The first time I drove to Las Cruces, I drove east out of Tucson on I-10. Anyone who’s made this trip knows that once you’re about an hour outside of Tucson past Texas Canyon, the ground levels out, and you are in a wide expanse of desert with very little in the way of human civilization.
Short mountain ranges speckle the horizon. The Sonoran Desert transitions into the Chihuahua Desert. The altitude gradually climbs. The empty physical space allows an empty mental space, and it can be incredibly relaxing if you’re not in a rush.
For a stressed and tired driver though, the desert between Lordsburg and Las Cruces can be maddeningly vast and repetitive. Yellow brown stretches in every direction for miles, and the distance to the various mountains masks the driver’s speed.
Nevertheless when I reached Las Cruces the first time, I knew it. The road dipped, the highway embankments rose upward, and then — boom — there it was.
Las Cruces sits in a valley caused by the Rio Grande rift, and coming from the west, a driver descends into the city. If he arrives at night, he will be treated to the city twinkling under the desert sky. There’s farmland on the west beside the river, which gives the impression of an oasis, and then the city sits beyond that.
Beyond the city are the Organ Mountains, and in that first glimpse, they shaped so much of what Las Cruces means to me. They tower over both the city and even the western side of the valley to such a degree that an approaching driver doesn’t realize the presence of the valley at all since the Organs are visible from a great distance. Their actual height is only apparent once in the valley.
The Organs are such a dominant feature, that they appear in many of my outdoor photos of Las Cruces quite by accident. The peaks rise out of the east in Las Cruces in what appear to be narrow bands as if some giant had drug its fingers through the rock at their creation. This feature makes their appearance unlike nearly any other of the so-called “sky island” mountain ranges of the American southwest and is a reason for the range’s name (resembling a pipe organ and all).
With their proximity to the city, the Organs are also a beloved recreation spot. My wife and I have been on numerous hikes within and in the vicinity of the Organs. We’ve listened to the coyotes howl in the foothills. We had some of our wedding photos taken with the Organs as the backdrop. Besides their stunning beauty, there are little bits of history tucked away against the rocks. Old settlements that have been abandoned are now places to visit and learn about the history of the area.
The Organs have recently been in the news due to President Obama’s declaration of them as a national monument. This will offer the area new protections to preserve its natural beauty and rich historical and scientific resources. Citing some of those resources:
The area is home to a high diversity of animal life, including deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and other raptors as well as rare plants, some found nowhere else in the world, such as the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus. Hundreds of archeologically and culturally significant sites are found within the new monument, including some limited Paleo-Indian artifacts, extensive rock art sites and the ruins of a ten room pueblo, among other ancient dwellings. More recent history is memorialized with Geronimo’s Cave, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, and sites related to early Spanish explorers. The Organ and Doña Ana Mountains are popular recreation areas, with multiple hiking trails, a popular campground, and opportunities for hunting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and other recreation.
Congratulations, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico. The Organs are a fundamental and wonderful part of the experience there, and I’m so happy that they’re getting national attention and protection they deserve.