Los Angeles Times

Rugged and right there

A national monument near Las Cruces has craggy peaks, volcanic craters and brushes with outlaw and astronaut history.

- By Michael Mello travel@latimes.com

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — As you drive through this crossroads of the Southwest, it’s difficult not to notice the sawtooth-ridged mountains bracketing the city to the east.

Known as the Organ Mountains, these rhyolite and andesite peaks emboss New Mexico’s southern basin and range area. The mountains love to show off in the evening, reflecting the orange hues of the setting sun.

The Organ peaks, along with other nearby mountains and points of interest, are part of one of the United States’ newest national monuments. President Obama signed a proclamati­on creating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in 2014, meaning nearly 500,000 acres of mountains, grasslands, volcanic craters and historic sites are preserved for public use.

I found one of the best things about the monument to be its accessibil­ity. It’s split into four sections, all of them just a few miles from Las Cruces.

Although the monument’s offerings may not be world-class soaring sequoias or frothing geysers, it has gems beckoning for a visit, especially considerin­g they’re not far out of a traveler’s way.

“So many people drive through this landscape, and they think it’s a wasteland. It takes a jeweler’s eye to look at it. In winter, birds from Canada are nesting here. It’s an unfragment­ed, wild landscape. That’s what makes it worth protecting,” said Jennifer Montoya, acting manager of the monument. Species found nowhere else, such as the Organ Mountain evening primrose, call the place home.

The range got its name because some observers thought the “needle” peaks atop the mountains resembled a church organ. I thought they looked more like the spinal plates of a gargantuan stegosauru­s that had settled down for a permanent nap.

Either way, they’ve been described as the Grand Tetons of New Mexico because of their resemblanc­e to the better-known formation hundreds of miles to the north.

Though the monument encompasse­s other neighborin­g mountain ranges too, the Organs contain some of its crown jewels. Dripping Springs stands as one of the mustsee spots.

It’s a moderately easy trek, just a couple miles from the visitors center through grasslands dotted with oak and other trees to the springs, which do seem to drip out of a rock in the drier parts of the year. The Chihuahuan Desert mountains seemed to melt away during the slow, steady climb to the springs, with dry grass and occasional cactus giving way to lush shrubbery and chokecherr­ies filled with wildlife.

A small, primitive dam built decades ago holds the springs’ offerings and was used as a source of water for a small 16-room resort that once operated in a nearby canyon.

It’s worth an extra half-mile of walking to see the crumbling adobe and stone ruins of Van Patten Mountain Camp, named for Eugene Van Patten, a former Confederat­e officer who founded it in the late 1800s. It went bankrupt within a couple decades, leading to its current state.

The hike to Dripping Springs, like others in the monument, is best done in the morning, because long stretches of the trail are exposed to the desert sun. But the morning jaunt also makes a perfect excuse to have lunch at the nearby La Cueva Picnic Area.

Named for a small cave just a couple hundred yards away, the picnic grounds sit on a slight hillside. The picnic sites have shelters with ample shade and space, and are oriented to provide eye-catching views of the Organ Mountains.

The Dripping Springs visitors center and the picnic area are 10 miles east of Interstate 25 along a paved road with two miles of graded gravel at the end. A $5 day-use fee covers both areas.

The Bureau of Land Management plans to augment recreation­al developmen­t at the monument over several years. To do that, the BLM will introduce guided hikes as well as adding interpreti­ve signs to several areas, including those visited by famous outlaw Billy the Kid. Kilbourne Hole, an extinct volcanic crater south of Las Cruces used for lunar training by Apollo mission astronauts, will get similar treatment.

BLM officials could close roads in some areas of the monument, but most existing roads should remain open to the public. Mountain bikers will still be able to ride on popular routes in the Organ Mountains, as well as the Doña Anas and other nearby ranges in the monument.

Winter can be cool, but clear skies are common and most mountain biking and hiking trails throughout the monument remain open, said Montoya, who added that visitors should check conditions before heading out.

The Baylor Pass trail, easily accessible east of Las Cruces, is a popular route for day hikers and backpacker­s over the crest of the Organ Mountains. The five-mile trek ends at the Aguirre Spring Campground, also run by the BLM. The site is in demand as a respite from the summer heat, but it’s not so high that it freezes visitors in fall or winter.

Across the Mesilla Valley, Picacho Peak is not as picturesqu­e as the Organ Mountains, but it compensate­s with other virtues. The rhyolite mound, its barrenness occasional­ly broken by flowering cactuses or Indian paintbrush, surveys the western end of town. Still, a rugged 11⁄2 -mile trail to the top rewards those possessing strong ankles with a panoramic view of Las Cruces, two states and northern Mexico, as well as the past and present.

To the east, the Camino Real (yes, New Mexico has one too) north toward Santa Fe parallels its modern incarnatio­n, I-25. Just below, through narrow spaces between hills and across deep, sandy washes, once passed the Butterfiel­d Overland stagecoach­es carrying the mail to Los Angeles and San Francisco. From atop Picacho, I saw how closely developmen­t in western Las Cruces crept toward the peak and the former mail trail, sites now protected for future generation­s.

 ?? SWCargill Getty Images / iStockphot­o ?? THE ORGAN MOUNTAINS provide a striking backdrop to Las Cruces. The Grand Tetons of New Mexico, as they’re known, are part of a national monument.
SWCargill Getty Images / iStockphot­o THE ORGAN MOUNTAINS provide a striking backdrop to Las Cruces. The Grand Tetons of New Mexico, as they’re known, are part of a national monument.
 ?? Michael Mello ?? ATOP PICACHO PEAK,
take in panoramic views of Las Cruces, two states and northern Mexico.
Michael Mello ATOP PICACHO PEAK, take in panoramic views of Las Cruces, two states and northern Mexico.
 ?? Bob Wick Bureau of Land Management ?? DRIPPING SPRINGS, with its waterfall, is a must-see spot. It’s a relatively easy trek from the monument’s visitors center.
Bob Wick Bureau of Land Management DRIPPING SPRINGS, with its waterfall, is a must-see spot. It’s a relatively easy trek from the monument’s visitors center.
 ?? Lou Spirito Los Angeles Times ??
Lou Spirito Los Angeles Times
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