News Mexico Hikes

Enchanting Hikes

Sitting Bull Spring Trail.

Sitting Bull Spring Trail.
Photograph by Dennis McElveen.

From scenic jaunts to epic journeys, discover the best treks in Southern New Mexico.

By Jim O'Donnell

Above the cool cascade of Sitting Bull Falls, my son peered through a craggy stand of willow and cottonwood. He spied a filament of blue cutting a path through a green, grassy meadow jeweled with white, yellow, and blue flowers. For the next several hours, I trailed him up the spring-fed creek that makes this desert oasis outside Carlsbad, one of the true treasures of Southern New Mexico. Along the way, we discovered frogs, fish, salamanders, butterflies, migrating birds, and the paw marks of mountain lions.

There is nothing quite like New Mexico.

The Land of Enchantment is home to 35 state parks, 30 federally designated wilderness areas, and 18 national parks and monuments. The state is blessed with more public lands, such as the Lincoln National Forest that surrounds Sitting Bull Falls, than almost any other in the nation. The American people own more than 45 percent — nearly 23 million acres — of New Mexico.

Southern New Mexico's landscapes are among the most diverse in the nation. The region features mountain peaks, river canyons, Chihuahuan desert, and sand dunes, providing an endless opportunity for adventure, enlightenment, and just plain fun.

Sitting Bull Spring Trail (shown above)
Lincoln National Forest
Distance: 5.5-mile round trip
Rating: easy to moderate
Nearest Town: Carlsbad

An oasis in the desert, Sitting Bull Falls tumble 150 feet down to a crisp, clear pool offering relief from the Chihuahuan desert heat. A series of springs found in the craggy terrain above feed the falls, a cottonwood-shaded river, and pools teaming with aquatic life. Follow the trail up a brief but steep series of switchbacks and onto the relatively flat trail the borders the creek above the falls. The recreation area offers cabanas with picnic tables and charcoal grills for making an afternoon of it.

Dripping Springs Trail Complex.

Dripping Springs Trail Complex.
Photograph by Jay Hemphill.

Dripping Springs Trail Complex
Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument
Distance: varies
Rating: easy
Nearest Town: Las Cruces

The nearly 500,000-acre Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument outside of Las Cruces is one of the most ecologically diverse locations in the whole of the American Southwest. Besides the amazing plant and wildlife, this area has a fascinating history. The easiest way to access and explore this treasure is via the Dripping Springs Trail Complex found on the mountains' east face, closest to the metropolis of Las Cruces. All the trails in the area are rated easy and are under two miles long. The Crawford, Filmore, and La Cueva Trails offer the best views of the Chihuahuan Desert below.

Leasburg Slot Canyon.

Leasburg Slot Canyon.
Photograph by Dennis McElveen.

Leasburg Slot Canyon
Robledo Mountains Wilderness Study Area
Distance: 2.4 mile-round trip
Rating: easy to moderate
Nearest Town: Las Cruces

This loop trail carves into some of the more spectacular parts of the Robledo Mountains Wilderness Study Area, a 12,946-acre area within Organ Mountains. As a study area, it's being considered for full protection as a wilderness area to preserve its natural state. Although the trailhead is a bit challenging to find and requires crossing a shallow portion of the Rio Grande, the gentle, narrow, winding bird-filled slot canyon is well-worth the effort. The geologic formations make this hike special.

Argentina Canyon
Lincoln National Forest
Distance: 6.3 mile-round trip
Rating: moderate to difficult
Nearest Town: Capitan

Mind-blowing views over the Tularosa Valley and the Oscura Mountains are just one of the benefits of this amble into the White Mountain Wilderness Area's Argentina Canyon. Truly massive Douglas fir trees and thick stands of aspen shelter the loop trail. The grassy upland meadows and the riverside forest along Little Bonito Creek offer excellent wildlife watching.

