The Organ Mountains are east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. They are part of the 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument; a haven for hikers, climbers and outdoor enthusiasts. The name is based on the spires, which rise to over 9,000 feet in elevation. They look like the pipes of an organ.
The mountain range is volcanic, sculpted by the same intense geologic forces that formed the Rio Grande Rift, with steep-sided crevices, canyons, grasslands, open woodlands, perennial springs, towering stone pillars, and lava flows. The habitat ranges from Chihuahuan Desert to ponderosa pine at higher elevations. On a clear day the iconic rabbit ears are visible from 100+ miles in every direction. Frankly, if the Eye of Sauron appeared between them, it would seem appropriate.
The springs provide a year round water supply, which supports an eco-system that is starkly different from the desert surrounding the range. There is an abundance of wildlife, like Gambel’s quail, golden eagles, rock squirrels, mule deer, coyotes, rattlesnakes, a couple of varieties of tarantula, and the occasional mountain lion. Additionally, the biological diversity includes four native wildflower species and other rare plants, including the endangered Organ Mountains evening primrose.
Dripping Springs Natural Area
Dripping Springs Natural Area is a popular hiking destination for Las Cruces locals, with over four miles of easy to moderate hiking trails. The biological diversity at the base of the mountains has attracted humans for thousands of years. The history of the area lines the hiking trails. For example, the La Cueva Trail passes by a small rock shelter that has been occupied off and on for thousands of years. It is a moderate hike, about ½ mile from the picnic area. Based on approximately 100,000 artifacts recovered by archaeologists from the University of Texas at El Paso in the mid 1970’s, humans have occupied the La Cueva shelter since approximately 5,000 B.C. Furthermore, in the 1860s, the cave was home to Giovanni Maria Agostini, known locally as “El Ermitano” (the Hermit). He lived in the cave until he was murdered in 1869. More about the Hermit.
Dripping Springs Trail is approximately three miles long (roundtrip). The trail’s name is based on a natural spring at the back of the canyon. Alternately, locals refer to the spring as the “Weeping Wall.” Water seeps magically from the rock walls, pooling in a man-made pond at the base of the cliff. In a region known for drought, the year round source of water was a valuable commodity. In the 1870’s, a local entrepreneur, Colonel Eugene Van Patten, built the Van Patten Mountain Camp next to the spring to provide a reprieve from the heat in the valley below.
Eugene Van Patten
Dripping Springs Trail follows the path created by stagecoaches more than a century ago, passing the wooden livery that greeted guests as they arrived at Van Patten’s Mountain Camp in wagons. Today, the stone walls of the resort have crumbled, quietly succumbing to erosion. However, if you have a vivid imagination, you can close your eyes and hear the clatter of horse drawn carriages and buggies bouncing up the rocky road, with a blend of English, Spanish and Tiwa voices filling the air.
Colonel Eugene Van Patten was born in Rome, New York on November 10, 1839. The details of his youth are scant and often contradictory. However, based on Paxton T. Price’s book, Pioneers of the Mesilla Valley, he attended West Point for two years and traveled internationally prior to moving to Las Cruces. His uncle, John Butterfield, offered him, and his three brothers, jobs with the Butterfield Stagecoach Overland Mail Company.
Early Years in New Mexico
Van Patten worked on behalf of his uncle as a laborer, driver, conductor, and station keeper for several years. He was a rider for the Pony Express to the new state of California, tasked with delivering a message to President James Buchanan in 1958. Several years later, when the Civil War broke out, the Butterfield Stagecoach had to shift their service northward. Van Patten joined Confederacy, serving as a private and a bugler under General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Army of New Mexico. He participated in the battles at Val Verde, south of Socorro, and the disastrous Confederate defeat at Glorieta Pass, east of Santa Fe and was wounded three times. The Confederate forces withdrew after the loss at Glorieta Pass.
Upon his return to southern New Mexico, Van Patten was commissioned as an officer. He spent the remainder of the war treating wounded Confederate soldiers at Fort Bliss. Later, he married a woman who was half-Spanish and half-Piro named Benita Madrid Vargas. Her family was one of the founding families of Tortugas, a small community south of Las Cruces settled by Piro, Manso and Tigua peoples.
Contributions to the Mesilla Valley
The era fondly referred to as the Wild West was wildly unscrupulous. American land speculators converged on the new territory like vultures, using the courts and corrupt politicians to seize land from the indigenous tribes and Hispanics, including trying to evict the inhabitants of Tortugas. Fortunately, Van Patten successfully challenged the perpetrators in court. As a result, the village retained their church, their homes and their tribal offices.
Van Patten joined a local militia under the command of Major Albert J. Fountain to fight Apaches and cattle rustlers. After the Apache Wars ended with the surrender of Geronimo, he established Company D of the New Mexico National Guard. Furthermore, he helped organize a New Mexico branch of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” for the Spanish-American War of 1898. Over the years he continued to serve the region in several roles, from El Paso County sheriff, Doña Ana County sheriff, U. S. Marshall, Mesilla district court interpreter, and Las Cruces Justice of the Peace. Also, he was one of the co-founders of New Mexico State University, which was one of his proudest achievements.
