Discover the riches of mountain scenery, Indian ruins, and fine art at this out-of-the-way place in the southwestern part of the state.
By John R. Catsis
It’s not on the interstate. It’s not anywhere between here and there. As a result, you have to want to get there. “It” is Silver City, one of the least-known towns in New Mexico, even among New Mexicans. And yet this community of approximately 12,000 in the southwestern part of the state is cited frequently as one of the best places in America to live, to retire to, and as having one of the nation’s best climates.
Silver City seems to have just about everything going for it, such as gentle seasons, low humidity, and a lack of urban stress. According to some experts, Silver City enjoys the best annual median temperature in the United States. In March “” the month FMCA members will visit New Mexico in conjunction with the association’s 71st International Convention in Albuquerque “” Silver City’s average high is in the mid-60s, with lows in the mid-30s. Overall, throughout the year, sunshine prevails 83 percent of the days, and the humidity is a pleasant 31 percent.
The city has a thriving art community that attracts aficionados from throughout North America. Galleries are listed in the “Artists Guide,” which aids visitors in taking a self-guided walk to the various establishments.
This is a college town, too. Western New Mexico University, founded in 1893, is a four-year institution with strong academic and athletic programs. Its museum houses the largest permanent collection of Mimbres pottery and artifacts in the United States. The dramatic hilltop campus overlooks downtown Silver City, replete with numerous historic buildings dating back to 1880. That’s when a city ordinance required all structures to be built of masonry, making them more resistant to fire damage.
The city’s historic attractions are a fine background for numerous community festivals held throughout the year. Silver City hosts a popular five-day bicycle race in early May; a blues festival in late May/early June; the Silver City PRCA Wild, Wild West Rodeo, also in late May/early June; and an art fair and a gem and mineral show over Labor Day weekend. The Grant County Cliff-Gila Fair is held in late September in nearby Gila.
For those who enjoy the outdoors, the biggest nearby attraction is Gila National Forest, America’s first national wilderness, which was established in 1924. This region represents a combined 3.3 million acres. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument also is a popular attraction. Two nearby lakes offer fishing and water sports, and many places to camp are available among the tall pine trees, in addition to the area’s commercial RV parks. Silver City also is known as a birding hot spot and a place to golf year-round.
Getting to Silver City is half the fun. Four major roads lead in and out, each with its own distinctive personality. Most travelers use Interstate 10, exiting at either Lordsburg or Deming. If you’re coming in from the west, Lordsburg is the likely place to head north and travel 46 miles along State Route 90, a somewhat hilly and twisting road that provides a hint of what’s to come as it touches a portion of the Gila National Forest. For those arriving from the east, the road from Deming “” U.S. 180 “” offers a straight shot. It’s mostly flat, straight, and rather boring, but you can stop at City of Rocks State Park, an unusual spot 24 miles northwest of Deming. Giant rocks, towering up to 50 feet, were formed of volcanic ash more than 30 million years ago. One of the formations resembles a jackrabbit, so appropriate for this part of the desert Southwest.
Other visitors arrive from the north via U.S. 180. Two special attractions along the way are the Catwalk and the ghost town of Mogollon. The Catwalk is a National Recreation Trail that follows the route of a water pipe built in the 1890s to serve a gold mill and the settlement around it. The mill closed in 1913 and the pipeline and catwalk were unused until the 1930s, when it was decided this site could be a recreational attraction. The current metal catwalk was built in 1961. This is a popular three-mile hike with a spectacular view of the Whitewater Canyon. The walkway includes a 250-foot metal causeway and a suspension bridge.
The road to Mogollon (pronounced MUG-e-yone), on State Route 159, has steep grades and twists and turns for nearly all of its nine miles, but motorhomes less than 35 feet long can safely make the trip. Be forewarned, however: a sign cautions against hauling trailers longer than 17 feet, and the final four miles into town are full of hairpin turns. The town once was full of gold miners and their families, and an amazing number of original businesses, homes, and other buildings still stand.
The most spectacular drive to Silver City is along State Route 152, which extends westward from Interstate 25. This drive takes time, since the road cuts through Gila National Forest, offering numerous mountain and woodland views. Canyons and creeks add to the scenic interest.
However you get to Silver City, your first stop upon arrival should be the Murray Ryan Visitor Center, at the corner of Broadway and State Route 90, also known as Hudson Street. Years ago, a cabin on this site served as the boyhood home of Billy the Kid. The visitors center is just a block from the heart of downtown. Ample parking is available, and you will find plenty of useful information inside, including free local telephone directories. Now that’s a service other visitors centers should offer. Make sure you pick up one of the fine city street maps while there.
Heading one block west along Broadway, you will cross what is locally called Big Ditch Riverwalk Park, but more formally known as San Vicente Arroyo. At one time, Main Street was located where the ditch now stands, but numerous floods between 1890 and 1910 eroded the thoroughfare to a depth of 55 feet. Of the buildings that once lined Main Street, only the Warren House remains.
The main downtown avenue today is Bullard Street. One block west is the Silver City Museum, located at 312 W. Broadway. The collection is housed inside a restored Victorian home originally built in 1881 and is a must-see showcase of the city’s history. Admission is free. The main floor, which is handicapped-accessible, contains refurbished rooms and local artifacts. The museum also is the starting point for each of the city’s three 60-minute walking tours.
