This Way to Wonder

The recently designated Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument is a many-splendored, Only-in-NM thing. These 5 hikes in the Las Cruces area get straight to the heart of the matter.

NM Magazine | Photography by Michael Richie

Download this map showing an overview of the Organ Mountains-Desert peaks National Monument.


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In May 2014, President Obama designated 496,330 geographically phenomenal acres near Las Cruces as the Organ Mountains– Desert Peaks National Monument. This act permanently protected—and decisively recognized—southern New Mexico’s stunning landscapes, significant geologic wonders, and diverse ecological communities, and some of the most pristine Native American rock art in the country.

You could hike, fish, camp, ride horses, and cycle through the half-million acres dozens of times without exhausting its dramatic charms, but as an introduction, we’ve composed a short list of five spectacular, representative forays. Our recommended hikes hopscotch through the monument’s four areas, delivering a cross-section of the abundant recre- ational opportunities available. While the monument’s visitor facilities are less than abundant, Las Cruces’ convenient proximity covers that base and, with its robust dining and lodging options, serves as a solid hub for day trips.

Geologically speaking, the monument’s landscapes are young, in terms of both the rocks and the tectonic forces that created them. Three hundred million years ago, New Mexico was below the equator on the Pangaea supercontinent shoreline. Retreating and advancing shallow seas deposited the alternating limestone, sandstone, and mudstone layers now exposed as colorful, fossil-filled bedrock in the base layers and deeper can- yons of the Doña Ana, southern Organ, Las Uvas, and Robledo mountains.

Fast-forward to the end of the dinosaur age, 65 million years ago. In southern New Mexico, parallel, east-west-trending mountain ranges with intervening basins formed, accompanied by massive volcanism lasting 20 million years. Widespread volcanic calderas exploded in violent pyroclastic flows. Light-colored, easily eroded ash and welded rhyolite tuff beds, laid down over ancient shoreline rocks, constitute the middle layers of the southern Organs, the Las Uvas, and the Robledos, as well as older cinder cones like Mount Riley and Cox Peak.

Thirty million years ago, the crust rebounded, stretched, and rotated clockwise, fracturing into countless north-south-trending faults. Uplifted ranges and subsiding basins, including the 600-mile-long Río Grande rift valley, appeared across the entire intermountain West. Extensive volcanism resumed in southern New Mexico, producing a dense, erosion- resistant basalt icing on peaks and mesa tops. The volcanic menagerie in the Potrillo Volcanic Field, including Providence Cone, Aden Crater, and Kilbourne Hole, formed quite recently.

The monument’s diverse ecological communities include Upper Chihuahuan Desert grasslands and savannas, riparian corridors, sky-island pygmy forests, and even a subalpine zone in the Organ Mountains. Besides their scenic beauty, these diverse biomes provide valuable wildlife habitat and migration routes.

Prolific, well-preserved rock art is perhaps the monument’s defining quality. Over the centuries, the region was home to a complex, overlap- ping mix of cultural traditions. BLM estimates include up to 8,000 archaeological sites, from large pueblos to ceramic scatters. A few notable sites, like the huge outdoor exhibition at Apache Flats, comprising over 250 panels, are quite accessible. Please exercise caution around rock art: Do not touch, as skin oil damages them, and avoid climbing near them.

You may take photos, but rubbings are not permitted.

Desert Peaks Complex
1. Valles and Broad Canyons Riparian Corridor Hike

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The Valles Canyon/Broad Canyon corridor’s rugged scenery, diverse vegetation, copious wildlife, and well-preserved rock art make it one of the Southwest’s premier riparian gardens. Towering north-facing cliffs shelter willows, picturesque mesquite trees, ash, exotic desert hawthorns, mature gray oaks, and magnificent 750-year-old grandfather junipers.

Draining over 200 square miles, Valles and Broad canyons serve as a wildlife corridor between the Río Grande and the Black Range of the Gila. Hikers regularly encounter javelina, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, falcons, mule deer, and ring-tailed cats.

The path funnels into Valles Canyon past increasingly sheer walls, follows the dry streambed to the junction with Broad Canyon, and continues over rough, rock-strewn streambed for over 10 miles. The most impressive rock art and scenery are in these upper sections.

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An intimate natural gallery, the canyon showcases prolific rock art from three major cultural periods. Magically unfolding with each new bend, the collection highlights Archaic Period designs, prolific Mimbres- and Jornada-style glyphs such as parrots, plumed serpents, several very rare fish depictions, and a unique seven-foot-tall bug-eyed, human-like figure (pictured at right), all topped off with dramatic panels of Apache dancers and hunters.

