PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS CLINGS TO the mountainside overhanging the two-track road. So when the passenger-side wheels of our Polaris RZR jump a ledge, we teeter left, bringing my driver’s face dangerously close to the spiny pads. Climbing the road burned into a natural shelf, the two-seat off-road vehicle’s tires grip sharply chunked rock while the suspension absorbs bigger protrusions. Still, I look ahead rather than into the gorge on my right and notice that nearly all the contours of the Caballo Mountains are textured with visible rock layers and divided by flood-carved chasms.
“That slab was the size of an ice chest!” one of our companions exclaims, high-fiving my driver, Edna Trager, once she putters to the end of the shelf road. From the passenger seat, I see her smile in response.
We only pause briefly before tipping downhill through Palomas Gap—the hum of 1,000 horsepower turning to the squeal of dusty brakes—traversing the rangeland east of the Caballos and rumbling to the summit of Timber Mountain.
New Mexico’s largest lake shines blue while clouds cast shadows over the desert 3,400 feet below us. The Río Grande curves around the 32-mile-long range we just bisected in our OHVs. Surrounded by communications towers, we soak in 360-degree views of the Río Grande Valley, Jornada del Muerto, and San Andres Mountains. Taking advantage of the elevation, we also locate the tiny haven of Elephant Butte—best known as home of the 40,000-acre Elephant Butte Lake State Park. “Lots of people know about our lake but don’t realize there’s a city here, too,” says Trager, who has held elected offices in the town since 2015.
A destination for recreational boating almost since the completion of Engle Dam created the then-largest reservoir in the world in 1916, the city is afloat in watercraft dealerships and rental operations, bait and tackle shops, and fishing guide services. But thanks to organizations like Friends of Elephant Butte Lake State Park and the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance, the town of less than 1,600 residents is pushing to diversify its outdoor recreation opportunities for hiking, biking, and driving all types of off-road vehicles while capitalizing on its historic charm, award-winning golf course, and nearby public lands.
Building on the region’s strengths means involving the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to improve how trails are mapped and marked while working closely with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to promote responsible recreation. Allies are also lobbying at the state level to conduct studies on OHV recreation and change the laws about which roads can be legally used by off-highway vehicles.
“The New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division was dismissing OHVs,” says Roger Pattison, one of my guides. “They’re coming back around because they’re realizing what an [economic] impact it is.”
I GREW UP TUBING BEHIND A MOTORBOAT on Elephant Butte Lake and watching the state park’s Independence Day Fireworks Extravaganza from a houseboat’s top deck. More recently, I’ve let my daughter dig in its natural sand beach and toted her around its shallowest coves on our stand-up paddleboard. But I’m just now exploring the area’s attractions found on dry land.
Pattison was initially drawn here in 2013 for the nonprofit New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance’s Rubber Chicken Ride for dual-sport motorcyclists. Having worked to repair the reputation of OHVers after bad actors wrecked cultural sites and trespassed habitually, NMOHVA is now demonstrating that off-highway recreation can be a healthy activity and is working with land managers to harness grants for trail maintenance and infrastructure.
“I fell in love with the remote terrain,” admits Pattison, who moved to Elephant Butte from northern New Mexico for year-round riding and even opened a short-lived OHV rental operation in 2021.
He starts the introduction to Elephant Butte’s off-road scene at the municipal offices, where he has gathered Trager and Charlie Warren, a Friends of Elephant Butte Lake State Park board member. “This town has a history of recreation-based economy and saw the new popularity of OHVs as an opportunity,” Pattison says. In fact, while the town was only incorporated in 1998, it was among the first municipalities in the state to permit OHVs within city limits.
“Elephant Butte is unique because it’s adjacent to public land,” he says. “Off-roaders can legally park in town, unload their vehicle, drive to BLM land, and ride for days or weeks without running out of new trails.”
Word spread faster than a lead-footed driver. In February 2021, the Elks Club promoted a breakfast ride-in and cooked for 120. “When 500 OHVers came through, everyone realized how popular the area had become for riding,” he says.
Pattison points to a gravel lot across the street. The property is designated as an OHV trailhead and training area, where drivers can leave their trailers and dry camp and eventually learn technical skills, safety practices, and the rules of responsible trail riding. Elephant Butte is working to designate BLM access points, assign in-town trailheads, and identify connecting routes, ultimately producing a map. Until then, many depend on Polaris’s Ride Command app, which displays a curated set of legal trails. One rule of thumb is to stay on existing roads.
