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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.

Lincoln State Monument

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Shari Kelley

Lincoln State Monument encompasses most of the community of Lincoln, New Mexico and commemorates the lives of many of the key players in the Lincoln County War (1878-1881). Lincoln, which is located in south-central New Mexico, can be access via U.S. Highway 380. The community was originally named La Placita del Rio Bonito (village of the pretty river); the stream that runs along the north side of the village is called the Rio Bonito. The legislature of the territory of New Mexico, encouraged by local citizenry, renamed the village Lincoln in 1869, in honor of President Lincoln, who was assassinated 4 years earlier.

The main visitor’s center for the monument is located near the east end of town on the north side of the highway. The Lincoln County Courthouse Museum, which highlights the escapades and legal troubles of William H. Bonney (Billy the Kid), is the other main attraction associated with the monument. The courthouse is on the west end of town on the south side of the highway. Admission tickets ($5 for adults, children under 16 free) may be purchased at the visitor’s center or at the courthouse. Other buildings that can be visited as part of the tour include the Montaño store, the San Juan mission, the torreon, the post office and Turnstall Museum, and Dr. Wood’s home.

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Jemez State Monument

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Jemez State Monument is in scenic Cañon de San Diego, which is located to the southwest of the Toledo and Valles calderas, large collapse features that formed during voluminous volcanic eruptions 1.6 and 1.25 million years ago in the Jemez Mountains. The monument lies near the mouth of Church Canyon, a tributary to the Jemez River within Cañon de San Diego. Two main rock units, the Pennsylvanian Madera Group and Permian Abo Formation, are exposed in and adjacent to the monument (Figures 3 and 4). Both limestone from the Madera Group and sandstone from the Abo Formation were incorporated into the walls of the 15th century pueblo and the 17th century Spanish mission at Jemez State Monument. Large rounded boulders of early Jemez volcanic field basalt and andesite lavas that were eroded from the high cliffs of Cañon de San Diego and carried by the Jemez River and flash floods in Church Canyon to the vicinity of the monument are also included in the walls of the structures.

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Mount Taylor Volcanic Field

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Bonnie Frey

Mount Taylor volcano, a prominent landmark that can be seen on the skyline west of Albuquerque, is located about 15 miles northwest of the town of Grants, New Mexico. Mount Taylor Peak, at an elevation of 11,301 feet, stands approximately one mile above the Rio San Jose 12 miles to the south. Mount Taylor volcano is part of a larger, northeast-trending volcanic field that includes Mesa Chivato, a broad plateau located northeast of the cone, and Grants Ridge, located southwest of the cone. Basalt that caps Mesa Chivato and other mesas surrounding Mount Taylor makes up about 80% of the volume of the volcanic field. The Mount Taylor volcanic field lies on the southern flank of the San Juan Basin on the Colorado Plateau and straddles the extensional transition zone between the Colorado Plateau and the Rio Grande rift. The Mount Taylor volcanic field is considered to be part of the Jemez Lineament, a zone of young (< 5 million years old) volcanism aligned along an ancient suture in the 1.7 to 1.6 billion year old Proterozoic basement.

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Percha Dam State Park

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Peter A. Scholle

Percha Dam and Caballo Lake State Parks, located south of the town of Truth or Consequences, offer striking views of the Caballo Mountains and Red Hills, prominent uplifts in the southern Rio Grande rift. The Percha and Caballo dams were built for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project in 1918 and 1936–38, respectively. Percha Dam, although only 18.5 feet tall, diverts water into the Rincon Valley, irrigating farmland where much of New Mexico’s famous green chile is grown, along with many other crops. Two miles upstream, the 96-foot-tall and 4,590-feet-wide earth-fill Caballo Dam stores water released from hydroelectric- power generation at Elephant Butte Dam and regulates delivery of that water to downstream users during irrigation season.

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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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Heron Lake State Park

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Heron Lake State Park is located approximately 9 miles west of Tierra Amarilla. Heron Dam was built on Willow Creek near its confluence with the Rio Chama in 1971. This earth fill dam, which is 276 feet tall and 1221 feet long, is designed to create a reservoir to store and deliver San Juan-Chama Project water. The water is used to maintain the recreation pool at Cochiti Lake, some 120 miles downstream on the Rio Grande. The San Juan-Chama Project, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, takes water from tributaries of the San Juan River, which lies to the west of the Continental Divide, to augment the natural flow of the Rio Grande, which is east of the Continental Divide. The water flows through the Azotea Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Willow Creek, then to Heron Reservoir and the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. The diversions began in 1970, delivering an annual average of 94,200 acre-feet of water to the Rio Grande. Water users include the City of Albuquerque, the City of Santa Fe, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The lake can hold 399,980 acre-feet at a crest elevation of 7,192 feet. Heron Lake State Park has been designated a "quiet lake", where boats travel at "no-wake" speeds.

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El Malpais National Monument

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U.S. National Park Service

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.

We haven't created a detailed geologic tour for this site yet [view external website]. 

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

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Peter A. Scholle

The 64-mile stretch of narrow gauge railroad track between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico was originally built in 1880 as part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. This rail line provided much-needed transportation and freight service between Denver and mining camps in Silverton during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the Federal Government discontinued the use of the silver and gold standard to back American currency, the "Silver Panic" in 1893 caused the closure of many of the mines in the Silverton area. The railroad continued to operate with revenues from transportation of livestock, timber, and farm produce. The oil and gas industry in the Four Corners region also utilized the railroad. Demand for rail transportation in this region waned by the mid-twentieth century. Passenger service on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad ended in 1951 and freight service ended in 1968. Railroad enthusiasts and legislative bodies in New Mexico and Colorado recognized the scenic splendor of the train route between Chama and Antonito. Through a joint effort, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, complete with coal-powered steam engines carrying tourists in railcars on refurbished narrow gauge tracks, was created in 1970 to preserve this historic and picturesque section of railroad.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is in the Mogollon Mountains approximately 44 miles north of Silver City, New Mexico. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907 and is one of the nation’s oldest monuments. The monument lies within the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field; volcanic eruptions from this field covered 40,000 km2 of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona with lava and ash flow tuffs 40 to 24 million years ago.

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Santa Rosa Lake State Park

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Santa Rosa, "the city of natural lakes", lies in the semiarid, upper Pecos River valley in Guadalupe County where numerous natural artesian-spring lakes abound. Blue Hole, one of these lakes located within the city limits, is well known for its crystal-clear water and attracts scuba divers. However, the largest lake in the area is man made—Santa Rosa Lake, located about seven miles north of the city on the Pecos River. The dam was completed in 1981 at a cost of $43 million for conservation of irrigation water and flood and sedimentation control. The name of the dam was changed from Los Esteros (Spanish for pond or estuary) in 1980 when the state park was authorized.

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