The constant sense of discovery on this three-to-eight-mile open-ended hike makes it difficult to turn around and head back, but take comfort—it’s just as incredible in reverse.

DIRECTIONS: From point A on the map (download), take I-10 west for 9.3 miles to exit 132 and turn right toward frontage road. Take first left onto frontage road, go 3.6 miles, and turn right onto Corralitos Rd. Follow for 21.4 miles, past several dirt side branches, always staying on pavement. After a steep hill, go a mile to a cattle guard on the right to access the path into the canyons.

Organ Mountains Area
2. Soledad Canyon Hike

Hike -2This hidden, 6,000-foot-elevation, 10-square-mile natural botanical garden, enclosed by intricately sculpted volcanic peaks and sheer cliffs and pinnacles, is carved into the Organ Mountains’ west slope, where the Needles give way to the gigantic caldera forming the southern part of the range.

The 20-mile-long Organ range is the most botanically diverse in New Mexico, with approximately 870 vascular plant species, including rare endemic varieties found only in small, scattered populations.

The Organs have three distinct sections. The saw-toothed northern Needles are 30-million-year-old light-colored granite; the middle section, tilted purple layers of rhyolite tuff; and the separate southern peaks, called Bishop’s Cap Hills, are limestone from the Paleozoic seas.

Just 15 minutes from town, the well-maintained three-mile loop trail is usually deserted on weekdays. Hiking experiences vary widely here with the season and even the time of day. In the early monsoon season, mornings can resemble a scene from some sci-fi epic, with clouds drifting past 1,000-foot-high towers and ribbon-thin waterfalls washing down the cliffs. Occasional sun shafts penetrate, creating brief rainbows while highlighting the lush, emerald savanna vegetation. When seasons change to drier times, the encircling, grand-scale natural sculptures command the attention. The Organ Needles just to the north frame a dramatic, ever-changing montage at each bend of the path.

DIRECTIONS: From point A, take East University Ave./Dripping Springs Rd. east for about 6 miles, then turn right on well-marked Soledad Canyon Road, which will soon fork left toward the mountains after one mile. Follow it to 4.5 miles to the trailhead parking at the very end.

Desert Peaks Complex
3. Robledo Palisades Hike

Hike -3The colorfully layered, 5,900-foot Robledo Mountains’ ridgeline soars 2,000 feet straight above the Río Grande. A dozen hikeable canyons penetrate this five-mile stretch of east-facing white-tuff palisades. Adorned with spires and hoodoos, the largest have side branches that twist and turn, narrowing into claustrophobic cul-de-sacs.

Sliced through soft tuff beds, all the way down to Permian shoreline bedrock, north-facing walls create shaded interior microcosms where riparian oases shelter desert willows and huge old-growth junipers. The deeper canyons convey a sense of tranquil isolation, in contrast to the bustling I-40 corridor just across the river.

Their proximity to Las Cruces makes the Robledo Palisades an obvious choice for short day trips, but rugged, trailless terrain requires some cross-country hiking experience. Hikers must choose their own paths up from the riverbanks to the obvious canyon mouths carved into the Palisades by negotiating the steep boulder slopes and alluvial fans. Numerous washes weave through filigreed acacia thickets and diverse cactus gardens that include the large barrel and even the extremely rare night-blooming cereus.

On the Robledo south flank, Prehistoric Trackways National Monument’s 5,280 acres preserve fossil sites by the hundreds, in particular numerous world-renowned examples of Permian Period footprint trackways.

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DIRECTIONS: There are two main access points to the canyons along the Palisades: one on the east side of the Río Grande, which requires crossing the river, and one on the west side of the river, which also accesses Trackways National Monument. The Río Grande will have water from the beginning of June to the end of August. May and September are more variable. From October through April, the riverbed should be dry.

East side of river: From point A, head northwest on S. Valley Drive (N.M. 188) for approximately 4.8 miles, past Picacho Ave., and continue north on N.M. 185 for approximately 8.6 miles. Turn left onto Hope Road. Follow it to Levee Road, which parallels the Río Grande. From October to the end of April (approx.), walk across the dry riverbed and choose a canyon to hike.

