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New Mexico Backcountry - Exploring Monticello Canyon

Posted in Events on September 12, 2014
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Thumbing through Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road it would be easy to assume that you need 40-inch-tall tires and a healthy appetite for body damage to have a good time 4-wheeling. Of course, that is not really the case (but it doesn’t hurt!). In a departure from the hardcore, we recently loaded up our daily driver and picked a spot on the map to go explore for the weekend.

Our destination was Monticello Canyon and the Cibola National Forest, in southern New Mexico. While the water level varies by season to season, Monticello Canyon has water crossings year-round—78 of them to be exact—which is likely more than every other trail in New Mexico combined!

Monticello Canyon has water crossings year-round

After exiting Monticello Canyon we turned north towards the Cibola National Forest and headed to a remote fire lookout atop Mount Withington. From the 10,119-foot viewpoint you can even make out the Very Large Array in the distance. The VLA is an astronomical radio observatory that was made famous in the movie Contact. We found a flat campsite with a fire ring near the ruins of an old mine and set up camp as the sun set. Since we were in the desert at 7,500 feet, the temperature dropped rapidly after the sun was gone, prompting us to dig into our camping gear for firestarters and more layers of clothing.

The next morning we awoke to chilly temperatures but peace and quiet. We had the desert all to ourselves. The nearest lodging is nearly 50 miles away in Truth or Consequences (yes, that is the actual name of the town!) in case you are interested in just exploring for the day and aren’t prepared to camp. We topped our fuel tanks with the spare fuel that we had brought along and continued back towards town. In two days we covered 160 miles and only saw a handful of other vehicles the whole time.

Don’t have 1-ton axles? Don’t live in New Mexico? That’s OK. Grab a map and find a place to explore near you for the weekend, or just for the day. As long as you get dirt under the tires, the trip is a success in our book.

The San Mateo Range is remote and beautiful. To put things in perspective, this area is the size of Massachusetts and contains only eight paved roads. The desert is a harsh and formidable environment, but it also provides a peace and solitude you can’t get anywhere else.

If you are an aficionado of vintage iron, New Mexico will not disappoint. The dry desert climate does a wonderful job of preserving these metal monuments.

If you enter the canyon from the southeast, through the town of Monticello, the trail is clearly marked. The northwest side is not as well marked or easy to find on your first trip to the canyon.

The road through Monticello Canyon crisscrosses the sandy bottom of the canyon between tall rock walls. The canyon is about 17 miles long with no opportunities to exit along the way.

The low water levels allowed us to have some fun on the trail without concern about hydrolocking our engines. Any time you cross this much water though, it is always a good idea to change fluids and flush grease fittings once you return home.

We weren’t the only visitors to Monticello Canyon on this day. The Great Blue Heron can be found year-round in New Mexico wherever water is present.

While we didn’t need to use our Warn winch on this adventure, it provides peace of mind on the trail. In addition to a full complement of recovery gear, we also carried fuel, as it can be in short supply in this remote area.

On a clear day you can see for miles in every direction from the fire lookout atop Mount Withington. Forest Road 138 takes you all the way to the lookout, so no hiking is required in the thin mountain air.

This is another spot that was picked off of the map. Although it was dry during our visit, the stains on the rock reveal that Garcia Falls does in fact flow at times.

Few activities are as rewarding as sitting around the campfire with friends. We checked with the Magdalena Ranger District to ensure that no fire restrictions were in place during our visit.

When leaving camp in the morning, we made certain to smother our fire pit until it was cool to the touch. This is a good habit to form when out on the trail.

We stopped at an abandoned mine to explore along the way. The mine was active from 1899 to 1928. Do any of our readers know what this piece of equipment was used for?

We didn’t want to push our luck, so we heeded the warning on the rotting boards in the old mineshaft. Stay out and stay alive.

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