Those people who are unfamiliar with New Mexico would find it hard to believe that this vast desert landscape is also home to a beautiful and bountiful green national forest. It is also the home of the nation’s symbol for preventing forest fires, the famous Smokey Bear. As a result of its vast size, there are several ways to get to the forest but we drove to the entrance located in the town of Alamogordo which is about an hour drive north of the city of Las Cruces.
The Lincoln National Forest is a compilation of three large mountain ranges: Guadalupe, Sacramento, and Capitan. The park and its ranges cover over 1.1 million acres of land in the south central part of New Mexico. This mass of land encompasses four different counties and the elevations within the forest range from 4,000 to 11,500 feet. When venturing into this area, you will find a plethora of activities available for the whole family. For the outdoor enthusiast you will find skiing, hiking, fishing, camping, caves, and recreation areas to explore. The forest is split into three ranger districts known as Sacramento, Smokey Bear, and Guadalupe. Within each district lies a ranger station and they are open year round Monday thru Friday, 7:30am to 4:30pm. The only station open on the weekend is the Sacramento district, located in the town of Cloudcroft which opens beginning May 1st on Saturdays only.
Upon entering the forest, you will notice the change in landscape almost immediately as you go from high desert country to sprawling pine trees. A short tunnel leads you into the mountainside and into a world of lush green forests and amazing natural scenery you won’t find in the desert below. During our trip to the area, we discovered the small town of Cloudcroft which has a unique area of shops displaying local Native American crafts, antiques, and other decorative collectibles. The town has a ‘Northern Exposure’ type look and feel to it (for those that remember the popular TV show).
There are three specific scenic driving routes throughout the forest: Sunspot Scenic Byway, Rim Road, and Billy the Kid Scenic Byway. We explored the Sunspot Scenic Byway which begins with a stop at the Haynes Canyon scenic vista. At this stop, you are standing at the rim of a canyon that overlooks the Tularosa Basin. The basin rests on rocks that have shifted down seven thousand feet from their original location. The basin is also the area where the largest amount of gypsum sand is formed which in turn created the White Sands National Monument. You will see the White Sands in the distance when standing at the edge of this canyon. It is an incredible site to see the landscape thousands of feet below consisting of white sand and desert.
We then ventured up the road, over 9,000 feet in elevation, to the National Solar Observatory located at the peak of the Sacramento Mountain. The observatory has a visitor center and various buildings on site that house telescopic equipment. You can either see a presentation for a small fee or go on a self-guided tour of the buildings for free. This observatory is part of the National Science Foundation and is used today for astronomy research by universities. The views from this location are breathtaking!
We had taken a day trip to the forest and only explored this small portion of the area. It would take several days to explore all parts of this beautiful natural landscape. The breathtaking scenery you see just riding in your car is enough to make you come back for more. It is a spectacular mass of forest with an abundance of unique places to explore and adventures to discover. Enjoy the scenery!