West side of river: From point A, head northwest on S. Valley Drive (N.M. 188) for 4.8 miles. Turn left on Picacho Avenue/U.S. 70 and travel 2.6 miles to Shalem Colony Trail. Turn right on Shalem Colony and go 2.1 miles north before turning left onto Rocky Acres Trail. You can continue north for 5–6 miles to the Robledo Palisades or, after a quarter-mile, turn left into Trackways National Monument, over the cattle guard.

Potrillo Mountains Area
4. Kilbourne Hole Hike

Hike -4aTwenty-five miles of dusty roads across endless mesquite and creosote brush flats and there’s still no clue that a spectacular, otherworldly crater lies ahead, until you’re standing awestruck on Kilbourne Hole’s precipitous edge. Roughly elliptical in shape, two miles long by more than a mile across and up to 300 feet deep, it is the largest, most perfectly formed volcanic maar (volcanic crater) on earth.

Kilbourne Hole appeared quite suddenly, about 75,000 years ago, in what was surely a scene from hell. Rising magma met the Río Grande aquifer, producing a giant superheated steam bubble that blasted 500 million cubic yards of shattered basalt and sand into the sky. Explosive pyroclastic surges followed, creating softer ash rim deposits.

A rough path starting at the southwest corner makes its way down onto the very flat crater floor, where you can choose any route. On the rim, a breathtaking, 7.5-mile cliffside loop route is best begun from the southeast corner. It slowly culminates at the high point on the northeast corner.

On the southern horizon, the elegant cones of the Mount Riley–Mount Cox massif point 2,000 feet above the desert to the heavens, contrasting with the massive maar directly below.

DIRECTIONS: Kilbourne Hole is isolated in the center of the Potrillo Volcanic Field and requires a confusing 40-mile drive, half of which is over dirt roads. From point A, take I-10 past the I-25 junction and continue 10 miles south to the Vado exit, 155. Take N.M. 227 west 1.8 miles to N.M. 478, turn left. Go .1 mile to N.M. 189. Turn right, and go 1.3 miles to N.M. 28. Turn left and go south 2 miles to C.R. B008. Take a right on C.R. B008, go 11 miles to a dirt road, and take a sharp left onto Douglas Munro Road. Go south for about 6.7 miles to C.R. B004. Turn left and then take a quick right to cross the tracks. Turn left on C.R. A02, which becomes C.R. A017, and drive 7.5 miles to C.R. A011. Turn right and proceed 8 miles to Kilbourne Hole, which is on the right, past the big tan dirt bank.

Potrillo Mountains Area
5. Aden Crater Hike

Hike -5Everyone’s first glimpse of Aden Crater induces a gasp. The short, gradual walk up to the 4,300-foot-elevation rim suddenly opens out into a circular world of lush green grasses and ocotillo forests bounded by a tortured black lava rim. Walking across the fractured crater floor, past gaping fissures, to the 100-foot-deep fumarole (steam vent) has a truly primeval feel.

No established trails exist, and walking the fairly level terrain requires attention when traveling past the deeper chasms in the dark, twisted basalt. Rich textures and patterns change with every step.

From about 40,000 to 20,000 years ago, a succession of fluid basalt eruptions from this subterranean conduit built up a 30-square-mile shield cone with a 1,000-foot-diameter crater on top. The trapped lava lake repeatedly overflowed into the surrounding countryside until the last lava drained down the vent, which then collapsed into a dark, spooky pit punctuating the crater floor. Volcanologists exploring the fumarole

in the sixties discovered an Ice Age ground sloth mummy at the bottom.
Fantastic 360-degree views from the rim span the Potrillo Volcanic Field. The domed plateau was formed 40 million years ago, along with Mount Riley and Cox Peak, but the other 150 cinder cones, five maar craters, and several shield volcanoes and volcanic plugs, along with over 100 square miles of lava flows, are all less than 150,000 years old. Exploring the Potrillo

Volcanic Field is the ultimate hands-on geology lesson.

DIRECTIONS: From point A, take I-10 west for 14.2 miles to exit 127 and turn left onto frontage road. Go .3 miles to Robert Larson Blvd. and turn right. Drive 2.2 miles until it turns to dirt and becomes County Road (C.R.) B005. Follow C.R. B005 south for 8.7 miles, cross train tracks, and turn left on C.R. B004. Travel .3 miles, bear left (east) on C.R. B001, and bear left again after 1.2 miles onto C.R. B002. After 5.7 miles, make a sharp right onto an unnamed road just before the lava flow and go another 5.2 miles to the base of the crater. Park and walk up to rim.