Gold Mines - Circle Trail

US 70, US 54, US 380, NM 37, NM 48

”There’s Gold in Them Hills”

Gold Mines in New Mexico. Over fifty Old West gold mines can be found on this trail. In the Old West the gold rush caused Lincoln county to be the most populous place in the New Mexico territory. This circle trail is 140+ miles long and will take a half a day to travel including stops and detours along the way. Even today, people are still searching and panning for the elusive gold hiding “in them hills”. The Lyrics of the chorus to “There’s Gold in Them Hills” says much about the New Mexico Territory in the 1880’s:

There's gold in them hills, There's gold in them hills                                                                                                                  So don't lose heart, Give the day a chance to start

The gold rush of 1849 in California and 1877 in the Dakota Territory laid the foundation for the belief that gold in the frontier was there for the taking. Find the gold, stake the claim, and become rich was the old west equivalent to the modern lottery. Many paid the price, took a chance, but only a very few found gold and became rich.

Beginning the Journey in Ruidoso. What mountain mining and logging town transformed itself into a major resort destination? What today has seven golf courses, two disk golf courses, three casinos, a horse race track, the southern most ski area, hiking trails, horse back riding, fishing, broadway shows, elk hunting, shopping, great places to eat, and so much more? The answer is the cool pine village of Ruidoso. With so many things to do and see, options become numerous.  Below are sites to help in deciding “What to Do?”.

Ruidoso Chamber:                                                                                                                          Inn of Mountains Resort and casino:                                                                             Ruidoso down Racetrack and casino:                                                                                 Ruidoso Travel site:                                                                                                         Ruidoso Newspaper:                                                                                                           Ruidoso Travel site:

Beginning the Journey in Ruidoso and traveling west on US 70.

Mescalero - 19 miles away. Mescalero is the main community in the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The community, which began as Blazer’s Mill, was named after the dentist, Dr. Joseph H. Blazer, who owned many of the businesses which included a saw mill, grist mill, a general store, eating establishments, and a post office. President Ulysses Grant established the Mescalero reservation in 1873 by executive order. Later that year, the reservation headquarters were established at Blazer’s Mill.  

It took over twenty years to build the St. Joseph Apache Mission, a striking neo-Gothic stone structure. The stone was quarried about four miles west of the mission in Bent. The lime for the mortar was burned in pits near the mission. Recently a fourteen year restoration project was completed.

Their website 

The official Mescalero Apache Tribe website home page begins with “Welcome to our sacred lands. The Mescalero Apache Tribe welcomes you to familiarize yourself with our history, traditions and current vision of our tribe.”  The site address is:

New Mexico History (this is a great website) has an excellent article titled Mescalero Apache People at:

Mental Detour. The elevations of Mescalero and Tularosa are about 6,600 ft and 4,500 ft respectively. A simple rule of thumb is that the temperature changes about seven degrees Fahrenheit for each 1,000 feet in elevation change. When you go up the temp goes down and visa versa. Look at the outside temp reading in your car and add 14 degrees to it. Take note and see if this is about the temp in Tularosa. This assumes climate conditions are the same in both areas and a few other factors. It is just a simple rule of thumb and an interesting tidbit to know. 

Tularosa - 17 miles away. Tularosa was named for the red or rose colored reeds that grew in this river marsh area. This oasis in the desert attracted settlers to the area. The village of Tularosa was settled by families from Las Cruces and was mapped out in 1863. The village was divided into seven blocks by seven blocks - 1400 acres of area with water that was diverted from the river. The ditch irrigation system called an “acequia” is still in use today and provides water for trees, private gardens, and landscaping which creates a green jewel in the desert. Because of the abundance of water, pecan orchards were planted and can be easily seen from the highway. The unique climate of the area also is great for growing pistachios and grapes. To the south of Tularosa are the two largest pistachio operations in the state. There are four vineyards in the area and all have tasting rooms. The world’s "Largest Pistachio" can be  found at McGinn’s Pistachio Land south of Tularosa on US Hwy 70.

