Length: About 210 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Year-round.
Nearby attractions: Mescalero Cultural Center, Mescalero. International Space Hall of Fame, Alamogordo.
Words to the wise: Government tests at White Sands Missile Range can cause brief closures on Rte. 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
Further information: New Mexico Tourism Department, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. 800-545-2040, www.newmexico.org.
When Spanish explorers ventured into this region, they dubbed the twisted lava fields mal país, “bad land” and concluded that this territory might best be left alone. And so it was to a large extent, except for the occasional outlaw who took refuge from a pursuing posse of the law in the harsh terrain. Today, in contrast, the very extremes that kept people away in the past have become an invitation to sightseeing adventures.
1. Organ Mountains
As Rte. 70 sweeps eastward out of Las Cruces, the irrigated green fields that ring the city give way to the Organ Mountains, steep, rugged peaks that have been beautifully sculpted by erosion. Near the little town of Organ, the 61⁄2-mile Baylor Canyon Road, unpaved but well-maintained, offers access to Organ Mountains Recreation Area, where several trails crisscross the countryside. Springtime hikers along the Baylor Pass Trail are rewarded with the cheerful white saucers of prickly poppies. But for many the highlight here is the Dripping Springs Natural Area, so named for the cliffside seeps that, during the rainy season, are transformed magically into a gushing waterfall.
Once back on Rte. 70, you will climb to the overlook at San Augustin Pass, cresting at 5,719 feet. The bird’s-eye view takes in the Organ and San Andres mountains, their ridges rumpling on for miles; the stark Tularosa Basin, a desert lowland punctuated by mesquite and creosote bushes; and on clear days, billowing white dunes of sand shimmering in the northeast.
As strange as it might seem, herds of African antelopes can be spotted farther ahead on Rte. 70. The oryx, with long, straight horns and a black-and-white face, was introduced to the Tularosa Basin.
2. White Sands National Monument
Like colossal waves, the dunes of White Sands National Monument roll across the northern horizon. The preserve, covering an astounding 230 square miles, contains in essence one of the world’s largest, most beautiful sandboxes. Composed mostly of gypsum—a mineral deposited in an ancient sea—the area, as its name implies, is also remarkable for its color, a brilliant, sparkling shade of white.
Many dunes are not only shaped like waves but also move like them. Pushed by the prevailing winds, sand grains slowly climb one side of the dune, crest, and then slide down the opposite face. Sunrise and sunset, the most colorful hours for viewing this sandy sea, paint the dunes in pastel pinks, oranges, and yellows. Meanwhile, the desert silence is broken only by the low whistle of the wind.
Locked in a struggle to eke out a living, the animals that inhabit this region must constantly cope with extreme conditions—blistering heat, chilly nights, scant moisture, and strong winds that sometimes stir up sandstorms. Yet they manage to survive. For most, including mammals such as coyotes and kit foxes, the trick is to stay out of the noontime sun, so they remain in burrows during the day, then go on the prowl by night.
Humans, fortunately, can simply admire the terrain, then head back to air-conditioned comfort. The Dunes Drive, an eight-mile road into the national monument, makes the trip convenient as well as scenic. It begins at the visitor center, and at any one of the several pullouts along the route, visitors can park and explore the dunes—some up to six stories in height. You might even spot sand surfers slashing down the steeper slopes.
The next leg of the drive makes a steep, serpentine ascent on Rte. 82. The gain in elevation from the desert floor to the Sacramento Mountains brings cooler temperatures and an increase in vegetation. The roadsides, green now, are edged with pine trees and apple orchards. Stop along the way at Tunnel Vista, an overlook that provides simultaneous viewing of both the forested mountains and the desert basin.
Cloudcroft, perched at 8,700 feet, began as a logging town and retains much of its turn-of-the-century flavor. Today it’s also known as the home of the southernmost ski resort in the country. To sample the cool stands of Douglas-fir and spruce trees in the surrounding Lincoln National Forest, choose from among many roads and trails.
If you have the time, you’ll certainly enjoy the 15-mile Sunspot Scenic Byway. The two-lane road passes evergreens and meadows bedecked with raspberries and wildflowers on its way to Sunspot. At drive’s end is a solar observatory, where visitors can stop by for a firsthand look at sunspots and solar flares.
Thick, cool woodlands crowd in around State Rte. 244 as it snakes through the mountains to join Rte. 70. Still farther, the drive veers west on State Rte. 48 to Ruidoso—a Spanish word meaning “noisy.” It’s a mountain resort town, a bit larger and brassier than Cloudcroft, named not for its hubbub but for its gurgling stream.
5. Sierra Blanca
The White Mountain—Sierra Blanca—has been in sight over much of the drive, its bold 12,003-foot summit visible wherever the view is unobstructed. In summer its slopes are speckled with asters, sunflowers, and other wildlings. Come winter, downhill skiers flock to Ski Apache, a resort run by the Mescalero Apache Indians. To reach the ski area, follow State Rte. 532, a narrow, twisting road. Stop off en route at the Windy Point Vista Lookout, where on clear days the views take in mountains up to 100 miles away.
6. Smokey Bear Historical State Park
Back on State Rte. 48 the drive maneuvers down mountain slopes lush with a nearly continuous forest of pines and firs. At lower elevations piñon and juniper trees decorate the foothills, which in turn give way to the basin floor and Capitan, a hub for the area’s ranchers since 1900. Capitan’s real claim to fame, however, began when a bear cub was discovered clinging to a tree in the wake of a devastating forest fire in 1950. Rescued and cared for, the little foundling went on to achieve lasting fame as the country’s symbol for fire prevention: Smokey Bear. At the historical state park, visitors can learn all about the popular bear and follow a short path through landscaped grounds that lead to the site of Smokey’s grave.
7. Valley of Fires
Underscoring yet again the region’s dramatic diversity, the drive dips out of the cool forest via Rte. 380 and leads to the Valley of Fires. Scorched by red-hot rivers of lava some 1,500 years ago, the land today lies buried beneath black volcanic rock, a jagged realm of ridges and caves. Though mostly barren, this recreation area has been colonized here and there by tenacious, drought-resistant desert plants. A three-quarter-mile loop trail traverses a cracked terrace of sandstone, then leads directly onto the solidified lava flow.
8. Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
The drive’s last leg follows Rte. 54 south through the barren depths of the Tularosa Basin to one of the country’s largest collections of ancient rock etchings, or petroglyphs. Carved centuries ago by the Jornada Mogollon Indians, this remarkable desert display includes depictions of symbolic figures, sunbursts, masks, rattlesnakes, and much more. Standing amid this gallery of primitive art, you are also treated to a grand panorama. Sierra Blanca crests in the east; the San Andres Mountains run along the western horizon; and in the south, hills of white sand shine brightly, beckoning you back toward the beginning of your journey leading through the Land of Enchantment.
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