Southwest New Mexico

Southwestern New Mexico is the state's most diverse region, though not its most populous. It includes Las Cruces, second largest metropolitan area in the state; the Gila Wilderness, a vast roadless area popular with hikers; and a great deal of desolate territory near the border with Mexico.

Cities

Las Cruces, with the Organ Mountains as a backdrop

Other destinations

Understand

Southwest New Mexico map

For the purposes of this article, the southwestern region is bounded on the:

This is a geographically complex region that has a great deal in common with the basin-and-range country of Arizona and Nevada from a geological standpoint. Much of it is mountainous, with some comparatively recent volcanism in a few places. The combination of rugged terrain and low rainfall has limited the number and size of cities and towns here, except in the valley of the Rio Grande, which contains most of the region's population, including the comparatively large (population just over 100,000) community of Las Cruces.

Talk

English, although Spanish is the first language of some residents of the region. The presence of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, with a reasonable number of international students, means that your chances of running into people who speak other major European and Asian languages are better here than in some regions of the state.

Get in

The only airport in this region with scheduled commercial service is at Silver City, with extremely limited commuter service to Albuquerque and Phoenix. The nearest significant airports are in Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas. Interstate highway 25 passes through the region north-south from Albuquerque to its junction with I-10 at Las Cruces. Bus lines follow this route, with some digressions into small towns in the region, but service is generally fairly limited. Amtrak's Los Angeles - New Orleans Sunset Limited route passes through the region, stopping in Deming and Lordsburg.

Although the region has a long border with Mexico, (legal!) entry from Mexico is only possible at a few locations. The entries in the region itself are crossings at Santa Teresa in Doña Ana county and at Columbus in Luna county. Much more traffic enters from Juarez near El Paso and heads north from there. There are checkpoints along the major arteries from El Paso/Las Cruces where the Border Patrol may check for illegal immigrants, smuggled goods, etc. They generally don't hassle travelers on routine business; don't break any laws and you won't have any problems there.

Get around

Drive; there is little public transportation in the region except in Las Cruces. Most Interstate, US and state highways are routinely driveable year-round by all ordinary vehicles. However, SR 152, one of the main routes into Silver City and the attractive mountains around it, has a number of hairpin curves that are enervating for drivers of large recreational vehicles. If you're in an RV and bound for Silver, consider getting there via a different route.

See

Itineraries

The following two driving itineraries encompass much of the region and will give you a good taste of this part of the state.

Sandhill cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
The tiny settlement of Mogollon in the Gila National Forest

Do

In the Gila National Forest

Both the Gila Wilderness near Silver City and Organ Mountains near Las Cruces are great places for hiking and backpacking. Another excellent hiking place in this region is City of Rocks State Park, off NM 61 south of Silver City, where you can hike through rock formations similar to those of the better-known (and more extensive) Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. A rarity is Rock Hound State Park, near Deming via NM 11, in that this is a state park where you are encouraged to remove parts of the park -- specifically, samples of the several unusual-but-not-precious minerals found there; this park is best visited at times other than summer, when it's beastly hot.

When you're done hiking, go for a soak in a hot spring. The geologically recent volcanism that's widespread in this region has left a legacy of hydrothermal activity and a number of satisfactory hot springs, some developed, some in nearly pristine shape. Some hot springs in the region are:

Eat

Hatch chile peppers

Las Cruces is the only community in the region with a significant number and variety of restaurants (although Silver City also has a few), but there's one seasonal alternative that's not to be missed. The small town of Hatch, about 40 miles north of Las Cruces, is the chile-pepper capital of the United States, if not the world. Great fields of chiles surround the town, which becomes a major center of chile commerce in late summer and early fall, with a Chile Festival in early September. The tiny town can swell in size by a factor of ten or more (from 2,000 up to 30,000!) at festival time. If in the vicinity then, definitely go to the Festival and see how much spice you can handle. Shops in Hatch have chile paraphernalia at other times of the year.

Stay safe

This is not a high-crime area, with possible exceptions for Las Cruces and along the border. All of New Mexico has trouble with drunk drivers, but this region has perhaps fewer problems than some others, with one notable, localized, seasonal exception. Every fall, when students return to New Mexico State University, there are misfortunes when incoming students who are underage for drinking in the United States decide to take advantage of the lower drinking age in Mexico, make pilgrimages to nearby Juarez to indulge, and have alcohol-related accidents coming home. Be wary if driving on I-25 near Las Cruces, and on streets in the city itself, in the wee small hours of this time of year. Otherwise there are no unusual driving hazards apart from reduced visibility due to dust storms on the bleak stretch of I-10 between Las Cruces and the Arizona state line.

Most other weather-related hazards here have to do with sun and heat. When hiking or doing other outdoor recreation, take extra water (and drink it), use sunscreen, and wear a cap or hat, preferably one with a full brim. If driving, have water in the car, particularly if your vehicle is prone to overheating.

You may be a long way from help if your engine overheats (or if you do yourself), and cellular phone coverage in the region is spotty. When you're in the remote southwestern regions of the Gila, there can be long distances between gas stations and other visitor services, so plan ahead!

Go next

Two large cities lie just beyond this region: Albuquerque just to the north in the central portion of the state, and El Paso just to the south across the state line in Texas. To the west is Southeast Arizona, with its stark desert scenery and reminders of the Wild West, while to the east is Southeast New Mexico, with its famed white sands and deep caverns.

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