If you take a look at the preceding image you will see a huge expanse of New Mexico desert, green from a rare period of frequent rains, and in the distance a shadowy hulk of a mountain. The mountain is a cluster of mountains called the Sierra Ladrones, the Outlaw Mountains, and they are about forty miles off in the distance from the camera.
These mountains are isolated from any other mountain range and are considered a “massif” in geologic terms. They sit like an island, complete unto themselves. Unlike many of the other local mountains, the Sierra Ladrones are not volcanic but are an up-thrust of Precambrian rock that somehow, through ancient tectonic movements, managed to rise above the surrounding surface and withstood erosional forces over the eons of time. Ladron Peak reaches 9,176 feet in elevation, some 4,000 feet higher than the Rio Grande valley to the east. Monte Negro, a secondary peak, rises to 7,572 feet. Most of this is Bureau of Land Manage land but Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge includes part of the southeastern slope. They are isolated -- that was probably great for the thieves and renegade Apache Indians who took refuge there generations ago.
I have been fascinated by the Sierra Ladrones and always look for them when I venture south from Albuquerque. They play hide and seek. Now you see them — now you don’t. That’s because of the terrain and the Interstate 25 highway route that follows the Rio Grande south to Socorro and Truth or Consequences…that’s where the people live, after all. Not many people live up near the Sierra Ladrones; only a few isolated ranches and a few ranchers running cattle on open range. It would be a hard place to raise a family, albeit a beautiful place. It seems to be a place where you finds “something” where there should be “nothing”.
On a whim, I decided to see if I could get close to the mountains and maybe find a way to get up into them…just the foothills. I’m no mountain climber or even an endurance hiker so it would depend on finding a road. After a little searching on Google and my highway map I found that Socorro County Road 12 would be the way to get close. There are a few webpage accounts of hikers and climbers venturing up into the mountains and there is a wilderness study area described on one webpage — CR 12 seemed to be the preferred route. This is an unpaved road running from Bernardo, past the “ghost” town of Riley to Magdalena, on US 60. The sign says it all.
The route out of Bernardo follows a portion of “old” Highway 60, or maybe “old” Highway 84 depending on the map. There’s not much there — a KOA campground and a rickety bridge over the Rio Puerco. This is the paved part…okay, mostly paved…but the pavement runs out just past the bridge where you take a hard right onto CR 12. You are pretty much on your own from here. I think I saw three ranch trucks all day until I got back close to the interstate.
The road is certainly unpaved and for much of the early portion it has a jarring wash-board surface that almost makes you want to turn around. Maybe that’s intentional to keep the faint-hearted folks out. After that it gets better and turns into a bumpy but reasonably well maintained dirt and gravel road.
This is mostly Bureau of Land Management public land. Some of it is fenced and some is just open range. I didn’t keep track of my mileage but after about five miles or so you encounter power lines. I lost track of the number of cattle guards I crossed but there were plenty. If you do see an approaching rancher’s truck you will see the dust long before you see the vehicle. There was always a wave.
I’ve said often enough that I have the curiosity of a fourth grader even though I’m almost sixty-seven. I can’t remember the last time I took a walk and didn’t find something that caught my interest. A lot of times my pockets are full of rocks or seeds or something that warrants closer attention. Sometimes I carry a small pocket-sized microscope. When I’m out walking I’m looking at plants and the geology, mostly. There are animal tracks and burrows and places where some unseen miniature life and death drama took place. Luckily, I’ve not yet encountered a rattlesnake…not yet. Mostly there were lizards, a few birds and a desert cottontail. The ground was desert sand and dust. It made me think of decomposed tuff or volcanic ash, probably blown in over the centuries from the ample number of ancient eruptions; New Mexico is full of old volcanoes. There is an active magma body under Socorro and Truth or Consequences that fuels the local hot springs. TorC is a spa town.
I paused at a dry arroyo but there was no exposed bedrock. About a third of the rocks I saw strewn around on the surface was milky quartz — sometimes an indicator of a nearby vein of some type of ore. Where I’m from I’ve seen that with a little silver and tungsten ore. There were also some nice examples of reddish feldspar-rich granite. I always wonder how these fist-sized rocks appear out of nowhere.
Some of the plants I know, like the Apache Plume growing wild through the area. They sell that as a popular ornamental and out here, left all alone; it looks healthier than in my yard. There was a woody, yellow-flowered bush that I didn’t recognize. It seemed to be full-grown at about three feet tall. Most prominent is the cholla forest stretching all the way to the mountain. Some were in bright red bloom and being visited by bees…who manage to survive out here somehow.
There doesn’t seem to be much available for cattle to eat or enough water to keep them alive. They seem to do quite well, anyway. I saw several young calves running through the cholla and a small “herd” staring at me on one of the tracks leading off of the county road.
As I said, I was out here wandering with no particular agenda or goal. I had no expectation of actually getting up into the mountains but was just looking for a possible route. I got a late start and it was well into the afternoon and I was twenty-some miles out on an unpaved road. It was a gorgeous day and it lifted my spirits…I’ve been a little glum lately.
From the higher elevation you can look back towards the Rio Grande valley and see the dark colors of the river-side bosque forest and the wetlands and across to Black Butte and the mountains beyond the valley. Cloud shadows are always changing the landscape. This part of the Rio Grande valley is a rift valley, originally several thousand feet deep but filled in by the encroaching desert sand.
Clouds were building by the late afternoon and it was time to head back home. The danger is more from lightning than from rain but there are some arroyos that would be subject to flash flooding. I’m satisfied that I’ll be able to continue this trip at a future date. There will probably be a part two at some point.
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