Part of the allure of the American West is the wide-open spaces. There is a thrilling sensation when staring down a long stretch of road, without a human in sight. Freedom. The open road. New Mexico provides a veritable smorgasbord of less traveled roads stretching to the horizon, with dirt roads branching to hidden destinations, including treasures rarely found by visitors or passersby.
State Highway 60 is one of these routes. The road cuts across a remote, sparsely populated open range known as the Plains of San Agustin. Located about 50 miles west of Socorro, 25 miles north of Reserve, the Plains of San Agustin span Catron and Socorro counties. Overall, the plains extend 55-miles northeast to southwest, ranging from 5 to 15 miles across.
The Continental Divide runs along the southern and western boundaries of the plains, with the Cibola National Forest surrounding the area. The Mangas, Crosby, Datil, and Gallinas Mountains form the northern boundary. The San Mateo Mountains define the eastern boundary. On the west, the Tularosa Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop. To the south, the Luera Mountains and Pelona Mountain, outliers of the Black Range, serve as a boundary between the plains and the Chihuahuan Desert.
If you have time to linger, Datil Well Campground provides a cool getaway during the hot, summer months. The trail from the campground to the crest of a ridge provides an epic view of the plains. It is also a great vantage point to watch the sun set.
Though it may be hard to imagine when staring at the endless miles of dry, dusty roads, the plains were created underwater. This area was the bed of a large Pleistocene lake that existed between 11,000-23,000 years ago. Geologists estimate that parts of the lake were more than 250 feet deep at the height of the Ice Age. As the ice melted, the lake level dropped dramatically. By the time humans arrived in the area, approximately 13,000 years ago, all that remained were seasonal playas.
The plains are part of the San Juan Basin, just south of the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, west of the Rio Grande Rift Valley. Geologically, the basin is a graben, which is when a block of earth between parallel faultlines drops, like the center of a cake falling. Conversely, when the area between two fault lines rises, it is referred to as a horst.
Although geologists estimate that the graben dropped approximately 4,000 feet relative to the land on the east and west sides of the respective fault lines, the current differential is about 2,000 feet due to the accumulation of thousands of feet of sediment. Most of the sediment was deposited during the last glacial period, prior to the formation of Lake San Agustin.
The Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field
Located on the central Rio Grande rift, the area around Socorro, New Mexico is a volcanic hot spot. Known as the Socorro-Magdalena caldera cluster, there is a chamber of magma 11-miles beneath the surface. Observation of geologic activity in the region has tracked ongoing uplift of approximately 2mm/year above the magma chamber. Though all of the volcanoes in the area are currently inactive, they are not dead.
The Plains of San Agustin are within the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field. However, The Mogollon-Datil volcanic eruptions occurred prior to the formation of the graben. The volcanoes formed during an extensive volcanic event that included intense volcanic activity throughout the southwest, including the San Juan volcanic field in southwestern Colorado, the Trans-Pecos volcanic field in west Texas and north central Mexico, the Boot Heel volcanic field in the bootheel of southwestern New Mexico and adjacent areas of Arizona and Mexico, and the vast volcanic field of the Sierra Madre Occidental in western Mexico.
Archaeological excavation of a series of caves along the shore of the former lake in the 1940s provided evidence of early crop cultivation, including maize, squash, beans, sunflowers, and other edible wild plants. The Bat Cave is on the eastern side of the Plains. There’s a stunning panoramic view, extending from Datil to Horse Springs.
Old Horse Springs
The original community of Horse Springs is two miles west of New Horse Springs. Legend has it that soldiers traveling between Fort Tularosa and Socorro lost a horse. They found it about ½ mile west of the settlement near a hot spring.
Old Horse Springs, unlike mining boom towns throughout New Mexico, never really had a heyday. In fact, they only had a post office from 1879 to 1882.
Archaeologists consider the Ake Site important due to the age and length of its use by prehistoric peoples. The site was occupied during the Clovis period, between 10,999 BC – 8000 BC, as well as during the Folsom period, between 7,999 BC and 5,999 BC. It is among the oldest sites in the American Southwest.
The mountains around the Plains of San Agustin shelter the central valley from the radio frequency transmissions of civilization, like those emanating from Albuquerque, approximately 73 miles northeast. The isolation is ideal for radio astronomy, which is why it was chosen for the Very Large Array, aka the VLA.
The VLA is a collection of 27 radio telescopes used to observe distant celestial objects. Computers combine the data from the telescopes to provide resolution comparable to that of a massive single dish, 22-miles in diameter.
In terms of local lore and weird tales, Pelona Mountain had extraterrestrial sightings coinciding with the Roswell incident. There are numerous spins on the tale. The gist is a retired rancher from the Plains of San Agustin was cruising NM 12, about 20 miles south of Datil in the summer of 1947 when he saw a child walking in a pasture near the highway. This area is remote, not where you would expect to find a kid wandering alone. He stopped to help. As he got closer, he realized that it wasn’t a child, but some sort of alien being wearing a gray uniform. Regardless, he led the injured and dazed creature to his truck, taking it back to his ranch. His wife offered their visitor food and water, which it wouldn’t take. When they woke up the next morning, their enigmatic guest had vanished.
Later, in August, 1949, a farmer in the area supposedly found the bodies of four aliens near a crashed flying saucer. According to local legend, the military escorted everyone off the site, cordoned the area off, and warned witnesses not to talk about it.
I am skeptical (at best) when it comes to UFO sightings. However, the Plains of San Agustin would make an ideal parking spot for E.T. tourists.