Websites for these operations:

Heart of the Desert Pistachios & Wines:                                                                    McGinn’s Pistachios & Wines:                                                                                            Tularosa Vineyards:                                                                                                               Dos Viejos Wines:

The family owned and operated Tularosa Pecan Company has 11,000 pecan trees on 2132 acres of its operation. Their products can be purchased at their store, the Tularosa Travel Center, located at the south end of the town on US 70. Their travel center is divided into three operations - a restaurant, a pecan store, and a convenience store. Their website is full of information and many folks love their recipes for tasty pecan treats. The pecan gift shop sells pecan goodies along with bags of shelled pecans. website:

Leaving Tularosa - heading north on US Hwy 54. You will see a sign denoting Horseman's Park when leaving Tularosa. This is a state-of-the-art racehorse training center and private community. Horse racing is big business in this area for a variety of reasons. Race horses require special feed and this feed grows great in the Tularosa basin. Most of the planted fields you see in this area grow feed for the race horses. Why bring the feed to the horses when you can bring the horses to the feed!  Another big reason is the elevation. Tularosa is located on the high desert at 4,500 ft. Training a race horse at this altitude increases the animals lung capacity and oxygen carrying capacity. Traveling over the overpass another race horse training facility and farm will come into view to your left.

At the time of this writing the Tularosa Speedway is closed but the Tulie Motocross is open and its website is

A large pecan orchard is located between the highway and foot hills to your right. New Mexico is called the land of enchantment. It is also the land of contradictions, contrasts, and is definitely under marketed. New Mexico jockeys for one of the top three slots in pecan production in our nation each year.

Author Note: Backing up and ranting for a bit. New Mexico is remarkable but it fails to “toot its own horn” so many times. New Mexico has the 3rd largest pecan production, 4th largest cheese production, 6th largest oil production, 7th largest movie and tv production, 7th largest natural gas production, 9th largest milk production, and 10th largest solar home electricity production in the United States. If I missed other top unique facts, I apologize. Did you know that New Mexico has on average over 300 golfing days per year? 

Mental Detour - C. Hart Merriam and the Life Zone Concept. In 1889, C. Hart Merriam developed the concept of the relationship of elevation and life zones. A life zone is a particular habitat with its own wildlife and vegetation. An illustration of this is the change in wildlife and vegetation from the desert plains to the foothills and then to the top of Sierra Blanca. The valley you are driving in is a high plains desert with scrub, grass, and cactus. Traveling east and up, the vegetation drastically changes until you reach the top of the mountain. The top of Serra Blanca is an island in the sky called an alpine tundra. At this elevation the climate is harsh. The winds are very strong because there is nothing to block them as in the lower elevations. To provide protection from the strong winds these plants are ground hugging and do not grow tall. The extreme cold and crushing weight of snow and ice also cause the plants to be small.

Looking from the desert, east to the mountain top, you see all the life zones in a snap shot. Animals range from the flat land desert rabbits, quail, rattlesnakes, and roadrunners to the higher elevation bobcats, raccoons, mountain goats, deer, mountain lions, black bears and elk. All are living just outside in your field of view between the road and the mountaintop!

Note the different shades of green which illustrate the differences in tree densities. Keep in mind that you are viewing objects over twenty miles away. Many of the rolling hills at the base of the mountain chain are not visible because of the curvature of the earth. Standing upright and looking forward, the ground curves downward from your line of sight at about 3 miles. Viewing across a distance of twenty miles causes objects less than 250 feet tall to be invisible. When you drive from the Three Rivers Trading Post to the mountains, you will see all the sights that are invisible from the road.

Animals hide from view but not trees. As you travel this trail, watch for the changing of the trees as you change elevations. Here is a chart to guide your viewing.

Elevation in ft.          Zone name                Tree type                             Year Perception                                                        100 - 3500                Lower Sonoran          Desert shrub                        3-12 inches                                                              3500-6500                Upper Sonoran          Grass, scrub, juniper           10-20 inches                                                          6000-8500                Transition                   Ponderosa pine forest         18-26 inches                                                           8000-9500                Canadian                   Mixed conifer forest              25-30 inches                                                            9500-11500              Hudsonian                  Spruce-fur forest                  30-40 inches                                                       11500-12700            Alpine-arctic               No trees, tundra                   35-40 inches

Mental Detour - Dust Devils. Often, on a hot sunshiny summer day in the desert, people observe micro tornados or dust devils. These micro storms can range in size from a few feet wide to 15 yards wide and can rise to a height of half a mile. Dust devils are caused from updrafts and big temperature inversions. Since hot air always rises, air is moving from the very hot desert floor to the much cooler air above on sunny days.  When this upward moving air current begins to rotate, a dust devil can be formed. The air rotation will increase the spinning effect of neighboring air until the micro storm is born. These micro storms are generally short lived, lasting only a minute or so, and can travel up to 45 mph. 

