Things to Do | 9 Must-Try Adventures -
Interior soaking tub at Sierra Grande

“What do you want to do today?” It’s a question frequently asked when summer calls you to fulfill all the promises you made during winter. If one of them is to explore Southern New Mexico’s people, places, history, and culture, here are nine fun day trips the whole family will enjoy.

1. Soaking at Sierra GRANDE Lodge

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 1 hour 15 minutes

A friend and I drove to Truth or Consequences to experience the mineral baths at the historic Sierra Grande Lodge, built in 1929. My friend seeks out hot springs wherever she travels. I had never indulged.

We left early on a sunny day for the drive to the Lodge. We planned to have breakfast, followed by a tour of the facilities, and a mineral bath. We made reservations, since their rooms often are fully booked.

The minimalist Southwest vibe of the restaurant is inviting. Terra cotta tile floors and hammered copper tabletops with simple wooden chairs create an open and serene dining space filled with sunlight. The plain white walls feature black and white framed photos depicting the western history of the area. We both noted the background music — instrumental guitar.

They also offer dining on the spacious patio, which would make an excellent spot to gather for a cool drink after a day exploring or to relax with a good book. At the end of a hot day, relaxing on the patio as the sun sets would be enchanting.

The menu has a northern New Mexico flair with blue corn pancakes with cinnamon honey butter and Southwestern eggs benedict with jalapeño bacon sprinkles. The breakfast dishes were excellently prepared and the service staff was well-trained. They don’t seem to know the word “no.” They accommodated every request I heard during our time in the restaurant. The restaurant serves breakfast and dinner every day with a brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

After a tour of the rooms — who knows, we might want to plan a girls’ spa day or a couple’s getaway — we were escorted to our hot springs tub in the Spirit Room, a bright and spacious room with a large Mexican tiled bath and painted Southwest murals on the walls. Towels were provided, along with glasses of ice water and an iced pitcher for refills. Silence is encouraged, so it was a relaxing soak. We both agreed the bath could use more seating at different levels, but, as you can imagine, that did not stop us from relishing the experience.

The property rests on a natural geothermal spring and the tubs can reach 107 degrees F. If you’re staying overnight, consider booking La Casita. The serene garden courtyard includes a private outdoor tub. The spa experience at the Sierra Grande Lodge can also include massages and other spa treatments.

With our bodies and spirits refreshed, we took the back roads home to Las Cruces, contemplating future visits to Sierra Grande Lodge. – Jackye Meinecke

Sierra Grande Lodge
501 McAdoo Street
Truth or Consequences,
NM 87901

2. Trekking through the City of RocksStone structures at City of Rocks

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 1 hour 30 minutes

About 30 miles north of Deming is City of Rocks State Park — acres of pinnacles and monoliths sculpted from welded volcanic ash by wind, rain, and temperature. So unique are these natural formations, they exist only in six other places in the world.

City of Rocks was born more than 30 million years ago when the Kneeling Nun volcano erupted and vented turbulent clouds of ash, which settled into a dense layer. The weight of the ash compacted it, and heat welded it into rock. Over time, wind and weather eroded the layer into the forms we see today.

Some sculptures take on whimsical forms. One looks like a chick’s head. Another a bell. Some have bases so eroded, they stand almost en pointe. An examination of nearly any surface reveals its violent origin, showing how rock formed and then yielded to the relentless forces of nature.

Beyond this fantasyland of formations, visitors can focus on abundant Chihuahua Desert plant and animal life. Oaks, also shaped by the wind, grow among the rocks — along with barrel, prickly pear, hedgehog, and various other cacti. Yucca, ocotillo, agave, desert bird-of-paradise, and desert willow are also common. Be sure to walk through the park’s botanical garden to see the great variety of plant life.

For bird watchers, there’s opportunity to observe over 35 species, including golden eagles, hawks, owls, wrens, finches, and the iconic roadrunner.

There are also human artifacts here. More than 800 years ago, Mimbres people hunted and camped among the formations. They left behind arrowheads and pottery now in shards. You can find cone-shaped holes carved in flat surfaces. These are mortars used to grind grain. They’re sometimes referred to as “Indian wells” because water collects in them. Spanish conquistadors left signs of their passage by carving crosses in the rocks.

