Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains

Las Cruces is situated 45 miles north of El Paso, Texas. It is bordered to the east by the Organ Mountains, which are an extension of the San Andres Mountains, which are a fragmented southern most extension of the Rocky Mountains. Sixty miles to the east are the other fragmented southern most extension of the Rocky Mountains, the Sacramento Mountains. The San Andres and Sacaramento Mountains used to be contiguous, but eons ago the center collapsed, resulting in the Tularosa Basin. Without this basin, there would be no White Sands National Monument, but that is another story.

The Chihuahuan Desert is home to Las Cruces. While the Chihuahuan Desert is situated at approxiamately the same latitude as the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahuan is a cold desert, while the Sonoran is considered a sub-tropical desert. The difference? Altitude. The Sonoran Desert is generally less than 1000 feet in altitude, while the Chihuahuan is generally more than 3500 feet in altitude. Las Cruces is about a mile high, with the corresponding Organ Mountains rising from the desert plain to nearly 9000 feet.

This means that it gets relatively cold in the Chihuahuan Desert, and nearly every winter Las Cruces gets at least a touch of snow. Of course it doesn't last long, the snow melts within a couple of hours of the sun reappearing, and it isn't much (Las Cruces averages a little more than six inches of moisture per year, with 80% of that coming in July and August). But when it does come, the Organ Mountains take on a special beauty. Click on any of the thumbnailed pictures below to see a fullsized picture of the Organ Mountains in winter.

Las Cruces itself lies in a valley through which the Rio Grande river flows. The valley is bordered by two mesa's on the east and west, and it is a rift valley, the east and west mesa are pulling apart. The Rio Grande itself is a modest river at best by Eastern or Pacific Northwest standards. But it is unfair to apply those standards to desert rivers. With it's headwaters in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, it bisects the entire state. Shortly before it hits Santa Fe, the last tributary enters it. It is now left to itself to try to find another water source for it's mouth, and it flows through nearly 750 miles of desert until tributaries once again feed it, with man and nature tapping at it the whole way. That it traverses this distance, and actually find the Gulf of Mexico is nothing short of astounding. One needs only to look at the number of rivers that enter the desert and never leave it to fully appreciate this feat. Most just disappear into the sand, including the Gila River, the Mimbres River, and countless others.

Because of the clear weather, low humidity, and panoramic vistas, the desert is home to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets, as well as colors that absolutely titillate the senses. The mountains are generally uninhibited by growth, and as the sun's rays stretch out along the western horizon, and strike the mountains at an extremely low angle, the result can exceed the imagination. Below are the Organ Mountains at sunset, and an early morning sunrise in the desert.

The early Spanish settlers named the mountains bounding the village to the east the Organ Mountains, because the rising spires reminded them of the organs from a pipe organ. The spires, which are more easily identifiable when looking at them from the east as in the picture to the left (click for full size image), are actually the igneous rock remnants of volcanic tubes through which the lava flowed. The mountains eroded around this harder igneous rock, hence their unique look and qualities.

I was amazed that anything could grow in this hostile environment, extreme heat, extreme cold, less than seven inches of rain per year! And yet life does flourish. In actuality, Las Cruces gets more rain in July and August than Eugene, Oregon, summer is their rainy season, and the desert does indeed green up. It can however be very spotty. The rain comes in thunderstorms, and a particular area can get several inches, while just ten miles away, nothing falls. The following pictures were taken in a summer when the Organ Mountains got an abundance of rain, and the wildflowers bloomed with abundance. Enjoy the pictures, and if you are ever in need of solitude, nothing beats the desert.