollon Puebloan peoples who lived nearby, in a small village to the south, suggest a rich and mystical spiritual heritage.


The Jornada del Muerto

The 90-mile-long Jornada del Muerto — another “Journey of Death” — ranked as the most dreaded passage of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which began at Mexico City and ended at the San Juan Pueblo, north of Santa Fe. (Our segment was designated as a National Historic Trail under the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act enacted by Congress on March 30, 2009.) Located north of Las Cruces and Mesilla, the Jornada, once defined along its length by stone-covered graves, lies in the desolate desert basin between the San Andres Mountains to the east and the Caballo and Fra Cristobal ranges to the west.

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El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, nearby rock-covered graves recall those found along the Jornada del Muerto. (Photo by Jay Sharp)

Traveling up the Mesilla Valley, following the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro corridor to reach the Jornada, you will pass the Robledo Mountains, where, in May of 1598, Juan de Oñate’s expedition buried Pedro Robledo (in a grave long lost, with, according to legend, a substantial treasure). You will drive near Fort Selden (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), where the famed World War II general Douglas MacArthur lived as a four year old child with his family in the 1880s.

Leaving the valley and following a dirt road that roughly parallels the Jornada, you soon come to Point of Rocks, a small range of hills. Point of Rocks lies near an arroyo where, in May of 1598, a small companion dog found puddles from a recent unseasonable rain — lifesaving water for Oñate and an advance scouting party. Nearby you will find a dirt pathway, built by the Bureau of Land Management, which takes you to an escarpment where you can look down on traces of the original trail. Climb the westernmost Point of Rocks hill to its peak and you will find an unmarked rough circle of stones, where Apaches, archaeologists suspect, kept secreted watch for travelers along the Jornada.

Continuing up the Jornada, you pass occasional scattered ruins and markers. You may see occasional stone-covered graves — reminders, as Josiah Gregg said in his classic Commerce of the Prairies, that “…this dangerous pass has cost the life of many travelers in days of yore…”

About half way up the Jornada — as far as you can conveniently follow this section of the trail anymore — you will come to Laguna del Muerto (Lake of the Dead, usually dry) and the isolated little community of Engle, now a virtual ghost town. This is where famed early 20th century western novelist and short-story writer Eugene Manlove Rhodes once worked as a cowboy.


Still More Adventure Destinations

As you learn the area, you will keep finding other adventure destinations that you can visit within a day.

For instance, to the west of Las Cruces and Deming, you can explore Columbus and Camp Furlong, an isolated desert settlement located just a few miles north of the border and the Mexican hamlet of Palomas. It was here that Pancho Villa and his force attacked the community and military encampment on March 9, 1916 — the last time a foreign force dared strike America until that fateful day of September 11, 2001. It was here that John J. Pershing and the U. S. Army marshalled America’s latest military technology — aircraft and motorized vehicles — to launch a pursuit of Villa into Mexico — marking the beginning of mechanized warfare.

Northwest of Las Cruces and Mesilla, between Deming and Silver City, you come to City of Rocks State Park, named, as New Mexico State Parks says, for the “incredible volcanic rock formations found here. The ‘city’ is a geologic formation made up of large, sculptured rock columns, or pinnacles, rising as high as 40 feet and separated by paths or lanes resembling city streets. These rocks were formed about 34.9 million years ago when a very large volcano erupted. Then, erosion over millions of years slowly formed the sculptured columns seen today, creating a stunning, otherworldly landscape.”

Just southeast of Deming, at the Rock Hound State Park, in the Little Florida Mountains, you can put your geologic hammer to good use in collecting minerals such as multicolored jasper and black, glass-like perlite. With persistence and good luck, you may find a geode, or “thunder egg,” which is a nodular form of jasper.

When you tire of hammering rocks, you can head north of Deming, to the Gila Wilderness, where you might visit the mid-19th century hamlet of Pinos Altos, which took root in the wake of gold discoveries in a nearby stream and survived in spite of the regular saloon brawls of frontier miners and battles with the Chiricahua Apaches.

Exploring the village, you might plan a stop at the old Buckhorn Saloon, now a well- regarded restaurant, but please heed the ominous warning at the front: “WITCH PARKING ONLY: ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOAD.”

A roughly 30-mile-long, winding drive through the ponderosa pine forest north of Pinos Altos takes you to the 13th century Gila Cliff Dwellings, which Theodore Roosevelt made a national monument more than a century ago. Built in caves in the mouth of a canyon near the West Fork of the Gila River, the cliff dwelling’s stone-wall rooms, said William N. Morgan, Ancient Architecture of the Southwest, “typically have uneven floors cut into the stone in some places and filled in others … Fire pits are located in the floors of living rooms … Stone-lined grain bins, metates and manos denote spaces used to grind corn.” The Gila Cliff Dwellings are one of the few Mogollon Puebloan ruins where the walls remain standing.

About 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces and Mesilla, in the center of the Tularosa Basin, you will come to another national monument — the spectacular White Sands National Monument. Spanning nearly 300 square miles, it ranks as largest gypsum dune field in the world, with 60-foot-high dunes, still moving before the desert winds. Much of its wildlife and plant life have developed fascinating adaptations that facilitate survival in the harsh environment. White Sands takes on a magical aura — “duende” — on the nights with a full moon.

