The New Mexico Rocky Mountains

Cloud formations and Rocky Mountains near the Border of New Mexico and Mexico | Laurin Rinder

Anytime someone mentions the Rocky Mountains, it is hard to not become immediately inundated with visions of majestic mountain peaks, covered with snow, looming above the world at such heights that it would be inappropriate to compare them to anything but heaven.

And yet, there is a stretch of the Southern Rocky Mountains that refuse to conform to these shared cultural images. Instead of jagged peaks, there are high alpine deserts, drift-blown dunes of desert sand, and rolling hills of pinon, juniper, and fragrant scrub oak. These are images that do not share those immediate cultural links … links that were no doubt cemented into our shared consciousness by a half-century of nature documentaries and glossy vacation postcards.

And yet, the most southern stretch of the Rocky Mountains has just as much a right to share in the claim, as it is most certainly part of the same continental system that formed the Mighty Mount Elbert in Colorado, or Mount Robson in British Columbia.

Truly, the New Mexican Rockies feature some of the most amazing high-desert landscapes on planet earth … closer in character and ecosystem to the mountains of the Middle East than to the Mountains of Colorado.

Glorious View Of Rio Grande, Sangre De Cristo And Black Mesa From White Rock Overlook | Silvio Ligutti

The Mystical Sangre de Christo Mountain Range

The Sangre De Christo Mountain Range is one of the southern-most ranges in the Rocky Mountain system, starting at Poncha Pass in Southern Colorado and extending south to Glorieta Pass near Albuquerque, New Mexico. This makes it one of the longest “sub-ranges” on the planet, and it also happens to be one of the youngest.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains At Sunset, Taos, New Mexico | Joseph Sohm

As local legend has it, “The Sangres” got their name from a dying priest who looked towards the mountains at sunset. This is when they get their characteristic red glow … a reflection of the amazing sunsets that occur in the wide, unobstructed West.

The Mountains of New Mexico

Night sky set against the Palisades in Cimarron Canyon State Park, New Mexico | Kenyon Gerbrandt

Just as the Sangres are a part of the larger Rocky Mountain system, there are several smaller mountain clusters that come together to make up the Sangres, and the bulk of these are in New Mexico. The Taos, Cimarron, and Santa Fe Mountains are all sub-systems that are part of the Sangre de Christos, though they all vary in height and terrain.

The highest point in New Mexico is Wheeler Peak, which is nestled in the Taos Mountains at 13,161 feet … noticeably lower in elevation than its Colorado counterparts. Lower elevations make for warmer temperatures and significantly less moisture, two things that in fact make this area a popular place to grab up some cheap land and grow old while watching sunsets.

The warmer temperatures of the Rocky Mountains means that they are a popular destination for early-spring hikers and backpackers. While there is never a whole lot of water to be found in New Mexico, the cooler temperatures of April and May are the perfect time to experience desert mountains in all their ancient glory.

Wheeler Peak Summit | William R. Phillips IV

Glorieta Pass: The Civil War in New Mexico

The southernmost point in the Rocky Mountains is located around Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Not only is this terminus an interesting geological feature as it marks the southern border of tectonic collision, but was also the stage of one of the least-known chapters of the American Civil War.

The year was 1862, and Confederate forces from Texas were on the march northward in an effort to seize some of the valuable resources that were becoming available in Colorado. The mountainous terrain made this difficult, as it allowed for Union Forces to ambush a vital supply train and stop the Confederacy in its tracks.

It has since been called the “Gettysburg of the West”, and was the climax of the New Mexican campaign of the Civil War.  Yet it is a memory that continues to fade among the people that live there at the feet of the Southern Rockies.

But it is no matter. The mountains of New Mexico have time and memory to spare.

Santa Fe sunset at the Sanger de Cristo mountain range at Taos New Mexico during fall color changing and first snowfall | Roschetzky Photography

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