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City of Rocks

By Sharman Apt Russell

Last updated on Wednesday, January 08, 2003

City of Rocks. Photo by Mark Erickson.
City of Rocks
It catches you by surprise. Unseen from the state highway, down a two mile spur of blacktop, the City of Rocks State Park rises, suddenly, from a vast yellow plain of waving grama grass. The columnar, pastel stones make an uneven and disheveled skyline. Some tower as high as fifty feet. Others hunker to the earth like brooding trolls. In the interior of "the city," the rocks meld and merge to form arches, curvaceous streets, and dark alleyways. Off to the side, isolated on the yellow plain, small groups of standing stone look like gentle giants - caught in a gossipy conversation.

Overall, the effect is weird and fantastical. This is a city of dreams, a city of particular delight to children and to adults who can still imagine and think as children do. This is the place to play games of enchantment, to clamor over warm boulders like a darting lizard, to run and hide and scheme in a geological playground that is relatively small but perfectly scaled.

At 5,000 feet, on the edge of the high Chihuahuan Desert, the park's forty acres of jumbled rock are a product of volcanic activity followed by erosion.

Some thirty-three million years ago, volcanoes erupted in this area and spewed out fiery particles of rock. When the particles settled, they fused to form a layer that geologists call "kneeling nun rhyolite tuff." (This odd term comes from a local landmark, Kneeling Nun, some miles to the north, in which an eroded pillar of volcanic tuff seems to "kneel" submissively just below a mountain peak.) As the solid layer cooled, it cracked and splintered. Rain, snow, frost, sun, and blasts of desert sand further eroded the material into their modern, compelling shapes. The tedious and seemingly invisible process of erosion can be seen today as scales of rock slip away from a tower's fractured surface, leaving a smooth rounded hump of stone underneath.

The vertical inclines of this state park attract rockclimbers and boulder-ers. Hikers can wander up to the high rimrock that overlooks "the city" or walk the road leading to a panoramic view of the Mimbres Valley and fang of Cooke's Peak. Photographers contort to catch the contortions of stone against a turquoise sky or the miracle of a scrub tree rising out of rock. Desert-lovers enjoy the cultivated botanical garden with its neatly-labeled species of cacti, both exotic and native.

All visitors appreciate the park's arrangement of camping and picnic sites. Several dozen spots with tables and fireplaces are concealed among the labryinthian metropolis. (Firewood, however, is not available.) A 1.5 mile dirt road circles the main portion of eroded tuff, so that car and RV campers can drive slowly around the park before making their selection. These camping areas are nestled carefully amid the trees and rock walls and are rarely within sight of each other. Healthy Emory oaks shade many of the tables, and the nearby stone blocks out noise and creates a sense of privacy. Faucets and restrooms, placed along the dirt road, are all easily accessible. One restroom boasts the camping comfort of solar-heated water. Near the front entrance is a playground with swings and slides.

With little permanent water in the area, prehistoric Indians probably did not make these rocks a permanent home. There are, however, Mimbreno ruins in the surrounding area. And within the tuff itself are holes where seeds and nuts were ground over many years. In 1852, the explorer John Bartlett passed near the City of Rocks - and missed it completely. Instead he was greatly impressed by a few isolated stone pillars which he named the "Giants of the Mimbres." A hundred years later, the City of Rocks State Park was created.

Where human visitors come and go, wild animals make their home. Packrats and chipmunks scurry over the rocks; ravens, hawks, and owls hunt from above. Antelope, deer, and coyote can be seen in the surrounding desert.

The City of Rocks State Park is twenty-seven miles northwest of Deming and thirty-one miles southeast of Silver City. Branching from US Highway 180, State Route 61 runs past the entrance to the park and on up the rural Mimbres Valley with its tree-lined river, apple orchards, and irrigated fields. The road continues north to the Gila National Forest and on toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

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