The Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico seem unremarkable from a distance, but up close you encounter a mountain paradise and two of the state’s best-kept secrets—the community of Cloudcroft and the village of Ruidoso.
My husband, Wayne, and I had an adventurous vacation there. Our trip took us east from Alamogordo on U.S. Highway 82. As we left Alamogordo, the road immediately turned into a steep 16-mile climb that took us up 5,000 feet to Cloudcroft, where the 9,000-foot elevation brings a dramatic change in temperature.
We quickly found a campground in the Lincoln National Forest. There were no hookups for electricity or sewer, but the rate was only $11 per night.
Not far from our campsite was the Mexican Canyon Trestle, part of an old railroad that was built in 1899 for the logging industry and once provided the only transportation to Cloudcroft. The trestle is a landmark that is now being restored. The nearby Trestle Recreation Area is a wonderful place to spend the day, with picnic tables and a number of hiking trails, including one with a good view of the trestle.
We took a scenic drive to the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, which is about 20 miles south of Cloudcroft. There are several pullouts to stop and enjoy picturesque views of the White Sands National Monument, which has the world’s largest deposit of gypsum sand. The observatory, which is used for research by scientists from around the world, has a fascinating array of structures housing an astounding variety of telescopes. The site is open for self-guided tours from sunrise to sunset.
We traveled from Cloudcroft to Ruidoso, which sits at about 7,000 feet, so it’s a little warmer than Cloudcroft. Our first stop was at the Free Spirits at Noisy Water Monument at the entrance to the Hubbard Museum of the American West. The monument draws its name from the river that runs through town called Rio Ruidoso, which is Spanish for Noisy River. The monument has extraordinary larger-than-life statues of horses set in a grassy park, and the museum has a remarkable collection of horse memorabilia and Indian artifacts.
We also stopped at Ruidoso Downs racetrack, which runs the world’s richest quarter horse race and also has a casino. It was invigorating to stand on a hill overlooking the track and watch the jockeys exercise the horses.
Near Ruidoso on Airport Road (Highway 220) is Fort Stanton, which was built in 1855 to protect settlements from Apache raids. Kit Carson once commanded the fort, and Billy the Kid escaped from the fort after he was brought there for trial in 1880. Confederate troops occupied the fort briefly at the beginning of the Civil War, and Buffalo Soldiers came there in 1866. The fort has become a popular site for military reenactments. The museum is closed for the winter, but reopens in the spring.
Our search for locations for backcountry camping took us to Eagle Creek Campground on Ski Run Road, about five miles off the main highway and far from any crowds. The campground doesn’t have many amenities, but it has electric and water hookups for about $15 a day. The first night we went there, a small herd of wild horses came into the campground. Hoping to get some photos, I grabbed my camera as I took my dog for a walk. A foal started following us and, as I held out my hand, the foal freaked and ran to the other horses. The foal’s mother watched us while she grazed, and I didn’t linger.
The campground is 12 miles from the Ski Apache ski area, which is on the north ridge of Sierra Blanca Peak, overlooking Ruidoso. The drive to the ski area is one that should not be missed, with many overlooks where you can stop and enjoy the view.
The Monjeau Lookout is also near the campground. It is a wooden tower that was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is in use today as a Forest Service lookout. It sits at 10,356 feet and offers a spectacular view of the White Mountain Wilderness. It can be reached by taking the Monjeau turnoff at Forest Road 117 about a mile from the beginning of Ski Run Road. The view is worth the trip over a bumpy dirt road.
Our biggest thrill happened when a small brown bear came into our campsite the last night we were there. My husband was exhilarated and stood watching the bear while I grabbed our dog and pushed her into the RV. I was afraid she would run after the bear and get hurt. But the bear just looked around the campsite and wandered off.
Cloudcroft and Ruidoso are surrounded by the million-acre Lincoln National Forest, and together they form a unique mountain playground, with woodlands to explore, cool mountain air and unspoiled scenic vistas. Not only is it a camping paradise, but a haven for hiking and other outdoor activities.
Evalyn Neuhaus is a writer who lives in Elgin, Arizona.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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