When you have finished trekking the park, be sure to drive to Observation Point, just east of the entrance kiosk, for a view of the formations and surrounding mountains. – Bud Russo

City of Rocks is reached by taking U.S. 180 from Deming toward Silver City. About 23 miles north, turn right on NM 61. and drive another five miles to the entrance. The park, which includes campsites, picnic areas, restrooms, and hot showers, is open year-around from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. There is a $5 day-use fee.

3. Studying Lava Formations at Valley of Fires

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 2 hours 10 minutes

As early as 1,500 years ago and as late as 5,000 years — a mere eye blink in geologic time — a vent opened in the relatively thin crust on the plains just north of where Carrizozo sits today and began spewing lava over the land, making it one of the youngest lava flows in the continental United States.

Scientists estimate the eruption lasted no more than 30 years. Lava oozed out at approximately six and a half cubic yards per second. That’s enough molten rock to fill 15 bathtubs in that second. Lava covered an area about 44 miles long and from a half to five miles wide.

Today, this malpais is Valley of Fires State Park. You can walk the mile-long self-guided nature trail with its informative panels. The paved trail is wheelchair-accessible.

Here you can witness the awesome violence of the eruption. Like hot caramel, lava writhed across the land, forming tubes, pressure ridges, bubbles, and dikes. The ropy-looking lava is called pahoehoe (pah-ho-ee-ho-ee). The other type of lava is jagged. It’s known as a-a (ah-ah). It seems volcanologists worldwide prefer the Hawaiian terms.

As the lava moved, its surface cooled and cracked into blocks. If the flow emptied a tube, the resulting structure often was too weak to support the weight and collapsed. Where it was dammed by a dike, lava formed ropey masses. Large gas bubbles burst leaving ragged edges, a lasting impression of tortuous upheaval.

Not only can you study the lava formations, but also abundant plant, bird, and animal life often uniquely adapted to the area. – Bud Russo

Valley of Fires is located on U.S. 380, four miles west of Carrizozo. The recreation area is open year-around and has campsites as well as covered picnic tables, restrooms, and a visitor center. Day use is $3 for one person and $5 for two or more in a car.

4. Exploring History at Fort Craig

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 1 hour 50 minutes

Halfway between T or C and Socorro is Fort Craig, once a prominent bastion of defense in the Rio Grande valley. Although on the National Register of Historic Places, all that remains of Fort Craig is eroding earthworks and a few stone and adobe walls.

The Piro and Apaches once lived here between the rugged San Mateo Mountains and the brooding, volcanic Mesa del Cantadero. The Piro built pueblos and lived off corn, beans, and squash. Nomadic Apaches traded with or raided the Piro. There was an extraordinary equilibrium in their lives, an odd stability, until Europeans appeared.

The Spanish marked the end of the native people’s way of life, although it would take nearly two centuries more to see its final end. The two cultures were diametrically opposed.

After the U.S. claimed the land in 1846, Fort Craig was built, replacing an earlier installation the flooding river claimed. Established in 1854, the new fort consisted of 22 buildings on 40 acres of land. It included officers’ quarters and enlisted barracks, warehouses and commissary buildings, stables, a hospital, an ordinance shed, and a sutler’s store — all surrounded by earthworks and a defensive ditch. The only access to the fort was through the stone guardhouse and sally port wide enough to accommodate a wagon.

The fort existed principally to protect travelers and settlers from raiding Apaches, outlaws, and Mexican revolutionaries along El Camino Real at the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto. Its success in these endeavors was always marginal, but the fort persisted.

In February 1862, after the first battles of the Civil War back east, Fort Craig became embroiled in the conflict. General Henry Sibley and the Confederate Texas Volunteers demanded surrender of the fort. That led to the Battle of Valverde, a couple miles north. The battle ended in a draw and was followed by the Confederates’ defeat at Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe a month later.

Fort Craig was disbanded in 1885. The property was sold at auction nine years later. The fort was excavated in the 1930s and transferred to the Bureau of Land Management in 1981 as a special management area.

These are the echoes of its history. They make a visit to Fort Craig worth your time, especially if you combine it with a stop at Bosque del Apache. – Bud Russo

5. Finding Peace at Hurd La Rinconada Gallery & Guest Homes

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 2 hours 20 minutes

I adore the smell of lilacs in spring. However, they don’t often bloom profusely in the low desert. So, I often plan an escape to the Hondo Valley for my annual fix of lilac blossoms. The streets of Lincoln and Capitan are lined with lilacs. They bloom wild along the edges of vacant lots and around the historic buildings.

