Spring is in the air and it’s time to get outside!
If you, your family and friends are the adventurous types there is plenty of great camping along the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway. Once the weather starts warming up and the fish start biting in our lakes and river, RV and tent camping spaces book up fast.
The granddaddy of New Mexico State Parks, Elephant Butte Lake is the largest body of water in New Mexico. If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, there is plenty of water and plenty of beach room. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats.
If you want an experience that gets you out into less commonly tread ground, there are campgrounds in the Gila National Forest’s Black Range District. The Kingston Campground offers 2 tent camping sites with vault toilets and fire rings, and is right off of Hwy 152 near Kingston.
The Lake Valley Back Country Byway intersects with the Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway in Hillsboro.
Sweet mountain scenery, wildflowers in bloom, winding two-lane roads, chaparral birds (roadrunners) on the run, hawks soaring overhead, historic Hillsboro, and the Lake Valley ghost town… This pretty much sums up what you’ll see while cruising along the satisfyingly empty stretch of two-lane paved road known as the Lake Valley Back Country Byway.
In case you somehow didn’t know this, driving for pleasure is fun. And according to the study that led to the formation of the BLM’s National Scenic Byway and National Back Country Byway programs, this popular American pastime ranks very high on the list of things we do to forget our troubles for a while and simply enjoy being alive in this country.
I am no exception to these findings, so what a lovely time I had hanging my head out the car window and letting my sun-bleached hair fly free in the warm spring breeze. Oh wait, that was Mojo.
For anyone interested in making the trek, the Lake Valley Back Country Byway officially starts on route 152, headed west toward Hillsboro off of 181 South near Caballo Lake State Park, and then goes south along 27 toward Lake Valley and Nutt.
As you drive down this nationally designated scenic byway, you’ll probably want to pull off to the side of the road for a moment or two to take a deep breath and perhaps snap a few photos of your surroundings. Creosote, juniper, ocotillo, and mesquite-covered hills as well as stunning views of the Caballo, Black Range, and Mimbres Mountains will guide your way to Lake Valley, a once booming turn of the century manganese mining town that is now almost entirely vacant.
I say “almost” because there is a couple currently making their home amongst the ruins. But their sole reason for being there is to keep Lake Valley’s remains open to the public for self-guided ghost town walking tours (current hours of operation are Thursday through Monday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m, and it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get there, depending on how fast you drive and how many stops you make).
When we made the turn off of route 27 and pulled through the entry gate, my initial impression was that there isn’t much to see in Lake Valley. And really, there isn’t. But if you stop at the Schoolhouse and grab a Self-Guided Walking Tour map (and detailed information guide) before wandering down Main Street, the well-marked yet dilapidated buildings and sites begin to come alive.
Settlers were scoring silver in Lake Valley beginning in 1878, and the Sierra Grande Mining Company, established by a fellow by the name of Whitaker Wright, was in control of the Lake Valley Mines. Apparently, with the discovery of one giant deposit of silver ore in 1882, dubbed the Bridal Chamber, Wright was able to convince several investors from back east to funnel money into the mines. One surprising little factoid is that Walt Whitman, the free-spirited poet who authored the beloved Leaves of Grass, bought 200 shares of the silver claim in Lake Valley.
After wandering around Lake Valley’s historic mining town remains, you may want to stop at the old cemetery on the other side of route 27—just past the ghost town entrance on top of a small hill.
While meandering through the somewhat overgrown rows of grave sites, I came across headstones dating back to the late-1800s. Many of the graves exist today as mere unmarked swells of earth surrounded by rocks.
I can’t explain the curious sense of peace I felt weaving in and out of the final resting places for these folks who dwelled in a very different reality than the one we’re currently experiencing. Horses and buggies, muddied streets, noisy trains rolling in and out of town, no Internet or cell phones or running water or electricity. Townspeople singing folk spirituals at the church, children playing together at the schoolhouse, miners with blackened faces gambling and drinking into the night…
It’s hard to say exactly what life looked or felt like back then, but my stroll through the cemetery was a solid reminder that in the end, we all end up in the dirt. Some of us will have fancy gravestones and poetic epitaphs; others will have nothing but a bunch of rocks to mark our meager mounds.
