I was listening to Linda Ronstadt just loud enough to hear her outside on the porch as the sun set on a recent October afternoon. I was thinking about the vastness of the western sky when a falling star briefly illuminated a narrow path over the Mustangs to the east. Like the Magi, my wife and I decided to follow that star into western New Mexico. We headed off towards the Animas Valley and I wondered how that sunlit and beautiful place came to acquire such a mean and onerous name.
The valley is long and narrow. The Peloncillo Mountains begin at the border with Mexico and run low and long for over 100 miles until their terminus near Duncan, Arizona. They form the western boundary of the valley.
The Animas Mountains carry the Continental Divide on their spine for some 60 miles and form part of the Valley’s east border.
There are at least three ways to get to the Animas Valley from southeastern Arizona. The quickest and easiest is to just bite the bullet and take I-10. It is the most pedestrian route but you do get to enjoy the wonderland of granite boulders that is Texas Canyon and one can catch a civilized lunch, with local wines, in the brightening town of Wilcox.
The other, less direct, but still on hard surfaced roads, way to get there is to drive southeast on Rt. 80 to Douglas, AZ, and then go up to the I-10 on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains. This route has the advantage of bringing you past the town of Portal, the entrance to which I have heard compared, favorably, to Yosemite in California.
I’m not certain if it is still true or not, but 20 years ago I read that Portal had the highest concentration of PhDs in Arizona. Beauty and brains.
The third way over is the slowest and the most scenic. Going due east from Douglas the road soon turns to dirt and you are on the Geronimo Trail. As you bounce along through the dust you can see the border wall – and drive up to it, if you wish – before heading north and east to get through a pass in the Peloncillos. There is the possibility of collecting some geodes and nodules beginning around two miles beyond the border into New Mexico. This ride is unpopulated and rugged as you climb up to, and then over, the pass into the Animas Valley.
Within an easy drive of the valley are three public rockhounding places. Our first visit, a few years ago, was to the Black Hills Rockhound Area, on BLM land. To get to the Black Hills site, follow Rt. 70 east out of Safford for ten miles. Turn left, northeast, onto Rt. 191. Just beyond milepost 141 is the left hand turn into the BLM land. About 1.5 miles in begins the collecting area. Fire agate, so named because when it is wetted and then spun around in the sun all sorts of colors can be seen, can be found here with some digging.
This spring we went to a second public collecting area. Rockhound State Park is 11 miles southeast of Deming, New Mexico in the Florida Mountains. There is a nicely appointed campground and numerous hiking trails on which you can wander and find Jasper, Chalcedony and Perlite.
Our most recent outing took us to Round Mountain Rockhounding Area in the extreme northwest portion of the valley where it ebbs and flows into Arizona. The road into the BLM land is 23.5 miles north of Lordsburg on Rt. 70. You turn left, west, and go through a stone wall for 6.8 miles and then turn left at the sign that announces the BLM area. At 2.5 miles, and again at five miles in, are two wonderful collecting areas that have had very few visitors over the years. Chalcedony litters the ground. Careful searching will be rewarded with red and root beer-colored fire agate. My wife found a solid, round, 3” diameter x 1.5” thick piece of carnelian quartz, called the sunset stone by ancient Egyptians. The orange and red hues of this gemstone are evidence of the iron within.
Driving out that afternoon the temperature was in the low 70s. Looking across the valley floor I was struck by the sense of space that one gets here. It made our own lovely San Raphael Valley seem like a mere watch pocket compared to the big pants pocket that is Animas. It was a slow and bumpy ride with the windows rolled down. A painted grasshopper jumped into our truck for a quick visit and then hopped out again.
How I love these borderlands.