Driving through the Hondo Valley, you pass a sign for the Hurd La Rinconada Gallery & Guest Homes. If you take the San Patricio exit, you’ll pass through the quaint village and up a dirt road to the gallery, which features the works of Peter Hurd, Henriette Wyeth, and their son, Michael Hurd.

Michael Hurd, like his parents, is passionate about his family’s Sentinel Ranch and taking care of the land, taking care of the water, according to Barbara Whipple, gallery director. Michael is dedicated to the protection and preservation of San Patricio and the Hondo Valley.

“Michael and our team share a vision and want to make sure a respectful attitude toward the land is maintained,” Barbara says.

If you have opted to stay at one of the six guest-houses on the ranch, you will find charming and historic accommodations. As you cross the narrow, wooden bridge on the single dirt lane to a house, you leave the noisy, modern world behind.

Our favorite has always been the Apple House. Purported to have been used for storing the apple harvest, this charming cottage looks out over the valley. I quickly discovered it has lilac bushes growing wild around it, providing lilac stems for vases in the house and on the patio.

This is a place to escape to for peace, quiet, solitude, and serenity. Some of the guesthouses have Wi-Fi connections, but mostly it is a place to escape modern intrusions. I always take food for the weekend, since it is about 20 miles to the nearest grocery store. However, there are restaurants nearby in Lincoln, Capitan, and Tinnie.

We hike the land, wander along the Rio Ruidoso, and bird watch from the patio as we grill dinner. Guests may meet the current patriarch, Michael, in the gallery, at one of the guest homes, or in his studio in the original Hurd-Wyeth home, which is now one of the guesthouses. It is stunning to admire a Peter Hurd print on the wall of the cottage and realize that it captures the view from a nearby window. – Jackye Meinecke

105 La Rinconada Lane, off Hwy. 70 (Mile Marker 281)
Gallery open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

6. EXPERIENCING New Mexico’s Largest Body of Water; Elephant Butte

dam and spillway at elephant butte state park
Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 1 hour 20 minutes

Spending summers at the lake is a Southern New Mexico tradition. Before the dam was built, the Rio Grande flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915.

Today, Elephant Butte Reservoir is the largest body of water in New Mexico and even at its lowest levels can support boating, fishing, jet skiing, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and many other types of aquatic fun! Boats, jet skis, and kayaks are available for rent at local shops around town.

Camping on the beach is a must as it allows you to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the sounds of the lake all night long.

Annual events like the 4th of July Fireworks show, the Elephant Butte Balloon Regatta, and luminarias on the beach during Christmas are great opportunities to experience the lake like you have never seen it before.

Read more about Elephant Butte and the fun things to do here. – Olivia Belcher 

Elephant Butte State Park is open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. For more information visit their website.

7. Remembering history at the Holocaust Museum

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 1 hour

In a decade or so, everyone who fought in World War II and every Jewish person who faced the horror of Nazi death camps and survived will be gone. Years keep unfolding. We keep aging and eventually pass onto whatever’s next. What remains is history.

To preserve the history of one of the most heinous times in the 20th century, Henry Kellen, a survivor of the Holocaust who settled in El Paso in 1946, established the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. This museum incorporates multi-media, informative panels, video histories, artifacts, and life-size reproductions immersing visitors in National Socialist Germany from 1933 to 1945. Because it’s a study center, it also offers presentations by survivors and historians.

In the museum’s video introduction, Henry Kellen tells visitors the Nazi’s murdered 11 million people — six million Jews and five million Christians. “The Nazis,” he says, “were as much anti-Christian as they were anti-Semitic.”

The museum’s mission is to honor those who perished in the Holocaust, oppose prejudice and bigotry, and educate visitors, particularly young people, by exposing them through testimonials, photographs, and Nazi-produced documents to explain what happened.

A tour of the museum takes visitors through a series of galleries — from the rise of the Third Reich and use of propaganda, to Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass—to life in ghettos, mass murder, and boxcars filled with Jewish prisoners transported to concentration camps. One gallery focuses on Hitler’s “Final Solution,” gassing and cremating hundreds of thousands of people. There are photos taken by Germans documenting these events and brief videos explaining the history. All written panels are in both Spanish and English.

