In the waning years of the 16th century, Spanish explorers traversing the vast expanses of the desert Southwest reported seeing mountain slopes covered with a dazzling display of flowers southeast of present-day Deming. That sighting gave rise to the naming of two mountain ranges, later depicted on a 1762 map, as the Sierras Floridas, or Flower Mountains. On a springtime trip a couple of years ago to the border towns of Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Mexico, I too witnessed the stunning display of Arizona poppies covering the western slopes of the distant Big Florida Mountains, not knowing exactly what I was seeing. After my recent visit to Rockhound State Park, which encompasses much of the Big and Little Floridas, I have been enlightened.
The state park, roughly 13 miles from Deming, is composed of two separate units: the 349-acre Rockhound State Park that opened in 1966 and the 576-acre Spring Canyon area just down the road, established in 1979. A stucco visitors center greets new arrivals to the former, where a hillside campground with 29 sites offers overnight camping. The more mountainous and picturesque SpringCanyon is a day use-only park featuring dozens of picnic shelters and two popular hiking trails — the one-mile Spring Canyon Trail and longer, more demanding Lover’s Leap Trail. Both state park units offer scenic vistas from mountain trails, interesting desert flora, and diverse wildlife that includes more than 100 recorded bird species, and atypical mix of snakes and mammals.
The most unusual critters to be found here are Persian exotic mountain goats native to Iran which were introduced to the area in the1970s. Be sure to pack a pair of binoculars to perhaps catch a glimpse of the ibex traversing the rocky mountain ledges. As the park name suggests, rockhounds by the thousands visit each year to scour the mountain washes for jasper, agates, opals, and other semi-precious stones. Rockhound state park is renowned for its geodes and thundereggs, spherical metamorphic rocks that when cut open can reveal quartz crystals and other mineral treasures within, such as agate, jasper, opal, and onyx. Rock and mineral collecting is encouraged at Rockhound State Park, one of only two state parks in the nation where the practice is permitted, but prohibited in SpringCanyon.Not all who visit the park, which features elevations ranging from 4,500 to 6,000 feet, are rock collectors.
Travelers from as far away as Canada and throughout the United States use the state park as an overnight stop due to its proximity to Interstate 10.“Being close to the interstate, we get lots of snowbirds and other folks traveling through who want to stay in a state park rather than in an RV campground where you’re parked right next to each other,” says park manager RobertApodaca, who took over operations in 2008.“We offer a bit more privacy and some pretty good prices. “The entry fee is $5 per motor vehicle and$15 for buses. Camping fees run from $10 for developed sites to $14 for developed sites with electricity. There is also a group shelter that rents for $30 per day. Five of the 29 campsites can be reserved through Reserve America, while the rest are first-come, first-served. Robert praised the park’s friends group that maintains the native garden and labyrinth and hosts a number of special events throughout the year, including its major fundraiser, Desert Alive, the second weekend of April. Pristine dark skies draw stargazers to the park the third Saturday of the month during the spring for the Stars NParks series.
A special Saturday, March 14, star party also is planned. Park guests should take a few minutes to peruse the informative exhibits inside the visitor’s center to better understand the area’s natural and cultural history dating to 10,000B.C. Its fascinating geology was born 10million years ago during and after volcanic activity when the earth’s crust slipped up or down in a process called blocked faulting. Blocks that thrusted upward formed the BigFloridas, while sediment deposited during volcanic eruptions formed the Little Floridas. I found especially creative the display desert Grocery Store, showing a “menu” of what early desert dwellers might have eaten (rabbit stew with boiled acorns and a goosefoot leaf salad) and drunk (three-leaf sumac berry tea). I encountered some of the indigenous plant species, such as sotol, yucca, mesquite, and Mormon tea, during a short hike along the 1.1-mile Thunder EggTrail. I was awed by the views of the distant big Floridas and the campground below but impressed even more with the absolute silence and serenity that enveloped me on a perfectly still day. I had just enough time during my afternoon visit to follow the park manager’s suggestion to hike the Spring Canyon Trail in the companion park unit. I parked my truck and headed out on the 1.05-mile trail that begins at 5,200 feet elevation with almost an hour before the gates closed at 4 p.m. Thetwisting, rocky trail, which ascends 500 feet up one side of the canyon, proved to be an endurance challenge I hadn’t quite counted on. I figured I was just shy of reachingthe spring at the trail’s end when I had toretrace my steps to beat closing time. Lesson learned. I vowed to return again when I have more time to complete the trek