A block north of Broadway is Yankie Street, where art galleries and a coffeehouse are located. Give yourself time to get lost and enjoy the historic office buildings, homes, shops, restaurants, and galleries situated in the heart of downtown. Curiously, a continuation of that street to the east of the Big Ditch is spelled Yankee Street.
Silver City was founded in 1870 after silver was discovered in the area, then known as La Cienega de San Vicente (the Marsh of St. Vincent). The town lies at an elevation of 6,000 feet in the foothills of the Silver City and Pinos Altos mountain ranges, just southeast of the Continental Divide. Within a short time after prospectors found silver there, they also discovered rich deposits of copper, gold, and turquoise. Silver City flourished when the railroad came through in 1883. Today copper is the primary ore mined there, as two huge open pit mines still provide a living for hundreds of residents. One mine is east of town, the other is to the south.
One of the community’s early residents, Billy the Kid, lived in Silver City from 1873 to 1875. He was jailed at the age of 15 for stealing clothes from a Chinese laundry. He escaped and went on to other adventures in New Mexico, where he eventually was gunned down by legendary sheriff Pat Garrett. A current local folk hero is astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a member of the Apollo 17 crew that walked on the moon.
A free mineral museum can be explored at a rock shop called Royal Scepter Gems and Minerals, located on Little Walnut Road in Silver City. If you’re a rock hound or simply a jewelry aficionado, you won’t want to miss it. The Western New Mexico University Museum, noted earlier, also offers free admission.
Six miles north and at least 1,000 feet higher than Silver City is the village of Pinos Altos (“tall pines”), which straddles the Continental Divide. The community is aptly named, for here the pinons and junipers of Silver City are replaced by towering conifers. Settlement of Pinos Altos began in 1860, when three prospectors found gold while stopping for a drink of water in Bear Creek. The town served as the Grant County seat until 1871, when the county government moved to Silver City. Judge Roy Bean, a colorful character perhaps best known for administering the law west of the Pecos in Langtry, Texas, ran a store in Pinos Altos with his brother in the 1860s.
In this historical town, not much seems to have changed since the 1870s. There are no masonry architectural requirements in Pinos Altos as there are in Silver City. Most of its homes are built of wood, and growth is not a goal of its largely independent residents. Yet the town has several interesting attractions. One is Fort Cobre, a 3/4-scale replica of the original fort built by Spanish-controlled Mexico in 1804 near the Kennecott open pit copper mine in nearby Santa Rita. The shopping opportunities are good at Fort Cobre, which offers antiques and collectibles in addition to a free museum.
The Pinos Altos Historical Museum, located inside the town’s first schoolhouse, holds many mining artifacts. Nearby is the Buckhorn Saloon, built in 1897 with 18-inch-thick adobe walls and hand-hewn timbers. It’s been called the best restaurant in the area. When a visitor walks in the door, he or she is transported to an earlier time. Next door to the Buckhorn is the Opera House, home to displays of prehistoric Indian relics and pottery, as well as old photos and memorabilia. Melodramas are offered at the Opera House on weekends. Even the local ice cream parlor is housed in an 1870s building.
Pinos Altos is home to art galleries, too, including works displayed by the Grant County Art Guild inside the Hearst Methodist Church. Other attractions include the Hearst Mine, which supplied gold used to bedeck Hearst Castle in California; the McDonald log home (circa 1851), one of the oldest buildings in the county; and the first courthouse, complete with a nearby hanging tree. The latter building is now a private residence, but its exterior can be viewed from Main Street.
From Pinos Altos, continue north along State Route 15, but don’t hurry. Allow at least two hours for the trip, as the road twists and turns through Gila National Forest until it ends at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Here, a civilization called the Mogollon culture thrived from the 1280s through the early 1300s. The ruins of their homes, built to make use of natural caves, include approximately 42 walled rooms. Wear strong-soled, safe shoes as you take the one-mile loop trail to and through the dwellings. A museum and visitors center is located at the site.
On the return trip, take the long way back to town by turning southeast onto State Route 35, which goes past Lake Roberts, a popular resort community. Turn west on State Route 152 to head back toward town.
Nine miles east of Silver City along U.S. 180 is Fort Bayard. This military reservation was built in 1866 by an all-black regiment of the 9th Cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers. It is now a state rehabilitation center. Fort Bayard borders an elk refuge as well as a national cemetery “” probably one of America’s least known national cemeteries.
That seems to be the trend in this part of New Mexico: Least known. Because it has yet to be “discovered,” Silver City and vicinity reflects the charm of a bygone era. Nature and its people have assured that the charm will last a long, long time.
The chamber of commerce offers visitors guides as well as three videos that depict the area’s special features: “Old West Adventure” ($9), which provides an overall look at the history and attractions of the area; “A Great Place to Live and Retire” ($15); and “The Last Solitude” ($17), which captures the feeling of the Gila Wilderness.
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMC’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
Continental Divide RV Park
4774 N. Highway 15
Pinos Altos, NM 88053
Manzano’s RV Park
103 Flury Lane
Silver City, NM 88061
Silver City KOA Kampground
11824 Highway 180 E.
Silver City, NM 88061
(800) 562-7623 (Reservations)
(505) 388-3351 (Information)