INTIMIDATING, SHARP PINK BLUFFS FACE the trailhead, but the path wraps around to follow a sloping ridgeline. Rob Selina brought me here because it’s his favorite hike, and likely for sentimental reasons too: As the “head wrangler” for Socorro Trails, he helped build it.

We follow the new Descansos Trail, a two-mile trek that threads among red boulders and cholla, prickly pear, junipers, and tawny yellow grasses. Some of it shadows a previous informal trail but with the dirt better tamped down and the route steered away from wildlife habitat and archaeological sites. It is part of about 10 miles of trails added to the Socorro area since 2021.

When Selina brought a youth corps trail crew out here, they had a “You want what?” response to some of the rock moving and dirt work required. But at the end of the day, they were strutting around like nothing was impossible. “I’m happy,” Selina says, noting where dirt now bears the imprints of shoe treads or bike tires. “Lots of tracks.”

Hikers trek along the Descansos Trail.

Treads aren’t his only measure of success. He’s also checked the Strava fitness app and seen this trail’s use skyrocket. The city of Socorro—which means “aid” or “help” in Spanish, after a 1598 Spanish colonial expedition stopped at the nearby Piro Pueblo and received much-needed corn—is leaning in as well, dialing in access, safety, and awareness. Work is underway on federal and state lands to formalize and publicize the growing number of trail miles around town, which access diverse environments ranging from the riverside bosque to alpine aspen groves. People are catching on, driving the quick hour from Albuquerque or from out of state to run, rock climb, bike, hike, and connect with the local landscape. Once in town, reasons to linger emerge, like exploring the growing craft brewery and music scenes—or even the known universe.

“The beauty of it is, I think most of it arose organically,” says Dezirae Armijo, tourism director for the city of Socorro. “More and more people have started to realize that Socorro does have these outdoor recreation opportunities, and now we’re just working on getting them to be more accessible and safer.”

Rob Selina with his dog, Kona.

AS WE CLIMB THE RIDGE, A HORSE WHINNIES from a ranch below and the train horn blows from town, both totems of Socorro’s agricultural and mining importance as a once busy stop on the Santa Fe Railway. Selina leads the way to the summit of Gramont Peak, where a wooden sign boasts an elevation of 6,049 feet. That’s not even half the height the planned network will climb in 25 miles of trails from the rodeo grounds just outside town to the tallest peak in the Magdalena Mountains, South Baldy. For that matter, Selina says, trails here could connect to the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 770-mile loop through Arizona and New Mexico or the under-construction Río Grande Trail, a 500-mile route that parallels the river across the state.

The mileage and elevation gain contribute to a budding ultra-running scene in Socorro and lure mountain bikers interested in cruising downhill after a car shuttle drop-off in the peaks. Environmental surveys and scoping are expected to begin this year on the eight miles needed to link the trail we hike to those shadowing nearly every ridgeline in the elevations above.

As we return to the trailhead, a trio of hikers shoulder daypacks.

“Hey, Rob,” one of them calls. “What’s the best way to get this trail map on my phone?”

Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge covers four different biomes.

He talks the hiker through the tech and the route ahead. Trail signs are finally starting to appear, but people are still getting acquainted. A mountain biker starts to pedal away, skewing slightly off-trail, and Selina jogs uphill after him to point out the new path.

The week after my visit, Selina and more than two dozen volunteers took shovels to the ground for work on another set of trails, carving stacked loops onto a black-rock-banded mesa west of town. And this is all just the non-motorized network.

Across the Río Grande, the Bureau of Land Management has been improving a network of roads and trails for off-highway vehicles (OHVs), dirt bikes, and Jeeps at Johnson (Gordy’s) Hill. Riders whip along sandy paths that traverse canyons and limestone bluffs, stemming off the main corridor of the Quebradas Backcountry Byway, a 24-mile dirt road that threads between the Sevilleta and Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuges.

The previous afternoon, I’d meandered canyons in the Box Recreation Area, just below the ridgeline Selina and I hiked. Ropes dangled down the cliff face as rock climbers yo-yoed routes. One climber called the sun-drenched face “toasty,” the radiant heat allowing for a late winter climbing day in just a long-sleeved shirt, but it’s possible to chase shade along five cliff faces and climb here in summer too. The cliffs glowed in late-day light, and lime-green lichen flashed nearly iridescent.

A man and woman from Colorado were out along a bulge of reddish volcanic rock that hung over the sandy stream bed. He was working out one of the bouldering “problems,” as puzzle-like bouldering routes are called, piecing together how to move along the band of pockets and finger-width ledges. She had a camp chair parked in the last sunlight, recovering after running a 53K (31.7-mile) trail race through the Chihuahuan Desert that morning. How was it? “Beautiful,” she says. It was the second time in six months they’d driven south, seeking a shift in seasons and quieter trails.

Paula Sims and David Chavez own Box Canyon Brewing Co.

WHAT THE COUPLE ALSO FOUND—AND WHAT I encounter over a couple of days—is a place that seems to be brimming with people who adore their small town. At Box Canyon Brewing Company, David Chavez, one of the owners and lead brewers, pours a pint and leans over to ask how I like it. As I sip the porter with strong peanut-butter-cookie notes, he laughs. “I kind of went crazy with the peanut butter,” he says.

