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Archived photo of The Apache Kid

A wilderness in the middle of nowhere

Ty Belknap

Truth or Consequences is a fine place to relax and do nothing but hang around the spa. People have been doing nothing there since Geronimo and Ralph Edwards. If, however, you are looking for a day trip between soaks, pick up a copy of Sierra County visitor’s guide and hit the road. A ghost town tour leads twenty-five miles north on Highway 142, straight and flat. Windows down, even in December, you can smell the sweet signature creosote smell of the Chihuahuan Desert. The village of Placitas there was founded in 1840 and mostly abandoned in the 1950s, judging from the age of rusted out pickups in the yards of old ranch houses. Ruins of the dance hall, school house, and catholic church still stand.

Monticello, originally named Canada Alamosa (Cottonwood Canyon), was settled by ranchers and farmers in 1856. The town was home to about five hundred Apache housed by the Southern Apache Agency in 1870. It was built within still visible square adobe walls that protected residents from attack. Mass is still held at the church. The population of the canyon is down to about a hundred families from more than one thousand living there during its peak, but Monticello isn’t completely deserted.

Old adobe houses surround the square—some time capsules with broken windows, while others are renovated and occupied—so be careful when peeking in windows or trying doors.

You can head back down Highway 142 to continue the ghost town tour of several mining towns spread around Sierra County. Another option is to take the gravel FR 139 about twenty miles back to I-25. The road forks after a few miles and FR 225 leads into the Apache Kid Wilderness of the Cibola National Forest. A copy of the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer comes in handy with detailed topographic maps that show back roads and recreational sites.

The road climbs through steep canyons that cut through the peaks of the southern San Mateo Mountains, where elevations exceed ten thousand feet. The vegetation changes to pinion-juniper woodland at lower elevations and then to oak and alligator juniper near a nice campground called Luna Park, nestled among boulders and campfire-blackened caverns. There is an outhouse and several sites with picnic tables and fire pits. The rock walls have sport-climbing routes set up with bolts and trailheads leading into enticing terrain.

After Luna Park, the road gets steeper and rougher, and the forest changes to spruce and fir, then aspen with Ponderosa pine in amidst red cliffs covered with lichen. From summit of the pass to about twelve miles in, there is a colossal view of the Jornada del Muerto Desert basin far off to the east. A few miles down into a heavily wooded area, you will find Springtime Campground, which offers six Adirondacks style shelters with picnic tables and fire pits.

Trailheads from the campground lead to the memorial for the Apache Kid, an army scout turned renegade who retreated to the San Mateos. The Kid was supposedly killed there in 1894 by Anglo settlers in retaliation for his relentless raids and to collect a reward, but some ranchers suspected him of rustling cattle until the 1930s. Visitors can still see the tree blazed by the posse to mark the site of the killing. The forest service placed a plaque nearby.

Hiking is said to be easy on a 68-mile trail system, which is not always well-defined. The trail that leads to the Kid's demise follows about 13 miles of mountain crest. Water is limited to less than a dozen semi-dependable springs, most of which dry up in summer.

This is one of the most seldom visited federally designated wilderness areas because it is in the middle of nowhere. You might want to come back and stay for a while. To return to T or C for another soak, just cruise down Nogal Canyon on a smooth gravel, FR 255, winding fourteen miles out of the forest through grasslands and back to the desert. Nogal is Spanish for walnut, but the Urban Dictionary defines nogal as “absurdly awesome.”

Where else can you spend an afternoon passing through such a variety of landscape and vegetation and history without seeing another human?
 
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