Along the western foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, near the mouth of Dog Canyon, you arrive at the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, which offers an intriguing history and a formidable hike. You can visit the late 19th century ranch house of Oliver Lee, a charismatic figure who could have been an icon for western movies. With the help of his cow hands — according to local tales — he enriched some neighbors’ lives but also helped himself to nearby ranch lands, rustled cattle and shot his enemies. From the Lee house, you can make the tough hike up Dog Canyon, following the route that Mescalero Apaches took into the Sacramento Mountains to escape the U. S. Calvary.


The Organ Mountains — Desert Peaks National Monument

If you are drawn to the story of our earth, to clues about our prehistoric past, and to the history of our western lands, you will find a galaxy of adventures in the Organ Mountains — Desert Peaks National Monument, established by Presidential Proclamation in May of 2014. Essentially surrounding Las Cruces and Mesilla, the monument is divided into several sections. It includes, to the southwest of Las Cruces and Mesilla, the sprawling Portrillo Volcanic Field; to the northwest and north, desert basins and the Sierra de Los Uvas, Robledos and Doña Ana mountain ranges; and to the east, the 9,000-foot-high Organ Mountains. Altogether, it encompasses some 800 square miles — an area a third again larger than Texas’ Galveston Bay.

In the Portrillo Volcanic Field, you can thread your way through massive lava flows spread across the desert floor. (Watch for rattlesnakes!) You can wander through Aden Crater, a “shield volcano,” which looks like a warrior’s shield lying flat on the desert floor; and while there, you can — provided you are in excellent physical condition and properly equipped — descend into a 100-foot-deep fumarole, or gas vent, where three young men found the incredibly well-preserved remains of a late Ice Age giant ground sloth in the 1920s. (The sloth, entombed for perhaps 11,000 years, still had remnants of its last meal in its belly.) You can explore the world-class volcanic crater Kilbourne Hole, a National Natural Landmark, which was created, not by erupting lava, but rather by massive, repeated eruptions of superheated steam formed when magma contacted underground water far beneath the earth’s surface. About a mile across and hundreds of feet deep, Kilbourne Hole was visited and studied by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s in preparation for their flight to the moon and exploration of its volcanic surface.

In the desert basins and mountain ranges to the north and north-west of Las Cruces and Mesilla, you can come across a record of human history thousands of years in the making. You may find prehistoric fire hearths, flint and chert spear and arrow points, pottery sherds, and abundant rock art — all of which, by law, must be left undisturbed. You can follow Butterfield’s old trail for more than 20 miles. You can still see rock cairns that marked the north-ern boundaries of land acquired from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, which added nearly 30,000 square miles, in southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona, to the United States in 1853. You can wander through the ruins of abandoned ranch houses. You can visit a cave that Geronimo purportedly used to escape a U.S. military force. You can climb to a site called “Outlaw Rock,” where Billy the Kid hid out, leaving his name (now virtually obliterated by the elements) scrawled on a stone wall.

In the Organ Mountains, you will find completely different opportunities for adventure, with several compelling hikes. This 32 million-year-old range has long drawn the adventurous into its rocky folds and crevices of their steep granitic and rhyolite slopes. You will find the evidence in secluded caves, Indian rock art, abandoned mines and crumbling ruins, which, collectively, speak of prehistoric hunters and farmers, Apache raiders, treasure hunters, miners, gunfighters, revolutionaries, Union and Confederate troops, early ranchers, early tourists, an Italian-born hermit and even tubercular patients. Unlike stratified neighboring mountain ranges, which had origins in ancient and placid seas, the Organs emerged from the molten interior of the earth in a complex sequence of violent magmatic eruptions, lava flows, structural warping and fracturing and relentless erosion. The Organs now stand as “one of the most picturesque and rugged mountain ranges in the Southwest,” said New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology’s

W. R. Seager in his Memoir 36 — Geology of Organ Mountains and Southern San Andres Mountains, New Mexico. Rugged as they are, the Organs — enriched by a few permanent springs, various streams and even an intermittent waterfall — serve as a haven for one of the most diverse plant and wildlife communities in the Southwest. They harbor more than 800 plant species, including several species that occur nowhere else. They host some 80 species of mammals, 185 species of birds, and 60 species of reptiles and amphibians.


Still More

If you’re not yet exhausted by the adventures within a day’s reach from Las Cruces and Mesilla, you might join volunteers in support of the numerous parks and museums within the area,

historians and archaeologists in searches for campsites (parajes) along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, archaeologists in sur-veys for the some 5000 prehistoric sites in the Organ Mountains — Desert Peaks National Monument, geologists and paleontologists in investigations of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, ornithologists for seasonal bird counts, or naturalists for desert plant and wildlife studies.

On casual days, you can visit, downstream from El Paso, three-century-old Spanish and Native American communities and charming mission churches. With good luck and timing, you can make local festivals, experiencing the charm of the matachines, mariachi, ballet folklorico and, occasionally, even flamenco performers and classical guitarists who celebrate Native American and Hispanic heritage. Ask the right people and you can be directed to little “hole-in-the-wall” Mexican food restaurants where you will find true enchiladas, tamales, tacos, chili rellenos, caldillo, quesadillas, flautas, sopapillas, flan and empanadas.

I do have one cautionary note: You may get addicted to green chiles.

 





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