"I THINK THIS IS OUR SITE," I say to my friend as I pull the car up next to the number matching our reservation at City of Rocks State Park.
“That would be awesome if it is,” he replies.
A cluster of rock pillars ring a tent pad, picnic table, and, at a discreet distance, trash cans. It’s our private sanctuary for the night. As we walk into the alcove, well shaded from the late-afternoon sun, a raven swoops off one of the boulders. We set up a tent, break out the camp stove, and watch the sky around us turn pink as the sun sets. The face of Table Mountain glows orange as we cook dinner and settle in to watch the sky fill with stars.
We’ve come to City of Rocks as the first stop on a southern road trip through a few of New Mexico’s 35 state parks. “These parks are really a metaphor for New Mexico and the communities that they’re located in,” Toby Velasquez, New Mexico state parks director, told me earlier this year.
Found in 25 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, they span the gamut of experiences, with go-to fishing spots, iconic camping destinations, and places to better compass the state’s natural and human history. Covering more than 91,000 acres, they chart the stunning biodiversity and terrain of a state that sprawls from bristling Chihuahuan Desert, like in City of Rocks, to verdant Pecos River corridors cut through towering peaks, as in the newest state park, Pecos Canyon.
Since Covid-19 arrived, these parks and other outdoor destinations have seen booming interest as safer, family-friendly destinations. A road trip, Velasquez says, is the quintessential way to experience them. My sampler of southern New Mexico parks links geologic marvels with military history and, of course, includes a stop to string a hammock in some lakeshore cottonwoods and crack open a book—an any-speed, choose-your-own-adventure outing that I hope will help me better understand Velasquez’s points.
In the morning, the sun rises directly through the slot between two towers of rock hugging our City of Rocks campsite. We set off early on the 3.3-mile Hydra Trail, hiking rolling hillsides with views that sweep over the surrounding basins and the park’s namesake, an intriguing tangle of boulders and fins. With a stiff breeze buffering the 80-degree heat, we link up with the Table Mountain Trail and climb 500 feet in 1.5 miles to the plateau’s top, which overlooks the tiny metropolis of bulbous forms appearing almost out of nowhere.
The grand view is impressive. Mounds heap together into a single geography, a relic of an ancient, massive explosion 19 miles to the north that deposited a layer of tuff—volcanic ash—now carved into a playground.
Still, I find myself thinking back to the walk we took last night on a trail that threaded through the landscape city, bisecting the thickest part of the cluster. We passed wind-carved, sinuous squeezes, water-worn potholes, and creases where I could place one hand on either side of something that resembles the beginnings of a canyon. So often, we think about discovery on an epic scale, with wide vistas and massive undertakings. But on this road trip, I am reminded that discovery happens on a small scale, too, when you slow down and take a closer look at what’s underfoot.
AT ROCKHOUND STATE PARK, southeast of Deming, we stop in the visitor center to acquaint ourselves with what rocks we might be hounding. A park volunteer guides us through the maroon and purple chunks of jasper and sparkling agates, and explains the difference between thunder eggs (solid, glittering interiors) and geodes (hollowed, crystal-lined insides)—four or five of which we’ll be allowed to take home, provided we can find them.
She points us to the 1.5-mile trail around the rim of the park’s campground. “The farther you go from the trail, the more likely you are to find something,” she encourages.
In minutes, my hands are filled with treasures and possibilities, rocks with bits of burgundy and tiger stripes of orange, and one with the telltale bubbles that help you spot geodes. When I glance up from my quest, the craggy skyline of the Little Florida Mountains, dinner-plate-size paddles of prickly pears, and ravens and raptors coasting on the updrafts provide a surprising shift in the scale of wonders.
One thing Velasquez knows about parks: You get hooked on these places. “Once people discover these parks, they go back to them,” he says. Take Elephant Butte Lake State Park, which draws one million visitors a year—the state’s busiest park, with more than double the traffic seen at Navajo Lake State Park, the runner-up on the list. Boaters, campers, and anglers return year after year to cruise the lake and cast for bass and walleye.
Our road trip takes us, instead, to the state’s very southern edge, in what would count as downtown for the tiny town of Columbus. Pancho Villa State Park commemorates the last ground invasion of the United States, a March 1916 raid by the Mexican revolutionary for whom the park is named. Four Gambel’s quail bob through our campsite when we pull in—“like a welcoming party,” my friend says—and jackrabbits skip among the mesquite.
The park’s museum includes a video on the raid, featuring interviews with some of the town’s roughly 400 residents who describe the Mexican villistas sneaking into town, burning buildings, and firing so many bullets that they sounded like rain on the tin roofs of homes. It took most of a century to piece together the story, explains the volunteer staffer. But what we now know is that Francisco “Pancho” Villa, one of three men vying for control of his country during the 10-year Mexican Revolution, raided the town in search of weapons and supplies for his army, and in retaliation for the U.S. recognizing one of his competitors as the nation’s legitimate leader.
The site of that attack, which lasted mere hours, anchors the park, but the museum spends much of its time explaining the U.S. rebuttal. General John Pershing led the 500-mile “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico, a mission that proved to be a training ground for Army leaders in World Wars I and II and the Korean War.
The conflict also marked the end of the cavalry and the dawn of the Army using automobiles and airplanes. The museum features a 1916 Dodge touring car identical to the one Pershing used and a Curtiss JN-3 biplane, or Jenny, one of eight shipped by rail to Columbus and assembled on the spot. At the time, those eight planes were the entire U.S. air corps.
“Who knew?” we said to one another repeatedly over the plaques and maps. Indeed, who knew that so much potent history unfolded in this little, overlooked spot?
AFTER A STOPOVER at Sparky’s Burgers, BBQ & Espresso, in Hatch, for green chile cheeseburgers, we follow dirt roads into the primitive camping areas alongside beach-like stretches of sand at Caballo Lake State Park. People have popped up shade shelters, umbrellas, and camp chairs alongside coolers, fishing poles, and sandcastles. Some wade or swim into the wind-riffled water. The Caballo Mountains roughen
A great blue heron skims a stretch of rocky shoreline as we walk something like a path that’s been beaten by other feet in the loose rocks below the high-water line. After days in the desert, sinking our feet into the reservoir’s cool water, finding a flat rock, and sitting to watch the flicker of fish jumping offers a reprieve—and a fitting end to our journey.
As we watch, a grebe paddles by, then tucks its bill under the water’s surface and disappears for longer than I would want to hold my breath. It resurfaces yards away, a wonder I can only imagine—a bird swimming by the bass and bluegill, propelled through the water by its wings instead of the wind.