Written and photography by Bud Russo
If you live in the Mesilla Valley, you see them every day, although you might not pay them any attention. They are Las Cruces’ signature landmark. I’m speaking of the Organ Mountains. To most people, they’re just mountains. But if you haven’t traveled throughout New Mexico, you might not appreciate how unique they are. Over the past 15 years as I’ve traveled the state, I’ve taken time to observe various mountain ranges. There are no others like our Organs. You might wonder how they came to look the way they do. New Mexico has a long geologic history. The oldest rock in the state is two billion years old. Our land has undergone many changes, as lava has flowed over it. At several times, it was submerged in shallow, warm inland seas. Several mountain ranges have formed and worn away long before the Organs came to be.
About 32 million years ago, in the middle of the Tertiary Period, magma began to ooze from depth. Some of it remained beneath the surface and cooled into the granite we see today forming the jagged needles. South of The Needles, the mountains are reddish brown rhyolite, the result of lava exploding over the surface, along with boulders and ash.
La Cueva in the Dripping Springs Recreation Area is a prime example of welded ash. Then, 15 million years ago, the earth cracked, forming the Rio Grande Rift. The land from El Paso to central New Mexico tilted in what geologists call basin and range formations. Take a look at the San Andreas. You’ll note a very steep face on the east side and a gentler slope on the west. The Organs are different. The buried hard rock bulged upward and wore away to form the sight we see today. Our mountains could have been named anything. So how did they come to be called Organs? Most people accept they were named by passing Spanish colonists who thought they looked like a pipe organ. They were first documented in 1598 when Don Juan de Oñate noted them during his maiden trek over El Camino Real. In 1935, New Mexico School of Mines published The Geology of the Organ Mountains. The authors question what part of the range resembles a pipe organ. They say, Professor G.A. Feather suggested an alternative theory, “Namely the mountains were formerly inhabited by a tribe of Indians whom the Spaniards called ‘los Orejones’ (referring to their gnarled and wrinkled faces). Their name was applied to the mountains, becoming corrupted to ‘los Organos’ in the course of time.” We’ll never know for sure.
None of the people who named the mountains is available for interview. The arrival of the railroad in Las Cruces stimulated prospecting in the mountains.
Miners needed a heavy conveyance to transport ore to smelters. They dug mines and removed lead, zinc, copper, silver, gold, and fluorspar, a mineral used as a flux to reduce melting points of silicates for glass and also metals. The Modoc Lead Mine, a 700-footdeep shaft at the foot of Fillmore Canyon just east of La Cueva, was worked until 1917, producing about $200,000 of lead ore. That’s about $4 million in today’s dollars. By 1900, most large orebodies had been discovered. Mining activity peaked in the early 20th century and all but ceased by 1935. Currently, there are five inactive mines in the Organs, bearing names that must have interesting stories: Poor Man’s Mine, Torpedo Mine, Ruby Mine, and Stephenson-Bennett Mine. From time to time, mining companies evaluate the economic feasibility of digging in the Organ Mountains. That’s perhaps one reason New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, one of the lead conservation organizations, worked to establish the Organ Mountain – Desert Peaks National Monument in 2014. “The Organ Mountains are a world-class resource we need to protect and showcase,” says Jeff Steinborn, New Mexico state senator and one of the people instrumental to getting national monument status for the mountains, along with other wild lands. “The national monument protects the land and its resources from unwanted development and careless abuse,” he adds. “It creates a sustainable economic development opportunity, contributing to Las Cruces’ quality of life, as well as protecting local flora and fauna, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.” Senator Steinborn says visitation to the area has doubled since the monument was established, bringing people from other states and other countries to pursue multiple recreational activities available in the Organs.
There are trails to explore, opportunities to add to bird watching life lists, medicinal herbs and plants, and numerous wildflowers to identify and enjoy. There’s history in the Organs, besides the use of La Cueva by indigenous people and the famous hermit Juan Maria Agostini. Eugene von Patten built his resort at Dripping Springs, a getaway from summer heat in the valley. Later, Dr. Nathan Boyd operated a sanitarium for tubercular patients. The remnants of both are there for visitors to see. If you’ve picnicked, camped, or hiked trails at Dripping Springs and Aguirre Spring, walked Baylor Canyon or Soledad Canyon, you’ve enjoyed the pleasure of New Mexico’s amazing out-of-doors. Yet, despite the well-developed recreation areas, the Organs constitute a rugged, back-country terrain that demands vigilance.
According to John Taylor, team captain of the Organ Mountain Technical Rescue Services (OMTRS), people shouldn’t take the apparent ease of accessing the areas for granted. He knows what he’s talking about. OMTRS was founded in 2003 to rescue a climber who had fallen off the backside of The Needles. It took nearly a week. OMTRS’ mission is extracting people who get stuck or injured in rugged areas. An allvolunteer organization, it currently has 38 members. “All very fit and capable of going long distances in rough terrain,” John says. “Almost all have a love of the outdoors and the mountains, and all of them want to be part of something bigger than themselves.” John adds, they are always looking for new members. Check out their web site — omtrs.dreamhosters.com. Safe excursions in the various canyons and trails of the Organs don’t require special training, but they do demand some preparation. John suggests people take what he calls the Ten Essentials.
In a day pack, he advises, pack water (more than you think you’ll need), high-energy snacks, two sources of light (headlamp and flashlight), a way to start a campfire, compass, map, extra clothing, first aid kit, knife, and protection from the sun. “You want to be able to survive 48 hours,” John says, “if you sprain an ankle, get lost, or run out of daylight.” Most of the developed trails are monitored by rangers, who are alerted by an unattended car when the areas close. But many people strike out on adventures that, with a bad decision, can lead them into trouble. It’s always good to follow the advice of the experts and be safe. The Organ Mountains offer Las Crucens a beautiful vista every day of the year. They also are a source of recreation and adventure. We should grateful: they won’t be here forever . . . just a lot longer than you or me.