Tables are crowded as musician Peter Chase draws fellow musicians onto the stage. Soon it’s not just him and his guitar, but mandolin, bass, and fiddle players as well. He mentions a recent Albuquerque Journal story in which a musician talked up the well-kept secret of Socorro’s robust music scene. “And I’m going, ‘Shut up!’ ” Chase says. “Next thing you know, all these singer-songwriters from Albuquerque will be coming down here.”

The joke is funnier when you know Chase is one of those singer-songwriters. People linger after his set finishes, chatting as they click instruments away into cases. It’s true, Chavez tells me, there’s a little-known but blooming art and music scene around town. That’s part of what drew him and his wife to Socorro, where they opened Box Canyon in late 2022.

A colorful display at NM Tech’s Mineral Museum.

Last year, Baca House Brewing Company also joined the party, bringing a menu of burgers and pizzas and a to-die-for patio primed for sipping through summer evenings under bistro lights and a canopy of trees. The longtimer in town, Capitol Bar & Brewery opened as a saloon in 1896 and began brewing beer in 2021. Neon now illuminates the historic bar top and pool tables.

While it’s a college town—New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology’s campus of prim maroon-trimmed cream buildings lines the western edge—the Box Canyon crowd is made up more of faculty and longtime residents.

The New Mexico Tech campus also houses the Mineral Museum, where glass cases display jumbled blocks of magnetite, translucent blue squares of halite and sylvite, yellow-flaked uranium deposits, a lacy spread of copper, and samples of the state’s iconic turquoise. Artifacts once used to dig them out of the ground, like oil lamps and blasting caps, and traces of mining history from across the state are also on view.

Visitors check out an optical telescope on the Very Large Array group tour.

In some ways, Socorro feels like a spot for pondering earthly wonders. But just beyond the curved corners of the Magdalena Mountains, pinyon and juniper forest open into the grassy Plains of San Agustin, spotted with 28 white radio antennae. The Very Large Array scans the universe for radio signals from other galaxies, nebulae birthing stars, and even black holes in efforts to unravel the secrets of the universe.

At its widest layout, the VLA covers nearly 23 miles, but early this year, it covered just two miles. (Moving from one arrangement to the next requires a custom-built rail line and up to two weeks.) The smaller the configuration, the bigger area it can focus on, stretching at its widest to view 80 percent of the sky.

“You can think about it like zooming in and out,” explains a tour guide leading our group on a Saturday afternoon. “There’s a lot more math involved than that, but you can think about it that way.”

The VLA welcomes visitors seven days a week.

As we walk out to one antenna, chins tip up at the two-story staircases used to access the center of the 82-foot dish. Inside the operations building, where the tour regroups on a balcony for a bigger picture view of one of the largest deep-space tools on the continent, an on-site supercomputer processes data as it comes in. A new partnership with the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) allows that organization’s supercomputer to review the same data stream. This added search for an answer to whether we’re alone in the universe brings the plot points of the 1997 movie Contact, filmed in part at the VLA and starring Jodie Foster, a little closer to reality.

Now 50 years old, the VLA is on the cusp of completing a major research project. The Very Large Array Sky Survey (VLASS) is a seven-year sky-scanning effort that has found more than 2,000 new radio sources worthy of further inspection.

The VLA works on radio frequencies, which are outside the spectrum of wavelengths visible to the human eye, but those signals are translated to images for the sake of our understanding. For now, the pictures scientists can render come in as just fuzzy dots. But planning is underway for the “next generation VLA,” which will involve 263 antennae, spread into nearby states and Mexico, increasing the resolution by 100 times. A prototype will be installed late this year to face its first significant test: New Mexico’s weather.

What the prototype will enjoy is what we all do—clear, crisp air that allows for sharp stars by night and bright blue skies by day, and a distance from major cities that allows for exploring an outdoors that feels untrammeled, even if the trails are a little better tracked into the ground now.

Read more: Wanita Jones went from waitress to owner of El Camino Family Restaurant.

El Camino Restaurant serves classic eats.



Eat. Grab coffee, espresso, pastries, or bagel sandwiches from Que Suave Café. Breakfast and lunch burritos can be snagged quickly from the drive-thru at Sofia’s Kitchen, or park yourself at a table and inspect a mural while a burger makes its way to you. El Camino Restaurant plates classic New Mexican dishes and three-egg omelets worth skipping lunch for. Pub-crawl through downtown (seriously, they’re almost close enough to crawl from one to the next) at Box Canyon Brewing Company, Capitol Bar & Brewery, and Baca House Brewing Company, all near the plaza.

Shop. Rockhounds often share discoveries with the Mineral Museum at New Mexico Tech, and the sale of the glittery finds helps fund the museum. Shop the cases at the museum or the publication store across the hall. Check San Miguel Pottery Land for clay pots and all your green-alien-statue needs. Browse stained glass and ironwork art at Casa de Regalos gift shop on the plaza.

Stay. Camp at the base of the Magdalena Mountains at the Cibola National Forest’s Water Canyon Campground, which tucks into the pines. Established campsites are also scattered through the BLM lands near the Box. Not keen to sleep on the ground? Try the Lone Pine Inn, a converted lumber and hardware store off California Street that’s booked through Airbnb.

Do more. Trails loop through Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, where even a quick stop on the quarter-mile paved Wildflower Loop can afford a little schooling on native plants, like one-seed juniper and soapweed yucca, and a chance to watch a quail rustle under a four-wing saltbush. Sandhill cranes and other birds winter over at the wetlands found in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge along the Río Grande, but in summer, watch for hummingbirds and egrets among blooming wildflowers.