The fast moving dust particles also create an electrical imbalance and make charged particles. These moving charged dust particles create a magnetic field and then the charged and magnetic whirling dust particles lift more dust particles off the desert floor. More dust particles equals more force in an ever increasing wobbling pillar of swirling dust.  This continues until the forces are not sufficient to hold the dust and the storm collapses. If you are listening to over-the-air non satellite radio, then these dust devil pulsating magnetic electrical fields will cause radio signal interference.

Dust devils were not studied until the 1960’s, and only then because of their effects on light aircrafts. In the 1970’s the dust devils received a more proper name, Thermal Vortices, because their mechanics were studied by planetary geologists. Mars has huge Thermal Vortices. It is so much easier to study dust devils in the wild (in the desert) than flying to another planet! Also, these storms can be created in the lab. The storms are also called “dancing devils” for the way they move about and Navajo lore says these storms are ghosts or spirits that are moving about.

Three Rivers - 18 miles away. Three-Rivers Trading Post is native owned and a great place to stop. The trading post is heated by a double fifty-five gallon barrel wood fired stove. The open raftered building is filled with art, clothes, posters, Indian jewelry,  books, western wear, plus an area with special straw cowboy hats, snacks, drinks and an espresso bar. Where else can you find so much stuff which includes reproductions of the petroglyph drawings on the floor.   Detailed information about the Three River Petroglyphs is available at the Three Rivers store. Site is:

Detour trip east on Three Rivers Rd.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site & Recreation  Area - 4 miles away.  Over 20,000 glyphs, rock art pictures called petroglyphs, are found in over 50 acres at the recreational area. These petroglyphs were made between 900 and 1400 AD by the Mogollon people. The Mogollon is one of the four major archaeological prehistoric southwestern cultural divisions of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. The American Indian culture, known as the Mogollon, lived in the southwest from approximately 300 AD until sometime around 1400 AD. People, animals, insects, fish, and abstract designs are scratched into the rock faces. Not all the pictures are fully understood because the Mogollon peoples vanished in the mid to late 1400’s. Hiking, back-packing, and camping is available at the park site. This site is managed by the BLM, Bureau of Land Management, and has a website at

 Detour Trip at end of paved Three River Road.

Chapel Road to Santo Nino de Atocha Mission. Santo Nino de Atocha is translated to mean “Holy child of Atocha”. At the end of the Moorish occupation in Spain, priests were not allowed to bring aid and comfort to the dying male prisoners held in the Atocha prison. The women of Atocha prayed for a miracle and one day a child dressed as a pilgrim came to the prison carrying a basket of bread and a full container of water. The guards allowed the child to hand out the bread and water and to also give the blessings to the prisoners. When the child left the prison, the baskets were still filled with bread and the container was still filled with water. The women of the community believed that Christ the Child had come and answered their prayers.  A picture of the child Christ carrying food and water is the universal symbol of Santo Nino de Atocha.

People from near and far have traveled to this mission since its construction in 1911, to give blessings, worship, and ask for miracles to help the suffering. At times, items of remembrances are left at the mission. 

Authors note: On our visit we saw a small child’s old crutch, many photos of loved ones, small personal items and many candles. This small sanctuary created a special spiritual feeling of reverence. This mission did feel like a place of miracles.

Continuing 10 miles on the Three River’s dirt road. Unless you have a big tired truck or vehicle, the dirt road can only be traveled at 10-15 mph. The road ends at the Three Rivers Campground of the Lincoln National Forest. Sheltered areas and hiking trails abound. This area is located in the transition zone ( first evidence of the tree line) and at the base of the Sierra Blanca mountain range which is the beginning of the Rocky Mountains which move north to Canada.

Back on US Hwy 54 heading north - Carrizozo - 27 miles away. Carrizozo, Spanish for a reed grass, began as a railroad town in 1899. After an unusual rainy season the grass grew several feet high. The extra “zo" was added to indicate that the grass was so very tall. Naming a town after a super tall grass in the old west was a great marketing idea. The town site was in a great location with the gold field to the north east, coal fields to the east, lumber to the south east, cattle/farming in the basin, and a railroad terminal to unite all these business together. To grow and prosper the town needed investors and marketing. And they got both. 

In the early 1900’s, Carrizozo was a growing thriving community with a bank, railroad hotel, two drug stores, stores, two churches, and a masonic hall.  The important people of Carrizozo, the largest town in the county, wanted the county seat for Lincoln county moved from Lincoln to Carrizozo. After a four year legal battle, finally decided by the US Supreme Court, Carrizozo was chosen to be the country seat. The community erected a grand court house.