Perk Ridge Trail
Lincoln National Forest
Distance: 4.7-mile round trip
Rating: easy to moderate
Nearest Town: Ruidoso

Offering a wide variety of trail conditions, this two- to three-hour loop departs from just outside Ruidoso and leads through pine forests, across cool streams and into vibrant turkey and elk habitat. It tops out with a stunning panorama of the Sierra Blanca (southern New Mexico's highest peak at 11,981 feet), Nogal Peak, and the Capitan Mountains.

Catwalk National Recreation Trail.

Catwalk National Recreation Trail.
Photograph by Getty Images.

Catwalk National Recreation Trail
Catwalk Recreation Area,
Gila National Forest
Distance: 2-mile round trip
Rating: easy
Nearest Town: Glenwood

Around 1900, a small mining operation sprouted up in Whitewater Canyon about 65 miles north of Silver City. Miners built a wooden boardwalk on top of a pipe carrying water to the ore processing plant. Later, they replaced the boardwalk with a safer, steel catwalk. The mining operations have ceased, but the catwalk remains. This gentle trail will take you through a narrow canyon to waterfalls, hidden pools, and owl nests.

Gila Middle Fork.

Gila Middle Fork.
Photograph by Laurence Parent.

Gila Middle Fork
Gila National Forest
Distance: 11.5-mile round trip
Rating: difficult
Nearest Town: Silver City

The Gila River and its tributaries carve the Gila National Forest into fingered canyons that call for exploration. Be ready to get your feet wet. This trail crosses and re-crosses the Gila River as it ascends the pine-blanketed, narrow Middle Fork canyon to a vast, grass-covered and elk-filled mesa. It then drops to follow another Gila tributary. You land back at Lightfeather Hot Springs — a nice resting spot just a mile from the trailhead.

Dog Canyon Trail.

Dog Canyon Trail.
Photograph by Dennis McElveen.

Dog Canyon Trail
Oliver Lee State Park
Distance: 10.6-mile round trip
Rating: moderate to difficult
Nearest Town: Ruidoso

Leaving from Oliver Lee State Park, the Dog Canyon Trail climbs quickly into one of the most scenic canyons in southern New Mexico. Towering canyon walls glinting in the sun, meadows stuffed with flowers, and a historic ranch, are just a few of the gifts that make this hike special.

About three miles in, the trail drops to a gurgling stream then climbs again to grassy elk-filled meadows overlooking the Tularosa Basin, the alabaster dunes of White Sands National Monument, and the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces in the distance. Keep an eye open for a wide variety of birds, elk, deer, and even Barbary sheep, a North African species introduced to New Mexico nearly 100 years ago

Crest Trail to Lookout Point at Ski Apache
Lincoln National Forest
Distance: 8.3-mile round trip
Rating: moderate to daifficult
Nearest Town: Ruidoso

A mix of relatively flat trail and uphill switchbacks, the Crest Trail dishes up a jaw-dropping 360-degree view of the Sierra Blanca, the Valley of Fire lava flow, and the Capitan Mountains and, if you're up for it, top White Mountain on the way. Take a sun hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water for this one. Most of the trail is exposed. Consider taking the eight-passenger gondola at Ski Apache down.

Resaca Trail
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park
Distance: 1.5 mile-round trip
Rating: easy
Nearest Town: Mesilla

Just outside the historic village of Mesilla, the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is a 300-acre nature preserve and birding area on the banks of the Rio Grande. The park hosts about three miles of gentle trails with interpretive signs and fabulous views of the Organ Mountains. Be sure to check out the wetlands, an especially inviting location for bird watchers.

Out Yonder

A trio of not-to-miss hikes in other parts of New Mexico

Santa Fe
Dive into the seemingly endless trail systems of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Start with Katherine Lake in the Pecos Wilderness. This is a moderate, 13-mile out-and-back trail that leads to a turquoise alpine jewel set in a high mountain bowl.

Los Alamos
At the Bandelier National Monument, the 9-mile Frijoles Canyon hike passes through a burn area that is now seeing a dramatic burst of regrowth, with wildflowers and brilliant oak leaves leading the renewal.

Taos
Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area's 11-mile Lobo Peak loop serves up one of the most spectacular views in the state. The skyline stretches into Colorado to the north, across the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument below, and across each of New Mexico's highest peaks.