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Geologic Tour of New Mexico — Physiographic Provinces

Tour site types: State Parks  Federal Parks  Other Features
(Click map to hide/show the physiographic province overlay.)

The varied landscape of New Mexico is divided in six distinct physiographic provinces, each with characteristic landforms and a unique geologic history. We invite you to investigate points of geologic interest located in each province.

Use criteria in the form below to search by region, physiographic province, keyword, or county. Combining search criteria may provide few or no results. You can also explore the map and click on sites directly.





   

Read more about each physiographic province:

The selection of tours shown below are listed in random order.

Ship Rock

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Paul Logsdon

he Ship Rock landform, located in northwestern New Mexico, is the remnant of an explosive volcanic eruption that occurred around 30 million years ago. The main part of the landform is 600 meters high, and 500 meters in diameter. Ship Rock, known as Tse Bitai, or "the winged rock" in Navajo, is a volcanic neck, or the central feeder pipe of larger volcanic landform which has since eroded away. The neck is composed of fractured volcanic rock, or breccia, crosscut by many thin veins of lava. Ship Rock is composed of an unusual, highly potassic magma composition called a "minette", thought to form by very small degrees of melting of the earth's mantle. Ship Rock was probably 750 to 1000 meters below the land surface at the time it was formed, and has since gained its prominent form due to erosion of surrounding rocks.

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Aztec Ruins National Monument

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U.S. National Park Service

Aztec Ruins National Monument was established in 1923 to preserve the remarkable remains of an ancestral Puebloan farming community, including a twelfth-century Chacoan great house. The settlement flourished from A.D. 1050–1150, at which time it was one of the largest Puebloan settlements in the Southwest, strategically situated between Mesa Verde to the north and Chaco Canyon to the south. Culturally it is considered a Chacoan outlier, at the northern terminus of one of the prehistoric roads that emanated from Chaco. Later occupants (in the 1200s) are thought to have had closer ties to Mesa Verde.

One of the earliest written eyewitness accounts of Aztec Ruins was provided by geologist John Newberry in 1859, who reported at that time that the walls stood 25 feet high. Both the ruins and the setting are spectacular, but the park is perhaps best known for the reconstructed Great Kiva, which was excavated in 1921 and reconstructed by Earl Morris in the 1930s. It is the only restored great kiva in the Southwest and is accessible to visitors; stepping inside provides a unique glimpse of what these ceremonial structures might have been like when they were intact. The park is now a World Heritage Site.

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Villanueva State Park

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Geoffrey Rawling

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.

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Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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Peter A. Scholle

West of the flocks of birds and birdwatchers along the wetlands of the Rio Grande, a story of cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, ancient dune fields, and long-gone towering mountains lie quietly awaiting visitors to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The Chupadera Wilderness Trail and the Canyon Trail traverse this geologic record in the contemplative solitude of a wilderness setting, affording “rockwatchers” a quick trip through millions of years of Earth history.

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Sumner Lake State Park

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Peter A. Scholle

Sumner Lake State Park is approximately 16 miles northwest of Fort Sumner on US-84 and NM-203 at the junction between the Pecos River and Alamogordo Creek. It was established in 1960 as Alamogordo Reservoir; the name was changed in 1974 to avoid confusion with the growing town of Alamogordo in south-central New Mexico. Sumner Lake was named after nearby Fort Sumner, which honors Col. Edmund Vose Sumner, who commanded the 9th Military District and built Forts Craig, Union, Thorn, and Fillmore (Julyan, 1996). Alamogordo (Spanish for big cottonwood) Creek was named after the abundant, large cottonwood trees along the river valleys.

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Hyde Memorial State Park

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Thomas Shahan, Wikimedia Commons

Hyde Memorial State Park lies in the southwestern Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the Santa Fe Range. The north-south trending Sangre de Cristo Mountains are about 225 miles long, extending from near Salida, Colorado, at the north end to just southeast of Santa Fe at the south end (Bauer, 2008). The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are considered to be part of the Southern Rocky Mountain physiographic province. The mountains rise abruptly from the relatively topographically subdued High Plains on the east side. The Rio Grande rift, a northerly-trending zone of continental extension that runs from northern Colorado to west Texas, marks the western boundary of the range. The Santa Fe Range, which is cored by Proterozoic basement rocks, is bound on the north by the Peñasco embayment, on the south by Glorieta Pass, on the west by the Española Basin, and on the east by the Picuris-Pecos Fault just west of the Pecos River. At least four episodes of mountain building are recorded in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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Carrizozo Malpais

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LANDSAT

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.

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Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area

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Peter A. Scholle

This recreation area in the Lincoln National Forest has spectacular cliffs and features a year-round spring-fed stream, waterfalls (the largest of which has a 150-foot drop), and many refreshing clear-water wading pools. There are picnic areas and several hiking trails, including T–68 and T–68A that lead to the spring source of the waterfalls. The Apache name for the area was “gostahanagunti,” which means hidden gulch, and the presence of flakes of worked chert, grinding holes (bedrock mortars), and nearby pictographs testify to long-standing Native American use of this wildlife-rich oasis in the desert.

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Cimarron Canyon State Park

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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.

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Rock Hound State Park and Spring Canyon Recreation Area

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Robert Colburn

Rockhound State Park lies in the Little Florida Mountains southeast of Deming, New Mexico. It was established in 1966 as the first park in the United States that allowed collecting of rocks and minerals for personal use. Each visitor is allowed to collect as much as 15 lb of rocks and minerals from the 1,100-acre park; mineral dealers are not allowed to collect for sale. Rockhound State Park actually consists of two separate units, the main park and Spring Canyon Recreation Area. Spring Canyon lies in the northern Florida Mountains, south of the main park, and is open for day use only from Easter through November.

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