However, in 1960 it was felt a new more modern Lincoln County court house was needed and the picture on the right shows their architectural improvement.

Before people had home freezers, frozen food lockers were rented to store frozen food. The old Frozen Food Locker in Carrazzo has been converted into the Heritage Museum. The museum is open Thursday to Saturday from 10am to 2pm. The old main street is 12th street which is next to the railroad. The museum is at the north end of this street. This same 12th street was totally transformed for the 2009 movie staring Dezel Washington, “The Book of Eli”.

The town’s website is

Detour West on US Hwy 380 - Valley of Fire - 4 miles away.  In the old west, traveling by wagon, mule, or horse west from Carrizozo was impossible because of a lava flow created 1,500-2,000 years ago. This 44 mile long lava flow, which is up to six miles wide and up to 160 feet thick, is the youngest lava flow in the country. Small hills became islands in the sea of molten lava. The recreation area sits on one of these islands. As barren and inhospitable as the land appears, it teams with life.

The Valley of Fires recreation area operated by the Bureau of Land Management is a great detour. Stop and experience a very unique site. When visiting their website, click on the video and photo gallery to get a preview of this geological phenomenon. 

A glance at the forbidding black landscape automatically causes one to think that nothing could live in this terrain. But, this is not so. More types of vegetation live inside the lava flow than outside. People who take the trail from the campsite into the lava flow below are amazed at how cool it is at the bottom of the trail. This coolness and protection from the wind increases the abundance of life. There are twelve species - six rodents, five lizards and one snake - that live in the lava flow and have a related group living in the neighboring White Sands area. The ones living in the lava flow are very dark colored or even black while their relatives living in the White Sands are very light colored or even white. The Valley of Fire is definitely worth the time to visit. The guided walking trail from the campsite is smooth and easy to walk as compared to trekking into the open lava fields as pictured below.

Their site is:

Mental Detour. A few miles away from the lava flow was “the most godforsaken camp and best place to work in the USA”. The camp was Red Canyon Range Camp, the location for the first Nike Ajax training site. The Nike Ajax was the first guided missile antiaircraft system. The camp was planned to be temporary but existed for over six years. Over 400 men were assigned to the camp and many were trained to fire the Nike Ajax missiles. The camp conducted over 800 battery firings. Over 13,000 visitors visited the site with some traveling from 45 foreign countries. Yet, for almost all of the locals in Carrizozo, this site and its operation remained a secret. When the camp was decommissioned, all traces of it and its activities were removed and it became another secret of the desert. The story of the camp can be found at:

Detour North on US Hwy 54 from Carrizozo to Co. Rd. 349

White Oaks, a Ghost Town - 12 miles away from Carrizozo.  White Oaks was the center of the gold rush in the 1880’s. The discovery of gold is a little fuzzy but it makes a great story. Three men, Wilson, Winters and Baxter, joined forces to search for gold in the hills. Wilson found the gold, but as a wanted man he chose to sell out cheap and leave before news of the strike spread. Wilson departed with a few silver dollars, two ounces of gold, and a pistol for his share in the gold strike. Winters and Baxter created the Homestead Mine which they later sold for $300,000 each.

News of the gold strike brought people from far and wide. In 1882 the town had expanded to its greatest population of over 4,000. The community had four newspapers, an opera house, a bank, several saloons, two hotels, a few general stores, a school, a town hall, several casinos, and the ever present brothels found in most gold rush towns. Miners got gold from the mine while others got gold from the miners. White Oaks was known as the “liveliest town in New Mexico” and its seediest part was known as Hogtown. The jewel of Hogtown was the “Little Casino” run by Madam Varnish. She offered games of chance, whiskey, and women for a price. A common practice was to sell whisky in grades good, better and best, each at its own price. The good, better, and best whisky was not graded but came from the same barrel. In 1884 the first church was built. By the 1890’s the gold had begun to play out and the town began to shrink in commerce and population. 

The White Oaks gold mines were the deepest of the free-milling mines in the country. The Old Abe mine was 1,350 feet deep and water free. Free-milling is crushing the ore into a very fine powder and using a simple chemical-free approach for separation. Only extremely pure gold can be processed in this manner. The gold extracted in this area was very pure with an average composition of 90% gold and 10% silver.  The White Oaks mines had a combined output of over 160,000 troy ounces of gold at a value of over $3,000,000 at a time when the average work day was 10 hours long, the average work week was 6 days long, and the average pay was $20 a week.

