Lonely Planet just released its ten most “unexpectedly exciting places to see in the United States in 2016”. Coming in ninth place was my homeland, southern New Mexico. I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico and lived there until 2006. It’s a place I still frequently visit, and I find it’s not too difficult to eat gluten free in Las Cruces. Having grown up in this part of the world, I can give you the inside scoop on what to see and do while you’re in my part of the world. Lonely Planet gets us started with a few tips, but they’ve also missed some major points. Here’s the real deal on southern New Mexico.
Spend a few days in and around Las Cruces
Interstates 10 and 25 intersect in Las Cruces, so wherever you’re coming from, you’ll find it easy enough to reach by car. (Don’t even think about relying on public transportation in this part of the world – you have to have a car.) Flying in? Fly to El Paso and rent a car there – it’s about an hour away.
Las Cruces is within driving range of White Sands National Monument (about an hour), Silver City (about an hour and a half), Truth or Consequences (about an hour, but I wouldn’t bother with that one), and the Organ Mountains are just outside the city. Here’s how I would structure a few days based in Las Cruces. Pack your sneakers or your hiking boots – there’s a lot of walking in this one!
IMPORTANT for international travelers: in southern New Mexico, there are lots of Border Patrol checkpoints. These mainly serve to stop people illegally entering the country, though they often make drug busts as well. You will be asked if you are an American citizen, and if you are not, you may be asked to show your passport. Make sure you have your passport with you when you travel in this part of the state!
Day one: a city of rocks, and a charming little mountain town
Start by picking up picnic supplies for lunch. Las Cruces has a fairly new Natural Grocers, and a more traditional grocery store called Albertson’s just nearby. You’ll find it’s pretty simple to be gluten free in Las Cruces. Between the two, you should be able to find enough fruit, cheese, dried meat, gluten free breads or crackers and other snacks to keep you going. (I’m assuming you won’t have an ice chest, but if you do, load it up!)
Don’t forget to take water – you are in the desert, it is hella dry all year long, and in the summer it’s super hot too. You need lots of water. You might want to just throw a 24-pack of bottled water in the back of your car for your trip. (Ice them down at night in your hotel so they’re not horribly hot when you’re ready to drink them.)
Also make sure you have $5 (exact change) cash on you, as you’ll need it to pay a park fee later.
Get a good breakfast on your way out of town at Le Rondez-vous Café. They’ve got gluten free bread on hand, so you’ll be able to enjoy some toast with your eggs and bacon. Once you’re full, you are ready to hit the road.
From there, drive west on Picacho Avenue, which eventually runs into I-10 West. You’ll reach Deming in about 45 minutes. From Deming, take Highway 180 north (watch for signs, you’ll exit the freeway and drive through a little bit of town) towards Silver City. Halfway to Silver City (about 25 minutes) you’ll see the signs for City of Rocks – go there! This is where you’ll pay a $5 park entry fee (covers the vehicle and people inside.)
City of Rocks gets its name from the incredible volcanic rock formations found here. The park encompasses a one square mile area in the scenic Chihuahuan desert region of southeastern New Mexico at an elevation of 5,200 feet. The “city” is a geologic formation made up of large, sculptured rock columns, or pinnacles, rising as high as 40 feet and separated by paths or lanes resembling city streets. (Source: New Mexico State Parks website)
City of Rocks was my favorite place when I was a kid. I used to love to go there and scramble around the rocks, exploring and looking for places to hide. Have a wander around the rocks, and then have your picnic lunch here.
Once you’ve had your fill of lunch and rock hopping, continue north on Highway 180 until you reach Silver City (another half hour or so.) Stroll through the historic downtown district and pop in to any (or all!) of the many art galleries in the area. If you find yourself getting hungry again, consider a trip up to the Buckhorn in nearby Pinos Altos – it’s pricey, but it’s an institution in the area. Another option is the Red Barn. (Please note: I haven’t been to Silver City since going gluten free, but these are both pretty well-known places and I’ve checked menus – you should be fine at either!)
Silver City is also known as the gateway to the Gila Forest – if outdoorsy, forest hiking is your thing, you may want to plan for more time in this area than just a day trip.
Once you’ve seen all there is to see in this charming little town, head back the way you came to return to Las Cruces.
Day two: mountain peaks and the beach of the desert
Not tired of hiking or being outside yet? Great, you’re going to love this one. Start your day with a good breakfast. I like Spanish Kitchen, which is conveniently on your way out of town. They don’t label their menu with allergen information but the staff are generally knowledgeable or willing to ask the kitchen. Try the huevos rancheros.
Make sure you still have water and pack another picnic in the car. Make sure you’ve got some cash ($5 per vehicle for Aguirre Springs, $5 per PERSON at White Sands.) Maybe borrow a towel or two from your hotel room (you’ll give it back tonight!) One last thing: check to assure there’s no missile testing going on today, as the road you need may be blocked. Ready? Head east on Highway 70 (towards the mountains). Before you cross over the mountains, you’ll see a turnoff for Aguirre Springs (may say road or campground, I can’t remember.) Follow signs until you reach the parking lot. There are two long hiking trails here – you don’t have to do the whole thing, but take a walk around! It’s lovely there.
The high wall, needle-like spires of the Organ Mountains curve dramatically around a semicircle of Chihuahuan Desert habitat at the Aguirre Spring Campground. The campground, nestled at the base of spectacular cliffs, overlooks the Tularosa Basin and White Sands National Monument.
Two national recreation trails start at the campground. The Baylor Pass Trail has its eastern end at the campground. This is a one-way trail of six miles, which will take you to the Baylor Canyon Road on the west side of the mountains. The Pine Tree Trail is a four-mile loop that climbs to the base of the Organ Needles, in Ponderosa Pine habitat. Both trails provide spectacular views of the Organ Mountains and the Tularosa Basin. (Source: Bureau of Land Management website)