Tour site types:
These virtual geologic tours explore the high mountains of north-central New Mexico,
the rugged mountains of southern New Mexico, and the wide open spaces of the eastern
and northwestern parts of our great state.
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The selection of tours shown below are listed in random order.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (CCNP) is located in southeastern New Mexico about 20 miles south of Carlsbad. It was initially designated a national monument in 1923, was elevated to a national park in 1930, and was recognized by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Its 46,766 acres include 120 known caves, the two largest of which are Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave, with total passage lengths of 32 miles and 143 miles, respectively, which places them among the world’s longest. Lechuguilla (open only to experienced researchers) is the second deepest limestone cave in the United States at 1,604 feet. More importantly than cave size is the great variety and beauty of the formations and the complexity of the processes that formed them.
Conchas Lake State Park was established in 1955 and named after the Conchas River, one of the tributaries of the Canadian River. It is 24 mi north of Newkirk and 31 mi northwest of Tucumcari on NM–104 and NM–129. Conchas is Spanish for shells and was applied to a group of Indians living in the area when Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th century. The word conchas may be a corrupted name that is confused with the Spanish word conchos, a term also used to describe the Native American tribes in northern New Mexico.
The dam that formed Conchas Lake was the 17th dam in the country built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. One of the state’s oldest dams, it was completed in 1939 to control floods, store water for irrigation and local supplies, and assist in local economic recovery from the Depression.
Visitors to Chaco Canyon, having crossed corrugated expanses of the San Juan Basin to get there, wonder that such a striking canyon exists at all in a landscape otherwise dominated by rolling sand-covered uplands, small mesas, bluffs, and badland-bordered shallow valleys. The canyon’s size (500 feet deep, 2,100 feet wide, 15 miles long), elevation (6,100 feet), orientation (northwest), and noticeable differences in layered rock sequences and landforms on either side arouse further curiosity. How could the current tiny ephemeral stream cut such a canyon unless past climate was different from present semiarid conditions? Moreover, how could prehistoric peoples, let alone park visitors and personnel, live in this remote area with few obvious resources?
Villanueva State Park lies in the western portion of San Miguel County and straddles the Pecos River where it enters a narrow canyon one mile south of the village of Villanueva. At the park, reddish-yellow and tan cliffs of sandstone tower up to 300 feet above the park and the river. The rocks in these cliffs tell a geologic story of ancient landscapes and seas. Younger gravels on benches along the river and the topography of canyon itself carry this narrative to the present day.
The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is located in the westernmost part of the Great Plains province, in Torrance County near Mountainair. The monument consists of three small and widely separated units — Abó, Gran Quivira, and Quarai.
When the Spanish arrived in this area in the late 1500s they found multiple inhabited pueblos, and they referred to this area as the Salinas District. However, because of drought, famine, disease, and Apache raiding, by the late 1600s the entire Salinas District was depopulated of both Native Americans and Spaniards. What remains today are reminders of this earliest contact between Pueblo Indians and Spanish colonists: the ruins of three mission churches and a partially excavated pueblo that Juan de Oñate called Las Humanas or, as it is now known, Gran Quivira Pueblo.
The Carrizozo Malpais are one of the youngest volcanic features in the state of New Mexico. The Malpais, which are the 75 km-long black feature in the satellite image, are basaltic lava flows, such as are being erupted today in Hawaii. State highway 380 traverses the Carrizozo Malpais, and this road provides good access to people who want to view, or visit the lava flows. The Valley of Fires Recreation Area is located on the Carrizozo Malpais.
El Malpais National Monument is part of the Zuni–Bandera volcanic field in west-central New Mexico. It is one of the best places in the lower forty-eight United States to view young, Hawaiian-style volcanic deposits. There are over one hundred individual volcanoes in this volcanic field, as well as the many associated lava flows, cinder cones, shield volcanoes, and lava tubes. The young age of the volcanism (the youngest eruption occurred just 3,000–4,000 years ago) along with the dry local climate means that the rocks and their volcanic features are beautifully preserved.
The name El Malpais comes from early Spanish explorers and translates literally to “the bad country,” so named because of the extreme roughness of the lava flow surfaces. The Zuni–Bandera volcanic field was recognized as an important geological feature as early as the 1930s, when the area was first proposed as a national monument. However, El Malpais National Monument and the associated El Malpais National Conservation Area weren’t formally established until 1987.
Cimarron is Spanish for wild and untamed and originally was used in New Mexico to refer to the wild bighorn sheep, and later to the wild horses and cattle that once roamed throughout the north-central mountains (Pearce, 1965). Today, the sparsely populated Cimarron country in western Colfax County can still be described as wild and untamed with its rugged, timbered mountains (the Cimarron Range), towering cliffs, and the previously unpredictable Cimarron River. The Cimarron River has been tamed somewhat by the Eagle Nest Dam, which controls flooding in the canyon.
The Gilman Tunnels are on NM 485 along the Rio Guadalupe in the southwestern Jemez Mountains, approximately 5 miles northwest of the intersection of NM 4 and NM 485. Two narrow and unusually high tunnels were cut through Precambrian granite in the 1920s to facilitate passage of logging trains through this particularly rugged and constricted section of Guadalupe Canyon, known as the Guadalupe Box. Logs that were harvested in the western Jemez Mountains in the 1920s were taken by narrow-gauge railroad to a sawmill in Bernalillo. The tunnels were enlarged in the 1930s to accommodate logging trucks. Logs were hauled out of the mountains and then loaded on trains at Gilman logging camp, which was established in 1937 about two miles south of the tunnels. The railroad was shut down by flooding along the Jemez and Guadalupe Rivers in 1941. The highway now occupies the old railroad bed. Aside from providing access to the Guadalupe Box itself, NM 485 provides an unparalleled view of the stratigraphy of Guadalupe Canyon.
Manzano Mountains State Park, established in 1973, is located eighteen miles northwest of the town of Mountainair and is south of the village of Manzano in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains. “Manzano” is Spanish for apple and refers to old apple orchards found in the town of Manzano. The apple trees were planted after 1800 as determined by tree ring growth, although local legends claim that the apple trees were planted in the 17th century by Spanish missionaries traveling to the nearby Indian pueblos. The few remaining trees are probably the oldest apple trees in the United States. There are no apple trees at Manzano Mountains State Park, but Gambel oak, Emory oak, piñon, ponderosa pine, and alligator juniper trees are abundant. The alligator juniper is named for the checkered pattern on the bark of older trees, which resembles an alligator's hide. Nearby, Tajique, Torreon, and 4th of July Canyons in the Manzano Mountains contain some of the largest stands of Rocky Mountain and big-toothed maple trees in the Southwest; spectacular fall colors attract visitors from throughout the area. The Manzano Mountains also play an important role as a raptor flyway during spring and fall migrations. Some species of birds may fly 200 miles in a day and several thousand miles in a season. The park has a field checklist available to visitors who enjoy bird watching.