I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures…Geronimo
From the creosote and cholla-swept sands of the Chiricahua Desert to the pinon and ponderosa cliffs of the Gila Wilderness, the wild freedom expressed by Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo more than a century ago embodies the scenic byway named in his honor. Born in a quirky desert town built over bubbling underground hot springs, the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway taps the largest reservoir in New Mexico before kinking its way to the nation’s first declared wilderness. En route are rugged carved canyons, thickly wooded mountain passes, quaint villages and ghost towns that still number a few live souls in their ledgers.
In the town of Truth or Consequences – T or C – the Geronimo Trail Visitors Center and Geronimo Springs Museum (505-894-6600) offers information and exhibits on Geronimo and local history, from mastodons to the memorabilia of Ralph Edwards, the TV host whose 1950s-era game show gave the town its name. The road loops past bright pastel-painted shops to the dun-colored beaches of 43-mile-long Elephant Butte Lake. With 200 miles of shoreline, three marinas, a visitor center, boating, water skiing, fishing and camping, Elephant Butte Lake State Park (505-744-5421 or 1-888-NM-PARKS) is a watery Mecca for drought-parched desert denizens. On Memorial Day weekend, its population sometimes spikes to 100,000 revelers. The reservoir’s dam was completed in 1916 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to impound Rio Grande waters for irrigation, some of which soak nearby Hatch’s famous hot chile fields.
The byway’s northern route leaves the “Butte” on N.M. 181 and turns toward the foothills on N.M. 52 past the ranches and pecan orchards of Cuchillo, a onetime stage stop and trading center. A side trip north up N.M. 142 coasts 10 miles through pungent creosote scrub and sculpted arroyos before dropping into a verdant valley. Winding through the vine-covered adobe walls of Monticello, a village that recalls Tuscany with its lavender fields, hand-hewn church and flower-strewn plaza, the road abruptly ends on a dirt trail at desert’s door.
From Cuchillo, N.M. 52 heads to the twin “ghost towns” of Winston and Chloride, silver mining communities dating from 1881. The Pioneer Museum’s restoration is part of its ongoing history and a tour of the one-time general store is peppered with anecdotes about the eccentric characters that once strolled its wooden floors. A 200-year-old oak “hanging tree” graces the center of Main Street but, as the folks from the Pioneer Museum will tell you, no one actually was hanged in it – although a few drunk cowboys and miners were dunked in the horse trough and tied there to sober up.
Nine miles north, the byway turns west on N.M. 59 and climbs 31 miles through the vanilla-scented ponderosa stands of the Gila National Forest (505-894-6677) to the Beaverhead Ranger Station. For those traveling in four-wheel-drive vehicles, Forest Road 150 heads south along the west side of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness past Wall Lake, now closed to the public. Check with the Gila Forest for current road conditions before braving the ruts and gullies of this backcountry dirt road, which ends at the byway’s southern section on N.M. 35. For those who opt for pavement, retrace the byway route back to Interstate 25 and head for the southern route at the Hillsboro exit on N.M. 152.
Hillsboro was founded in 1877 with the discovery of gold in the Mimbres Mountains. Now a budding retirement area of about 150 citizens, the town offers restaurants, gift shops, galleries and a museum. Further west is the onetime wild western town of Kingston, which in 1882 boasted one church, 22 saloons, a brewery, three newspapers, a theater and a brothel located on Virtue Street.
The byway hairpins west up to Emory Pass in the Black Range, offering panoramas of deep forest green set against rolling desert sands beyond. Dropping downhill, the road enters San Lorenzo, a Spanish village founded in 1714, now a ranching community spread along the banks of the Mimbres River. The byway continues north on N.M. 35 along the river to meet FR 150 in the Gila National Forest. Travelers may connect here to the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway or retrace their steps to I-25, where a short jaunt south leads to Caballo Lake State Park (505-743-3942).