Van Patten’s Mountain Camp
Van Patten acquired significant land over the course of his career. One of his business enterprises was the Van Patten Mountain Camp, a resort constructed at Dripping Springs in the 1870’s. A 17-mile stage line from Las Cruces transported guests to the facility. The resort had 16 rooms initially, with recreational facilities, dining and concert halls. Based on the interpretive sign at the site “the hotel was constructed of native rock from the canyon and put together and finished with mud-mixing plaster. The grounds were attractively landscaped and featured a gazebo which served as a bandstand. Interior ceilings were covered with tightly stretched muslin cloth and patterned wallpaper decorated many of the rooms.”
The resort attracted notable and notorious guests, including the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Billy the Kid and the man who would later kill Billy, lawman Pat Garrett. Most of the meat, eggs, vegetables and milk were produced on the property, making the dining hall one of the first field to fork restaurants in the territory. Between 1870- 1890, Van Patten expanded the property significantly, doubling the occupancy. He also built facilities for tuberculosis patients. Today, the trail into the canyon passes the resort’s livery, mercantile and chicken coop.
In the 1890s Van Patten rented land adjacent to the resort to Nathan Boyd, a doctor and international entrepreneur. That proved to be a bad decision, because within a year the two men became embroiled in a prolonged legal dispute over land and water. The litigation bankrupted Van Patten by 1916. He was 77 years old and his financial resources were depleted, which forced him to sell Dripping Springs to Boyd for $1. He died a few years later and was buried in the St. Joseph Cemetery in Las Cruces.
Dr. Nathan Boyd
Nathan Boyd was born in Illinois. He studied medicine in San Francisco, moving to Philadelphia after medical school, where he worked as an editor on a London medical journal. He lived in London briefly, later moving to Australia to practice medicine. His wife was Australian. She contracted tuberculosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis, a lung disease, was the leading cause of death in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th century. There was no cure. The only treatment advocated by doctors at the time was dry, sunny climates and high elevation. Physicians considered New Mexico ideal.
Boyd arrived in New Mexico with big plans. He intended to build a large sanatorium at Dripping Springs. He also formed a corporation with a British firm that intended to construct a dam across the Rio Grande, near the current location of Elephant Butte dam. They planned to dam the river and extort farmer’s downstream for water, requiring them to pay for irrigation by forfeiting ½ their land. Predictably, the unchecked greed prompted widespread outrage in southern New Mexico, El Paso and Mexico. Fortunately, the project failed. Dr. Boyd turned his attention to the construction of the sanatorium and the ongoing legal battle with Van Patten.
Dr. Nathan Boyd’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium
Boyd started building the sanatorium in 1910, financing the construction of a kitchen, dining hall, caretaker’s house, guest house and patient housing. As a result, Dripping Springs transitioned from a place of respite and relaxation to a place of suffering, despair and death. When he launched the project, there was considerable demand for tuberculosis facilities; however, new vaccines and treatment options emerged within a decade. Declining demand, coupled with the legal expenses incurred during his prolonged battle with Van Patten, took a toll financially, forcing Boyd to sell the Dripping Springs property to Las Cruces physician Dr. Troy Sexton in 1922. Dr. Boyd moved to Washington, D.C. The sanatorium closed a few years later.
Later, a local rancher, A.B. Cox, purchased the property, using the water for his livestock. Gradually the structures associated with the resort and the sanatorium deteriorated. However, the property was included in the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument. Today, Cox’s ranch house serves as the visitor center for the Dripping Springs Natural Area.
Visit Dripping Springs
Dripping Springs Natural Area
15000 Dripping Springs Rd.
Las Cruces, NM 88005
Las Cruces District BLM office
1800 Marquess St.
Las Cruces, NM 88005
Directions: The Dripping Springs Natural Area is located 10 miles east of Las Cruces, on the west side of the Organ Mountains. From Exit 1 on Interstate 25, take University Avenue/Dripping Springs Road east to the end.
$5 per vehicle for day use, $15 per bus.
Las Cruces District annual day use pass for $30.
Reserve the La Cueva Group Site for $50 per day. Call the Las Cruces BLM office above for reservations.
Open year-round, except closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
April through September: the gate is open from 7:00 a.m. until sunset
October through March: the gate is open from 8:00 a.m. until sunset
The Dripping Springs Natural Area has a visitor center, handicapped-accessible restrooms, 12 picnic sites, and one large family/group picnic site that can be reserved through the BLM Las Cruces District. There is no camping and pets are allowed only on designated trails.
There are two trail heads available from the parking lot. La Cueva (to the Hermit’s cave) or Dripping Springs Trail, which follows the original road to the springs. Dripping Springs Trail is a moderate 3-mile hike. Hiking shoes, long pants, a hat, water and a snack are recommended. A warning sign near the trail points out the obvious… “Leave the rattlesnakes alone and they will leave you alone.”