Still relatively removed from the machinery of modern life, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it must have felt like to arrive in town by stage coach, or on horseback, in its days as a bustling mining town in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Our first stop of the day was at the Black Range Museum, recently relocated to the building that was best known as the Ocean Grove Hotel, established by the infamous Sadie Orchard in the late 1800s.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the contents of this museum revolve around two main characters: Sadie Orchard and Tom Ying, “The Chinaman,” who cooked and served food at the Ocean Grove Hotel’s restaurant during Sadie’s turn of the century reign in Hillsboro and beyond. In the end, it was Ying who lived there until he passed in 1959, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge in the Hillsboro Historical Society, the house remained vacant from the time of Ying’s death until its reincarnation as the Black Range Museum.
As such, the members of the Historical Society who purchased the museum in 2016 and are currently working on the restoration project have had the unique challenge—and pleasure—of sorting through the vast collection of remnants left behind from the days when Sadie, Tom, and others made this place their home.
Upon entering the new museum, you step inside the former dining room of the hotel restaurant, which is currently a gift shop featuring locally made pottery, honey, books, and jewelry, as well as random artifacts and treasures of ages long past.
The display room to your left is Tom Ying’s former kitchen, which now appropriately shows off his impressive collection of cookware and speciality items such as a cabbage cutter for making kimchi, and an early model electric refrigerator. You’ll also see vintage cast iron cookware, a sturdy wooden table and kitchen cabinets, old coffee tins, an ice box, a hand-operated “washtub with agitator,” plus much more. My favorite culinary treasure is the cast iron waffle maker — a lovely addition to any modern-day kitchen or camping excursion.
On April 15, 2017, the museum unveiled a newly finished display room that features a selection of the personal items of Sadie Orchard and Tom Ying recovered in the home. Among the items revealed are Sadie’s scrapbook, jewelry, and furniture, as well as Tom Ying’s hats, letters written in Chinese, and Chinese newspapers.
There is still much work to be done and plans are in place for an outdoor walking and garden space to be built behind the museum, among other things. You can visit the property and watch its restoration unfold every Friday through Sunday, from 11am to 4pm.
On the streets of Hillsboro …
As you leave the Black Range Museum, make sure to grab a Historic Walking Tour map of Hillsboro and embark on a self-guided exploration of the historic homes and other significant buildings that are still standing in town, including a short climb up the hill to the old Courthouse and Jail site.
In 1884, Hillsboro was named the county seat for a region that included parts of present-day Sierra, Dona Ana, Grant, and Socorro counties. The remnants of the Courthouse and Jail, with sweeping views of the countryside beyond Hillsboro, were the site of many a highly publicized trial and arrest. The slowly crumbling walls, solid iron doors, and barred jailhouse windows that remain are something special to behold for those who appreciate the opportunity to step briefly into a bygone era.
Strolling down Main Street, you’ll pass by a few colorful antique shops, the Hillsboro General Store Cafe (established in 1879), the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission (reconstructed following a flood in 1972), picturesque historic houses, and the Enchanted Villa Bed and Breakfast (built in 1941 as a vacation home for wealthy entrepreneur Sir Victor Sassoon).
While wandering around, I also spotted a sign for an RV Village with RV and tent sites and vintage trailers for rent. Word on the street is that the owner is working hard to restore airstreams and tin can trailers for weary travelers to rest their bones, as well as offering RV sites with hookups for those already hitched to a trailer on the road. We snuck a peek and it looks like a charming, quirky camp is in place just a few blocks from Main Street in Hillsboro.
Wine-ing down …
The last stop of the day was at Black Range Vineyards. Owned by Brian and Nicki O’Dell, the tasting room features a selection of local New Mexico wines, including a few produced and bottled at Black Range Vineyards in Hillsboro. I sampled a flight of whites and reds; the El Gallo Loco red blend with a hint of New Mexico red chile was my personal favorite. The gently rolling heat of the chile mixed with the fruity, peppery flavors of red wine was a unique “New Mexico True” treat that really hit the spot.
A final perk of the evening was that every Friday around 6pm, Black Range Vineyards comes alive with the sounds of the local pickers. They gather in the Blind Dog Art Gallery, a room adjacent to the wine bar, and fill the air with a sweet blend of folk and bluegrass guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and stand-up bass.
To our delight, this warm group of musicians welcome newcomers with open arms and even asked us to join the circle and play a few tunes. So Rob (my day tripping companion) picked up a guitar and I sang a bit before hitting the road back home.
Hillsboro’s Black Range Vineyards Friday night pickers gathered in Blind Dog Gallery. Artwork by David Farrell.
For anyone interested in checking out this lively bunch of instrumentalists, they also play every Saturday morning at the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market, which starts at 10am. Black Range Vineyards is open every Thursday through Sunday, 12pm to 6pm, with later hours on Friday night.