So visitors do not leave with only images of atrocities, the final galleries tell the story of resistance fighters, Allied liberation, and of those who risked their lives to save Jews — people the museum calls the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

The El Paso Holocaust Museum is located at Exit 19A off Interstate 10 on Yandell Drive between North Oregon and El Paso Streets. There is no admission fee, but donations are welcomed. – Bud Russo

715 N. Oregon Street, El Paso, TX

8. Peering Into the Universe at Very Large ArrayHuge antenna at Very Large Array

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 3 Hours

Drive west from Socorro along US 60 and, in about 30 miles, you’ll first see the Very Large Array radio telescope (VLA), a configuration of 27 dish antennas sitting on the Plains of San Augustin.

Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter, stands about 90 feet tall, and weighs 230 tons. When astronomers reposition them, it’s amazing to see all these huge machines rotating as if in a synchronized dance. Astronomers have used the telescopes in studying astronomical objects, from as close as an asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of earth to as far away as 12 billion light years, a distance nearly 90 percent to the very edge of the universe.

Think of a telescope as a time machine. Light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach earth, so it’s eight minutes old. Light from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, takes slightly more than four years to reach us, while light from a galaxy near the edge of the universe takes 12 billion years to get here. We are seeing objects as they were in the past. By studying electromagnetic radiation (of which light is a part) from different objects at different distances from earth, scientists get a picture of how the universe evolved and can theorize about its future.

Your walking tour will take you to the Radio Sundial, the Whisper Dish Gallery, the Radio Astronomy Gallery, and finally to the base of one of the working antennas. From there you will head toward the control building’s observation deck for a view of the array and details about the supercomputer processing taking place inside. The walk returns you to the visitor center. – Bud Russo

The VLA, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is open daily 8:30 a.m. to sunset. Admission is $6 adults and $5 seniors. Ages 17 and younger are free.

9. Birding in Silver City

Drive Time from Las Cruces: 2 hours

Any excuse to spend a weekend in Silver City works for me. As an amateur birder, there are many opportunities to combine outdoor activities during the day with fine dining, breweries, and music during the evenings — a winning combination in my book. If the weather doesn’t support birding, then there are galleries and antique stores to explore.

Whether opting to drive through Deming and past City of Rocks to Silver City or north on Interstate 25 and exiting to travel through Hillsboro and the Black Range Mountains, there are many opportunities to pull off the road for birdwatching.

Once in Silver City, a birder needn’t go far before grabbing the binoculars. Big Ditch Park runs through historic downtown Silver City. Ancient cottonwoods and plants line this city park, creating habitat for ladder-backed woodpeckers. As the weather warms, black-chinned hummingbirds arrive along with summer tanagers and Bullock’s orioles. If you are visiting on the weekend, don’t miss the farmers market with its rainbow of organic vegetable and native plant vendors.

Heading south for about 15 minutes to Scott Park Municipal Golf Course on Ridge Road presents opportunities for viewing birds. This golf course is one of two New Mexico courses in the Audubon Golf Course Sanctuary System and is managed to enhance wildlife habitat. The grasslands, washes, and ponds attract diverse species of birds, such as several species of jays, blue grosbeaks, and many species of warblers.

Turn north for another 15-minute drive on Little Walnut Road to Little Walnut Picnic Area, just inside the Gila National Forest. This area provides Ponderosa pine and juniper woodlands. Pack a picnic lunch; there are tables and toilets at the picnic area. While you dine al fresco, you can keep binoculars handy for sighting birds.

A stretch of the Gila River is managed for bird habitat. The Gila River Bird Habitat Management Unit is about an hour west of Silver City in the Gila National Forest. It offers great birding in the cottonwoods and willows along the river. Spring migrations begin in late April and you can spot vermillion flycatchers, towhees, thrashers, and quail. If you are extremely blessed, you might spy shy Montezuma quail. I’ve only been that lucky twice in decades of birding.

Hit the road with a birding book or app and a good set of binoculars to spend a weekend admiring some of the more than 200 birds to be observed in the Silver City area. – Jackye Meinecke

Be sure to keep in mind Covid-19 safety precautions and call ahead to ensure destinations are open.

Links to check out:

Visit Silver City
Audubon – Gila Bird Area
Golf Course – Western New Mexico University
Silver City Farmers Market

Written by Jackye Meinecke and Bud Russo
Photos by Bud Russo and courtesy venues

Originally published in Las Cruces magazine

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