Perhaps more than any other state, New Mexico is replete with places that feel like the end of the world. To get there, after driving for hours on paved roads, you diverge onto curvaceous backcountry lanes, take off onto routes of sand, dirt, gravel and rock, then don your boots and start walking, sometimes for a few hundred yards, sometimes for dozens of miles.
At the end of all this is a place like no other.
It may be an oasis, a mountain top, a small lake, a wooded grove, a cave with rock art, a spring, a stream, a waterfall or simply a vista with hundred-mile views. But whatever the destination, it’s usually memorable. And it’s always remote—as far from your ordinary past as from your humdrum future, and as distant from where you came as from where you are going.
This is the kind of place you don’t just happen upon but only encounter if you are seeking it out.
Such, I found recently, are the Organ Mountains, 20-miles-long with 9,000-foot-high walls of rock towering east of Las Cruces. Their name derives from the phantasmagorical chain of spires and needles and cliffs that soar vertically thousands of feet and were thought by a Spanish explorer to resemble the pipes of a pipe organ.
“The Organ Mountains have come to symbolize New Mexico’s desert ranges,” writes Robert Julyan in “The Mountains of New Mexico,” adding, “and deservedly so, for few desert ranges approach the drama of the Organs’ spires, peaks and domes. And unlike many desert ranges along the Rio Grande, the vertical spectacle is undiminished whether viewed from the east or the west.”
Not many people visited these mountains before President Obama made them part of a new national monument. And three years later, not many people go there still. My wife and I were the only guests at the visitors center. We saw a mere handful of hikers on the two most heavily used trails even though it was Memorial Day weekend. And the only campground was almost empty.
The Organ Mountains are the most prominent of several small, barren desert mountain chains that surround Las Cruces. Intermixed with the mountains are the vast desert stretches of two huge Army bases—Fort Bliss and White Sands—that together occupy most of south central New Mexico and and a large chunk of neighboring West Texas.
The Czech couple presiding over the park visitors center seemed happy to have someone to talk to. I asked them if, after years of debate and controversy, most residents of nearby Las Cruces supported the new national monument. “Oh yes,” the woman said, “that is, everybody except the politicians. Of course, Steve Pearce [southern New Mexico’s contribution to the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives] is still against it.”
The Organ Mountains are the core of the 776-square-mile Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument that President Barack Obama created almost exactly three years before my visit—May 21, 2014. The area is one of a large number of national monuments created by Presidents Clinton and Obama since 1996.
There is an otherworldly feeling about the Organs, and not just because it shares southern New Mexico with Roswell’s UFO legend. Oryx, those white flashes of magic that race across the Sahara, hang out here with the cows. Beside giant century plants, Sotol plants sprout giant yellow blooms that grow 10 feet tall. Silver nightshade covers the ground, with brilliant yellow stamen protruding from the centers of purple blooms. Red ocotillo blooms and large white yucca flowers color the desert floor and steep mountainsides.
At the end of trails are petroglyphs, springs, a cave where a hermit died, an oasis, and a pine forest at 6,800 feet with vast views across the desert to the glistening dunes of White Sands far to the east.
The Organs’ facilities are in two areas separated by nearly impenetrable mountains. On the west side is the visitors center and a network of trails radiating out from it. The most popular of these trails is well made and easy hiking of less that 4 miles round trip to Dripping Springs.
On the east at Aguirre Springs is a campground and another trail system, of which Pine Tree Trail, a 5-mile loop trail, is the most popular. These trails are steeper and more rugged than those on the west, climbing several thousand feet to a pine forest and ridges with spectacular views over the desert plain to the west.
Most of the trails, including the two I followed, are near Dripping Springs and Aguirre Springs. Neither spring evidenced so much as a drip, however, even after an unusually wet spring.
Underground, however, there was plenty of evidence of moisture, for wildflowers were in bloom everywhere and the beautiful alligator junipers on the mountain above Aguirre Springs were huge and healthy.
Once upon a time Dripping Springs and nearby water sources supported two small resorts. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, tourists rode out from the Las Cruces railroad station in stage coaches. Now the ruins of scattered wood and stone buildings are all that remain of the resorts, the last of which closed in the 1920s.
Day hikes in the two areas are typically under 10 miles. The walk to Dripping Streams is a gentle ascent on a wide, well-made gravel trail. The trails around Aguirre Springs are steeper and rougher, a bit of exercise but still of modest difficulty. They include a delightful circle route of about 5 miles.
The temperatures were surprisingly comfortable during our visit in late May. But this country can get fiercely hot in summer, so it might be best to wait until the return of cooler weather in autumn before venturing there.
That is assuming that there will still be a there there. Some Republicans in Congress and in the Trump administration have talked about rolling back the Obama presidential order that created the national monument three years ago. Because such a rollback has has never been attempted, court challenges would be sure to follow and it could well be that another president will be sitting in the White House before the issue is finally decided.
Certainly supporters of the monument feel strongly about it. “If any administration thinks they’re going to start divesting us of a hundred-year history of lands that belong to every American, they’re going to have to do it over my dead body,” U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said.
Even Pearce, however, sponsored a bill to create an Organ monument, although his version was less than 10 percent the size of Obama’s.
What will happen now? Who knows. So enjoy it while you can.