Located in New Mexico directly south of the town of Magdalena and about 20 miles southwest of Socorro, the Magdalena Mountains are a lightly visited 18 mile long range that offers spectacular recreational opportunities. The third highest range in southern New Mexico, these mountains are typical desert Basin and Range mountains – a ‘Sky Island’ of unique habitat surrounded by flat plains of Piñon-Juniper grasslands and Creosote desert scrub. Flora of the range includes Ponderosa Pine, Spruce, Fir, and Alligator Juniper. The mountains themselves are uplifted blocks of limestone-tipped granite that form the western edge of the Rio Grande Rift Valley. However, the granite and limestone are largely basement rocks and found on the western side of the range. Most of the exposed rock in the eastern portions of the range is volcanic, and not very good for climbing. To the east and south are the Socorro Mountains, the Chupadero Mountains, the Rio Grande Rift, and the Jornada del Muerto. To the west are the San Mateo Mountains and the Plains of San Augustin, the home of the Very Large Array
(aka VLA – a large field of radio antennas seen in the movie Contact
). To the north are the remote Gallinas Mountains. The name for the range came when early Spaniards thought a rock outcropping on the west side of the range looked like the outline of a woman’s face and named the nearby peak in honor of Mary Magdalene (Magdalena Peak).
Looking down Copper Canyon from the Crest Trail.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this area became famous for mining gold, silver, zinc, and lead. Some of the best examples of Smithsonite in museums have come from this region. Mines in the area were mostly on the north and west sides and included the Juanita Mine, the Graphic Mine, and the Kelly Mine. Kelly Mine’s namesake mining camp of Kelly is now a ghost town on the northern end of the range near Magdalena. Some rock hunters still hunt for Smithsonite at Kelly and Rosedale. The Mountains also provided timber and firewood for Fort Craig
located south of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Unnamed Peak in the Magdalenas.
At the summit of the range lies the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research
and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory
. The Langmuir Laboratory primarily focuses on lightening and thunderstorm studies. The Magdalena Ridge Observatory is the fourth highest in the world, boasts a 2.4 meter optical telescope, and will be the home of the inteferometer, an array of 10 telescopes that will be able to produce the same images as a 340 meter diameter single telescope. The interferometer is due to be completed in 2009.
The high points of the area include South Baldy
(10,783 ft. – the tallest peak in the Magdalenas), North Baldy (9,858 ft.), Timber Peak
(10,510 ft.), and Buck Peak (9,085 ft.) Canyons include Sawmill Canyon, Water Canyon, Copper Canyon, South Canyon, and Sixmile Canyon. Hikes to Timber Peak, South Baldy, and North Baldy can all be started from the approximately 13 mile road to the ridge. However, the trail from the road to the top of South Baldy is a mere 15 minute hike. For a more strenuous summit of South Baldy, try hiking it starting from Copper Canyon.
Magdalena Ridge Observatory
The area is also well-known for birding as the canyons contain water much of the year and attract migrating birds. Copper Canyon in particular is an observation site for migrating warblers. Some interesting birds in the area include Merriam’s Turkey, Red-faced Warblers, Olive Warblers, and Montezuma Quail. Other animals in the area include Golden Eagles, Abert’s Squirrel, Black Bear, Mountain Lion, and Mule Deer.
There are two wilderness study areas in these mountains, located in the southern reaches: Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Study Area, and Devil’s Reach Wilderness Study Area. Combined, these total 58,656 acres.
Other attractions worth visiting in the surrounding area include Strawberry Peak
, the Very Large Array
, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro
(a premier technological university), The Box Recreation Area
, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
, Fort Craig
, and Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio (10 minutes south of Socorro and voted the nation’s #7 Best Burger by GQ magazine for its Green Chile Cheeseburger).
Looking west at the San Mateos from the Crest Trail.
Copper Canyon and Strawberry Peak
From Albuquerque, drive south on I-25 for 70 miles to exit 150 at Socorro. Exit onto California Street heading south. Drive 1.8 miles until you reach US 60 West/Spring Street. Take a right and follow US 60 West for 15.6 miles past The Box Recreation Area to the Water Canyon turnoff. Turn left and drive on FR 235 for 4.8 miles to the end of the pavement. From here, you can either turn right to go to the Copper Canyon trailhead or Water Canyon Campground. The road to the left is an improved dirt road that travels for 7.8 miles to the summit ridge and trailheads for Timber Peak, North Baldy, and South Baldy.
To get there from Las Cruces, drive north on I-25 to exit 150 and follow the directions above.
Maps & Books
The 7.5 USGS maps are Magdalena (NM)
and South Baldy (NM)
Mike Butterfield's Guide to the Mountains of New Mexico
by Peter Greene
The Mountains of New Mexico
by Robert Hixson Julyan
There is no red tape. The road to Magdalena Ridge may be closed during the colder months of the year.
There are 16 family units and 1 group unit at Water Canyon with restrooms, picnic tables, and developed campsites. The group unit is limited to 30 persons, and the season of use for all the campsites is March-November with a stay limit of 14 days. All campsites are free, but the group unit requires reservations at 505-854-2281.
Looking northwest from the summit of South Baldy.
Cibola National Forest - Magdalena Ranger District
Very Large Array
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro
The Box Recreation Area
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research
Magdalena Ridge Observatory