Up and Down New Mexico. Hiking just might be the best way to see the desert here in Southern New Mexico. Many trails in the Mesilla Valley lead hikers to historic sites and places of stunning natural beauty. Regardless of whether you’re a casual walker or a vigorous trekker, two hikes will convince you the desert is a place to behold: Picacho Peak—the “up”—and Kilbourne Hole—the “down.”Jim and Polly Mayuric—snowbirds from western Pennsylvania, about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh—have explored both. Lifelong hikers, they have enjoyed Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Arizona’s Sabino Canyon, Watkins Glen in New York, and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. For the past three years, they’ve “wintered over” in Picacho Hills, looking toward the time they can make Las Cruces their permanent home. Like lots of outdoor-loving folk, the Mayurics take the time to learn about the places they explore. In this region, they’ve learned that Picacho Peak, just northwest of Las Cruces, and Kilbourne Hole, 25 miles southwest of town, both began life millions of years ago, as layered sediments at the bottom of an inland sea. Long after the sea drained, the continents drifted. The Pacific plate ground against the North American plate, tearing apart the Southwest like fingers in a hand. As the fingers slowly spread, the Rio Grande Rift formed from beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It spread south into central Chihuahua and became an active geological formation—second in size only to the San Andreas Fault. About 30 million years ago, magma intruded beneath the layers of sandstone, siltstone, and shale, squeezing up like toothpaste oozing from a tube and forming the 2000-foot-tall dome locals now know as Picacho Peak.
As the peak eroded to its current 700-foot height, rhyolite—volcanic rock rich in quartz and feldspar—rose to the surface. Later, about 100,000 years ago, magma once again pushed up beneath the land. When it reached groundwater, the water flashed into steam beneath rock layers hundreds of feet thick. With no means of releasing the pressure, the earth exploded, not once but in a series of horrific blasts, catapulting into the air upwards of 500 million cubic yards of rock and ash and leaving behind the mile-long craterwe call Kilbourne Hole.
The Bureau of Land Management has designated Picacho Peak as a recreation area with three well-defined trails: one carries hikers to the summit, one is a loop around the mountain, and the third takes hikers into north Box Canyon. Trail lengths range from a mile-and-a-half up to six miles. While in residence here, the Mayurics climb Picacho Peak at least once a week. Jim says, “We never get tired of hiking to the top. The view is spectacular.” The summit is nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, putting it about 1,000 feet above Las Cruces. The climb ascends the south side of the mountain, past bright orange and tan sedimentary rock formations, boulders pocked like Swiss cheese with vesicles indicative of gas bubbles trapped in taffy-like magma, and even—for the very observant—petrified logs. This was, were exchanged for mules better equipped to traverse through the rocky, three-and-a-half mile canyon up onto the west mesa. Eastbound coaches apparently used a road on the south side of the mountain, breaking through a shorter route down slippery sand hills. Polly says, “We absolutely love the wide open spaces of hiking in the desert and mountains of New Mexico. In the Northeast we’re lucky to be able to see a mile or so in any direction; the views are always obstructed by hills or valleys or trees. But in New Mexico we can see forever…and when we get on top of a mountain we can even see a little past forever!”
Kilbourne Hole is a maar volcano, meaning it blew out a crater rather than forming a cone. The Mayurics hiked the crater with a retired University of Wisconsin geology professor. They got quite an education. “It was amazing,” Jim says. The edge of the 300-foot-deep crater is lined with rhyolite, a rock similar to granite but without the iron and magnesium. As the intruding molten after all, near the shore of an inland sea 250 million years ago, so they say. There are many varieties of wild flowers, some common to the desert, and some unusual, like the pink blossoms on a claret- cup cactus. On top, the Mayurics—like all who summit the peak—enjoy the 180-degree vista of the Mesilla Valley from Leasburg Dam all the way to Mesquite against the backdrop of the Organ and San Andreas Mountains. Turn around, and it’s a stunning expanse of desert broken by the Sleeping Lady Hills, the Sierra de las Uvas, and, in the distance, the Floridas near Deming. Along the canyon trail, hikers ply the same path taken by the Butterfield Overland Mail coaches from 1857 to 1861. Coaches left Mesilla for Picacho rock cooled, it crystalized into what is called columnar jointing. Today, much of it appears like irregular, octagonal-sided charcoal pencils, as if waiting for a giant artist to pluck one for sketching. The sides of Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower show the columnar rock much more clearly. There’s a dune ridge on the downwind side of the crater to the southeast. The wind has eroded and sculpted deep layers of soft, crusty welded ash as if someone took an awl and scribed fascinating designs. Below this lies a five- to eight-foot-thick layer of dark lava, and below that, reddish-brown dirt. This bottom layer is sand, clay, and silt geologists call the Camp Rice Formation, laid down about five million years ago. Interesting sites at Kilbourne Hole include the volcano bombs, remnants of debris shot out during its genesis. Ranging in size from golf balls to watermelons, volcano bombs look like any other rock—dull black to brown on the surface. Inside, however, the bomb reveals a collection of lime-green olivine crystals or peridot, if it’s gem quality. They appear much like pomegranates, only with far more seeds crammed closer together. While he was in the bottom of the crater, Jim says, “I filled a bag with a dozen or so prime-looking bombs to bring back to Pennsylvania. After struggling to climb back up the steep sides, I finally made it to within a hundred feet of the rim. Then my bag of prized bombs broke open, and I watched them roll back down to the bottom where they started from.” Thus are the exigencies and vicissitudes of hiking New Mexico. Still, he adds, “We truly love the solitude and peace of hiking in the desert.” Picacho Peak and Kilbourne Hole were two recent hikes for Jim and Polly Mayuric, but when asked about their favorite, Polly answers, “The last one we took. In other words, we love each and every one and look forward to the next.”
- From West Picacho Avenue (U.S.70)
- Right on Picacho Hills Drive
- Bear left onto Barcelona Ridge Road
- Right on Anthem Road
- Right onto Picacho Mountain Loop Road
- When the pavement ends, drive 0.8 mile
- Take right fork to Picacho Peak Recreation Area
- Trailhead is at the parking area
From Interstate 10
- Take Exit 155, Vado
- Go west on NM 227
- Left at NM 478
- Right on NM 189
- Left on NM 28
- Right on West Afton Road
- Go past Public Service Company of New Mexico gas transmission plant
- Afton Road makes a sharp bend to left and then to right
- When it ends just before the Union Pacific Railroad turn left, drive 200 yards, and cross the tracks.
- Be careful. Tracks are busy. Crossing is unguarded.
- Turn left on A-017 a graded county dirt road.
- Turn right on A-011.
- If you pass the railroad ballast piles on the right, you’ve gone too far.
- Drive 8.5 miles.
- When you see the long dune ridgeto the north, you’ve arrived..
- Continue past the dunes and find one of the tracks heading north the last quartermile to the crater.