Planning our route, the group decides to hit the dirt at Turtleback Avenue near a popular put-in for float trips, finish at “the rock”—a 40-degree incline along a 20-foot stretch of slick rock that makes it feel like a 70-degree slope—and return to Elephant Butte. After driving parallel to the river for a while, we cross into a BLM tract, turn east, and stop at the top of sand dunes. These unnamed, unmapped steeps at the base of Turtleback Mountain challenge daring OHV drivers as well as runners in the 50K Desert Ultra.
Steering south, we come upon a caravan of Jeeps led by Las Cruces Four Wheel Drive Club member Ernie Armijo, who hails from Las Palomas, about 12 miles south of Elephant Butte. Today, he’s in a stock Jeep Cherokee. As the club’s extreme- and hard- trail coordinator, Armijo leads more technical rides in his crawler. He also maintains BLM trails and practices good etiquette, like letting our RZRs pass.
“These mountains never get old,” he says. “The area has such a wide range of trails, from mild to wild.”
BIKES—BOTH PEDAL-POWERED AND MOTORIZED—are even more nimble than side-by-sides. Pattison guided 100 adventure bikers through Elephant Butte’s terrain during the Backcountry Discovery Route season kickoff ride this past spring. Designed for the fastest-growing segment of motorcyclists, the 80 percent dirt route begins in Dell City, Texas, and winds more than 1,200 miles through Carrizozo, Elephant Butte, the Gila National Forest, Cuba, Abiquiú, and eventually into Colorado.
“One focus is creating similar connective routes that are legally usable in side-by-sides, which aren’t allowed on most state highways,” Pattison says.
Trager, who co-owns Zia Kayak and sits on the board of endeavOR, the state’s outdoor recreation business alliance, understands the value of the outdoors in a deeply personal way. Having lived in California for almost four decades, she confesses that she was drawn back to her home state after one particularly stressful experience in Burbank traffic. Being behind the wheel of an OHV in Elephant Butte hits different than navigating a West Coast interstate.
While we ride, she even clues me into one of her favorite fishing spots: Ash Canyon. Not far from that sleepy cove, the trail bends vertically, but Trager barely hits the brakes on our side-by-side. Warren and Pattison watch as she coolly sends “the rock” and its treacherous slope.
Over a Chupacabra Burger at Bigfoot Restaurant and drinks from Truth or Consequences Brewing, Trager invites me back to Elephant Butte for the holiday favorite Luminaria Beachwalk, Warren introduces me to his better half, and Pattison urges me to get in the driver’s seat next time.
“If you can drive a car, you can drive one of these vehicles,” Pattison says. “If it looks scary to you, don’t do it.”
Stay. With 173 developed campsites, Elephant Butte Lake State Park also allows primitive beach camping. Just outside the park entrance is the Marina Suites Motel and the nearby Elephant Butte Lake RV Resort’s 140 full hookup sites. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the historic Dam Site on the Bureau of Reclamation side of the reservoir features a campground, hotel, RV park, and 1940s casitas near Lago Rico marina.
Refresh. Sip cocktails crafted with New Mexico spirits around the firepit at Bigfoot Restaurant. Spend sunset on the deck of Turtleback Taphouse and Grill. At Casa Taco, savor hand-pressed, fresh masa tortillas, deep-fried and stuffed with pork adovada.
Explore. Buy or rent paddling gear from Zia Kayak. Marina del Sur is the place to rent pontoons. By appointment, Capt D’s JetSkis offers full- and half-day rentals. Book a guided fishing trip with Land of Enchantment Fishing & Hunting Adventures or T3 Adventures, which partners with nonprofit Operation Phoenix Outdoors to get veterans, active-duty service people, and first responders into nature. Charter a fully rigged boat from Bent Rod’s Guide Services. Hike the 1.5-mile Luchini Trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park. The city’s multiuse path connects with state park trails and is designated as part of the Rio Grande Trail. Morning Star Outfitters, in Truth or Consequences, offers e-bike and mountain bike rentals.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Elephant Butte Lake State Park has planned the Independence Day Fireworks Extravaganza for July 1 and offers regular boating safety courses.
Take to the skies at the Elephant Butte Balloon Regatta August 4–6.
The New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance is working to restart its annual Rubber Chicken Ride this October.
Run the foothills of the Caballo Mountains in the Truth or Consequences Desert Ultra October 28.
Start the holidays magically with the Elephant Butte Luminaria Beachwalk December 9.
Zia Kayak’s Kayak Fishing Tournament enters its 10th year in May 2024.