The story of the Guadalupe Back Country Byway (N.M. 137) is told by the odors you encounter along the route – odors that entice you, assail you, even assault you at times. These scents are clues to the natural beauty of the country itself and the industries which sustain its people.
The first thing you may smell is creosote bush. It freshens the air like recent rain and reminds you that you're driving through southern New Mexico's ranch country. Sooner or later a less pleasant odor heralds your entry into oil and gas country. Sometimes this smell can be dangerous, for instance, when you encounter hydrogen sulfide gas. At Sitting Bull Falls, water flowing over desert rocks emits a sweet smell, and the breeze carries a faint smell reminiscent of licorice.
The thirty miles of the Byway run through land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A kiosk at the beginning of the Byway states the Bureau's purpose: “striking a balance on public lands”. The balance is between use and protection of recreation, private land use, and management of natural resources along N.M. 137.
The Byway begins at U.S. 285 twelve miles north of Carlsbad in the Chihuahuan Desert and ascends about 3,000 feet into the Guadalupe Mountains. The terrain gets rugged quickly. Large patches of prickly pear and sotol grow out of cream-colored limestone outcrops. The desert landscape, beautiful as it is, conceals beauty and riches perhaps unsuspected by its earliest Paleoindian inhabitants 10,000 years ago.
Hidden beneath the surface are wild caves of exquisite beauty which draw scientists and spelunkers from all over the world. A permit to explore the caves can be obtained from the Guadalupe Ranger District, Lincoln National Forest (505-885-4181). Seven to twelve thousand feet farther below the surface are the oil and natural gas reserves of the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil and gas provinces in the United States.
Oil was first discovered in southeastern New Mexico thirty miles south of Carlsbad in 1901. The drillers were actually looking for water but hit oil at only 80 feet. The first oil well along this byway was drilled in 1917. Today, over 28,000 wells produce oil and gas in the region.
For those with a yen for the mysteries of side roads, this byway is full of opportunities. Both improved and primitive roads intersect it along the way and lead to public lands, where you may stop for hiking, mountain biking, caving, or just exploring.
Driving south on the byway, you encounter a sign that directs you to Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area (open year-round, 8:30 a.m. to sunset, $5.00 per vehicle). The road descends eight miles through winding canyons on the way to the Falls. The recreation area is for day use only; stone picnic shelters with grills are available. A paved path leads from the picnic shelters to the falls; a dirt path leads up to the top of the mesa.Two hundred million years ago, in the Permian period, this area was an inland sea. Sitting Bull Falls is a small remnant of the water from this ancient time. The falls are the result of water flowing from a spring located in the canyon above. From the observation point at the end of the paved path, a 200' foot high wall of tufa looms in front of you. It extends up the canyon for three quarters of a mile. The creation of this light-weight, porous rock from calcium carbonate precipitating out of the water has taken hundreds of thousands of years. When plants die and fall into the water, a chemical reaction occurs and fossils are formed. This process is still ongoing at the bottom of the falls.
This is not Niagara Falls. Sitting Bull Falls is more like a shower. A delicate flow of water trickles and splashes 150 feet down the cliff, and in the late afternoon, spray bouncing off the cliff is backlit by the unseen sun. Crystal clear water flows gently into a pool at the bottom. The bright green of plants around the falls contrasts with the usual gray green of desert plants on surrounding cliffs. A cool breeze blows fitfully through the canyon.
There are 16 miles of hiking trails in the recreational area, varying from 1.5 to 6.6 miles long. A dirt trail striking off from the paved path leads hikers to the top of the mesa. It leads to the spring which is the source of the falls. The flow of water from the spring creates a lush ribbon of vegetation paralleled by the path. Electric blue dragonflies flit across lime green ponds, the result of a thick blanket of algae.
The byway continues down N.M. 137 for several more miles, until the road intersects the boundary of the Lincoln National Forest. The road continues through southern New Mexico into Texas, and out of the Land of Enchantment.