New Mexico is having a pretty wild year. In May, nearly half a million acres on the northern fringe of the Chihuahuan Desert, ribbed with granite peaks, alpine woodlands, and volcanic cinder cones, were brought together as the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument. Forming an arc around Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley, the monument is the newest and largest to be designated under President Obama, who nearly broke into “Home on the Range” while singing southern New Mexico’s praises.
“Deer and antelope roam,” the president said. “Falcons. Mountain lions. There are even plant species that don’t grow anywhere else in the world.”
He noted that the monument would help to preserve a wealth of archaeological sites—as did last year’s creation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, at the state’s northern extreme.
Even as they cheered the announcement, however, many conservationists hoped to press further. Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks contains eight wilderness study areas vying for congressional protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which would permanently render them, in the law’s poetic language, land “untrammeled by man, in which man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” If approved, explained Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the study areas would join some 1.65 million acres of designated wilderness across New Mexico— 2 percent of the state’s total land—“where there aren’t roads, where there’s not motorized travel, where there’s not oil wells.”
“It’s the gold standard of land conservation,” Allison said.
This fall marks the gold standard’s golden anniversary, when naturalists nationwide will once again turn their attention to New Mexico—this time to Albuquerque, where the National Wilderness Conference, October 15–19, celebrates the Wilderness Act’s 50th year. The choice of state is significant: In 1924, long before a national wilderness system was created, an undeveloped swath of the Gila National Forest became the world’s first protected wilderness, thanks to Aldo Leopold, a Forest Service employee who had once fished for trout in its spruce-shaded mountain streams. (To read more, see July’s “In Leopold’s Foot-steps,” mynm.us/leopold100).
“Leopold was a great writer and thinker,” said Las Cruces City Councilman Nathan Small, who was part of the effort to create Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks and will participate in a panel at the conference alongside UNM professor Gregory Cajete. Though this year’s conference offers a rare chance for national wilderness luminaries to gather, there’s plenty to attract casual outdoorsy folk. The program is divided into six areas of interest, including science, history, and “experience”—a track whose subjects range from the economic benefits of wilderness to storytelling and wilderness photography classes. Conference-goers looking for a breath of fresh air can take field trips to bike or paddle along the Río Grande, and downtown Albuquerque’s art deco KiMo Theatre will host two screenings of the People’s Wilderness Film Gala, whose documentary lineup (including The Color of Wilderness, by Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva, and The Wildest Act, a retrospective) captures conservationist history along with abundant natural beauty.
The big draw, however, is the free Get Wild Festival, on Saturday, October 18. Held in Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, the family-oriented fair highlights the recreational side of wilderness with a fishing pond, archery, storytelling, and other camp favorites. Native musicians and mariachis will provide a live soundtrack, and an Aldo Leopold impersonator will be on hand to teach kids about the history of wilderness.
The broad audience, according to Nathan Small, is important to the future of wilderness. “More frequently, folks are perhaps less connected to the outdoors,” he said. But seeing children’s groups get involved in the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks conservation effort gave him reason for optimism. “It’s renewing. It means that the values, the dreams, and the experience are refreshed.”
To that end, there’s no substitute for getting out into New Mexico’s wilderness areas, found all around the state.
Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks
The jagged granite spires of the Organ Mountains dominate the Mesilla Valley landscape, lending drama to the borderland desert. The five mountain ranges in New Mexico’s newest national monument surround Las Cruces on all sides: the Organs to the east, Doña Ana to the north, Robledo and Uva to the northwest, and Potrillo to the southwest. Hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails crisscross strikingly diverse desert ecosystems, from the rugged volcanic terrain of the Aden Lava Flow to the gentle Soledad Canyon, whose valley vistas are popular with day hikers and photographers. Although it has no formally designated wilderness, the monument’s eight wilderness study areas help preserve peaks and desert grasslands, springs and hidden pools, archaeological sites, and views that go on forever.
Access: The four sections of the monument can be reached via I-10 and I-25. Bureau of Land Management, Las Cruces District Office: (575) 525-4300; mynm.us/organmonument
Apache Kid Wilderness
The Apache Kid Wilderness, in the southern San Mateo Mountains, is rugged country marked by steep canyons and long distances. Better suited to backpacking than day hiking, the wil- derness is named for a young White Mountain Apache killed by local ranchers in 1894. On Trail 43, the main artery through the heart of the wilderness, the spot is marked by the remains of a tree and a pile of rocks that may or may not be a grave. It’s a compel- ling combination of backcountry adventure and local history that serves as a reminder that wilderness holds human stories, too.
