Sandia Mountains mountains of new mexico

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream. Follow every rainbow till you find your dream.” So advises Mother Superior to Maria in The Sound of Music. Not bad advice, when you consider the mountains of New Mexico. You see them everywhere.


Did you know 21 mountains in New Mexico are more than 12,000 feet above sea level? None is higher than Wheeler Peak in the Taos Mountains. It’s 13,167 feet high, and you can experience its spectacular scenery by driving 84 miles around it on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. Doing so also avails you of backcountry and mountain hiking, camping, skiing, and fishing and hunting.

Wheeler Peak mountains of new mexico
Wheeler Peak in the winter.

New Mexico’s mountains are impressive. Most of the tall peaks are in the Taos and Santa Fe Mountains, both of which comprise the Sangre de Cristo Range that stretches into southern Colorado. You may be familiar with many of the others’ names — Mount Walker, Truchas Peak, Gold Hill, Santa Fe Baldy, and Vallecito Mountain.


Since the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are part of the Rocky Mountains, we should pause here to see where they came from. Most mountains occur along the edges of crustal plates, one piece sliding over another. Think Himalayas or Andes. Meanwhile, the Rockies sit near the middle of a continent.

Why did they occur there? John McPhee, in his book Assembling California, one of four he wrote on North American geology, gives us an answer. North America once ended somewhere near the middle of Utah. Over time — lots of it — exotic terranes, a geological term for pieces of a crustal plate not originating here, bumped into North America. Some pieces came from far below the then-equator. The pressure of one piece pushing against the other uplifted the Rockies. That began about 75 million years ago and continued for some 10 million years.

Keep in mind, at times before this mountain building geologists call the Laramide Orogeny, this part of North America was a shallow sea. The rock that pushed up was molten magma which hardened to basalt. There followed a period of extensive volcanism, adding ash and mudflows — all of which compressed into shale, slate, and pumice. They are just the kinds of rock, along with the basalt, we’d expect to see in the Taos and Santa Fe mountains.


The Nation’s second most active fault is the Rio Grande Rift, just behind San Andreas, which may be the most prominent indicator of mountain building elsewhere in New Mexico. If you drive the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, you’ll cross the Rio Grande Gorge, which is a visible result of the rift.

Even though we don’t feel it, the earth we walk on is pretty fluid, but it moves less than half an inch per year. Cracks, like the rift, have occurred in different places allowing magma to intrude, thus creating mountains. The Sandia Mountains, Organ Mountains, the Black Range, Potrillo Mountains, and others all formed by this mountain-building process. Check out Google maps of New Mexico from Columbus and Deming to El Paso and note the number of volcanic cones.


Many of the mountains in the southern part of the state are more than 10,000 feet above sea level — Sierra Blanca, Whitewater Baldy, McKnight Mountain, and the Sierra Ladrones to name a few.

Ship Rock, a familiar Northern New Mexico landmark, is the solid rock throat of a volcano, standing 7,000 feet above sea level — but only 2,300 feet from base to summit. The mountain that once contained the core has eroded away, leaving the remarkable spire. Another such cone is Cabezon Peak, 75 miles northwest of Albuquerque.

Walk A Cinder cone

The Geology of the mountains of New Mexico may be similar to one another, but not identical. Part of the 8,000-square-mile Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, Capulin Volcano, 40 miles east of Raton, is a dormant cinder cone. It’s a national monument with a spiraling roadway you can drive to the summit. There’s a mile-long, paved trail around the crater rim and a trail that reaches the vent at the bottom. It’s about a half-mile round trip and has an elevation change of 100 feet. From the visitor center, you can walk the nature trail with markers explaining plant life, wildlife, and geology. The nature trail is the only one that’s dog friendly.

Take the Tramway

Sandia Peak tramway new mexico's highest points
Sandia Peak Tramway

If you haven’t ridden the tramway from Albuquerque to the summit of the Sandia Mountains, you’ve missed a fun, and perhaps thrilling, ride. Enjoy the natural wonders and listen to your guide tell you about the wreck of TWA Flight 260 in 1955. You might see part of the wing still lying on the slope. Or you can drive up the eastern side of the mountains. In season, there are ski trails and hiking trails, often lined with wild, blue iris.

Mountains of History

History abounds in and around the mountains, as well. Manzano Peak, the highest of the Manzano Mountains, undoubtedly provided resources to the people of the Abó, Quarai, and Gran Quivira pueblos — today the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. A visit to the pueblos not only should astound you with its 17th-century architecture but will inform you of a tale of two cultures, sadly in conflict.

North Baldy Peak, a 9,800-foot mountain near Magdalena, was where a B-17 pilot on a training flight thought the mountain was a bit lower. His information was wrong. The crash claimed the lives of all aboard.


Aldo Leopold Black Range mountain's of new mexico
Aldo Leopold Wilderness Black Range

You could write a book on the stories associated with the Black Range, a place where Hispanic and Anglo people mined silver and gold, much to the vexation of the Apache people who lived there. This is the site of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which protects 200,000 acres of one of the roughest, wildest portions of New Mexico, as well as the Gila National Forest — a wilderness area where Mogollon people built the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The Black Range is also the source of hot springs that make bathing in Truth or Consequence a serene, tranquil experience.


The Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces, were so named by a conquistador who thought they looked like a pipe organ. Over the years, people have mined lead and feldspar from them. At nearly 9,000 feet, the Organ Needle stands at the southern tip of the range. To the north is Baylor Canyon, named after Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor.

He took his men over that pass to sneak up behind the Union troops stationed at the top of San Augustin Pass. At Dripping Springs Natural Area, you can visit Eugene Van Patten’s long-defunct mountain camp that once gave people relief from the summer heat and where there was also a tuberculosis sanitarium, buildings whose ruins you can see today.


There are mountains of New Mexico, it’s impossible to cover them all here. But nearly all offer trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. There are campsites, some pretty basic, others with amenities. You’ll find opportunities for fishing and hunting, rock climbing, caving, or just the sheer joy of being at one with nature.

Pick a mountain. Find the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, or state agency related to your mountain. You’ll find out what you need — hours, directions, fees, licenses (where required), and basic information to help you plan your adventure. You may not ever climb Everest, with its 29,000-foot challenge, or even Mauna Kea in Hawaii — a mountain that hides half its 33,500-foot height underwater, but that doesn’t mean you can’t follow your own dream in New Mexico.




Story and photography by Bud Russo

Originally published in Neighbors magazine

Posted by LasCruces.com

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