The death blow to the town came when the gold ran out and the railroad passed the town by. Money, people, and commerce went elsewhere and the town became a very slim shadow of itself. The community is now a ghost/art/tourist town. Any visit to the town requires a stop at the No Scum Allowed Saloon. This self proclaimed “Best Old West Bar in New Mexico” hosts many events in the summers.Their website is

NM 380 to Nogal - 24 miles away on NM 37 highway.  Nogal may sound very familiar because in so many western movies and TV shows the cowboys were said to be going to or from Nogal. Today, Nogal, New Mexico has a population of about 100. Doing an internet search of the area will give you the name of Nogal Lake and even Nogal Lake Campgrounds. As with other internet information, it is “sorta right”. There is a road to the site, but it is dirt. There is a lake, but it is and has been dry for a long time. And, there is a campground, but with only the desert ground for camping and you will be surrounded by cactus and snakes.  

Little Bear Fire. After passing Stone Mountain RV campgrounds, the remanences of a fire appears everywhere. This fire began on June 4, 2012 and burned 44,300 acres including 254 buildings. The fire became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history and took almost a month to extinguish. A view of the fire as seen from Ruidoso.

Detour to Bonita Lake from Hwy 37 to Bonito Lake Road.  Bonita did not begin as a lake but as a town called Bonito City located along a mountain creek. It was mainly a cluster of log cabins and tents with a church and post office. The church and post office made the town official and not just a campground for miners on the move. The most notable historical event was the killing of an entire family by a gunman. After this violent episode and the lack of finding a major gold strike, people left the town and moved on to the next rumored gold field. 

In the 1900’s the Southern Pacific Railroad needed good water for their steam engines. Most of the available water in the basin was high in mineral content and unsuitable for use. The railroad bought water rights, dammed Bonito Creek, and built a wooden pipeline to carry the water downhill which extended over 130 miles. Bonito has an elevation of 7,500 ft and the basin below is 4,500 ft. Water falling over a half a mile down hill does not need any pumping system, gravity just does the work.  In the late 1920’s the water supply was not sufficient for the needs of the steam locomotives and the railroad petitioned the government to build a bigger dam. The town, with its few people, buildings, and cemetery, was moved. The dam was completed in 1931 and took two years to fill. The lake is about a mile long with has a maximum depth of 70 feet.

In the 1950’s the railroads switched to diesel electric locomotives and no longer needed the cool clear high quality mountain water from the dam. With the downhill piping in place, the city of Alamogordo bought the water supply. Most of the water from wells in the basin surrounding Alamogordo is not desirable for a municipal water system due its high mineral content. The pure, good tasting mountain water was piped 90 miles to the city below.

Ashes from a fire when mixed with water create an alkaline or caustic solution. Heavy rains came after the Little Bear fire and sent ash and silt into the lake. This filled about one third of the lake and made the water unusable. Many millions of dollars and years of clean up are needed to return this lake back from ruin. The mountain lake can still be viewed but not used. At the time of this writing the lake is closed for all activities.

Returning to NM 37 highway and returning to Ruidoso

Detour to Ruidoso Winter Park & Ski Apache.  If you have kids then Winter Park is the place to go for snowplay. Visit their site for informtion on their activities at:

Ski Apache. Robert O. Anderson, an oil man, rancher, businessman, and philanthropist, was the seventh richest man in the United States at one time. One of his oil companies discovered the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope. Under his leadership his company and six others constructed the 800-mile four foot in diameter Trans-Alaska pipeline. Mr. Anderson maintained a residence in Roswell for many years and was very acquainted with Ruidoso. In the 1960’s he owned ski resorts in New Mexico and Colorado and in 1961 he built Sierra Blanca Ski Resort in Ruidoso. In its first year of operation the ski resort moved over 2,600 skiers on three T-bar lifts to become the Southern most ski slope in America. In 1963 the resort was sold to the Mescalero Apache Tribe and in 1984 the name was changed to Ski Apache.

Ski Apache has a peak elevation of 11,500 feet with a vertical drop of 1,900 feet. 55 trails are located on the 750 skiable acres. Ski Apache has the highest lift capacity of any ski resort in the state. 5,600 skiers and boarders can be lifted up the mountain per hour. The ski slope also offers summer activities and special events. Visit their site for more information:

Gold Mines Circle Trail PDF

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