From I-25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences, take N.M. 1 and Forest Road 225 to Springtime Campground. Cibola National Forest: (505) 761-4650; fs.usda.gov/cibola. Magdalena Ranger District: (505) 854-2281; mynm.us/magadalenadist
Aldo Leopold Wilderness
Climbing high into Gila National Forest’s Black Range, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness is among the most challenging and least used of New Mexico’s wilderness areas. Lopped off from the seminal Gila Wilderness by road construction, this forested 316-square-mile tract is carved with gorges and towering volcanic escarp- ments from which you can see out for miles—or down 1,000 feet. The Continental Divide Trail runs from the wilderness’s northern edge to Reeds Peak before veering west, but stay south on Crest Trail to tackle 10,165-foot McKnight Mountain and emerge at Emory Pass’s easily accessible trailhead.
Take I-25 south of Truth or Consequences to N.M. 152 and go west to Emory Pass. From the west, various forest roads head east from Forest Road 150. Gila National Forest: (575) 388-8201; fs.usda.gov/gila. Black Range District Office: (575) 894-6677; mynm.us/aldowild
White Mountain Wilderness
Although recent wildfires here have been extreme, the burn mosaic has mercifully left much of the White Mountain Wilder- ness’s mature growth intact. A conifer-shaded climb up the flanks of the Sacramento Mountains gives way, however, to long ridges where wind cools the meadows and ruffles the grassy oak savanna. Because canyon trails connect atop the crest, it’s easy to devise loops to suit your level of ambition. Just be sure to check with the Forest Service for the latest on burn patterns, and if you plan to continue south toward the looming Sierra Blanca peak, contact the Mescalero Apache for a tribal permit.
From Ruidoso, U.S. 380 connects to N.M. 37 and a number of forest roads leading into the wilderness. Lincoln National Forest: (575) 434- 7200; fs.usda.gov/main/lincoln. Smokey Bear District: (575) 257-4095; mynm.us/whitemount
West Malpais Wilderness
While its light-filled ponderosa forest is beautiful, the real story in the West Malpais Wilderness is lava—it contains one of the best continuous geologic records of volcanism on the planet. You’ll see exposed lava rock as soon as you hit the trail system, which is mostly level throughout, and masses of it in the piney kipuka—a 6,700-acre patch of fertile ground atop a 700,000-year-old lava flow. Younger flows spread across El Malpais Conservation Area toward the neighboring Cebolla Wilderness, where the badlands give way to sculpted sandstone formations.
From I-40 east of Grants, take N.M. 117 to C.R. 42, then continue northwest for two miles to a fork. The right fork continues north about five miles to the trailhead. Bureau of Land Management Rio Puerco Field Office: (505) 761-8700; mynm.us/westmalpais
Sculpted from the silty floor of ancient seas, today the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is as dry as the moon—and as silent. Vegetation is rare, and wildlife even rarer in this geological jumble of otherworldly rock formations, which means you can wander up dry washes and through the lunar landscape for hours and scarcely hear a sound. There are no trails—you drift where the terrain lures you: up this mound, behind that cone, through a grove of spindly hoodoos weathered by wind, water, and time. For fun, establish landmarks and try to find them on your way back; for safety, bring a GPS.
From N.M. 371 between Farmington and Crownpoint, turn east onto Road 7297 for Bisti or C.R. 7500 for De-Na-Zin. From U.S. 550, turn west on C.R. 7500 at the Huerfano Trading Post. Bureau of Land Man- agement, Farmington Field Office: (505) 564-7600, (800) 842-3127; mynm.us/bistbad
Sandía Mountain Wilderness
If you ever need a reminder of just how vital wild country can be to an urban ecosystem, visit the Sandía Mountain Wilderness, at Albuquerque’s eastern edge. Solitude can be rare among the weekend throngs of hikers, climbers, hang gliders, and skiers, but venture up the slope and the crowds start to thin out. Arid lower trails are home to a variety of cacti, while the mountaintop (accessible by tram or the Sandía Crest Road) boasts dizzying views of the Río Grande Valley and a marvelous collection of wildflowers.
There are numerous trailheads at the ends of roads off Tramway Blvd. or from Placitas off N.M. 165. Taking I-40 east to N.M. 14 (the Sandía Crest Road) provides access to the Crest Trail. Cibola National Forest: (505) 346-3900; fs.usda.gov/cibola