White sands, hot peppers welcome visitors in southern New Mexico

BY ELLEN CLARK Modified: December 18, 2012 at 11:11 am •  Published: December 24, 2012

Miles of uninterrupted desert landscape rimmed by dramatic mountains, quirky attractions, spicy chilies and 350 days of sun a year make southern New Mexico my kind of place. And Las Cruces, New Mexico's second-largest city, is the perfect home base for checking out the southern part of the state.

The New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces is a 47-acre interactive museum that chronicles 3,000 years of rural life in New Mexico. The main building boasts 24,000 square feet of exhibit space. Besides rotating exhibits covering various aspects of farming and ranching life throughout the ages, the building has meeting spaces, a gift shop and a theater.

The museum's outside area includes corrals filled with various livestock, several gardens and a blacksmith's shop.

Periodic demonstrations offered include, weaving, blacksmithing, cooking and crafts. Group tours are offered from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

Chili peppers are a big deal in these parts, and at New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute Center for Chile Education visitors can learn scientific and fun facts galore about these hot little numbers. Take a stroll through the CPI's demonstration garden and see more than 150 different varieties of chilies, from the mildest bell to the hottest habanera, in a range of colors ranging from bright green to deep purple.

Mesilla, a tiny town located right next to Las Cruces, was incorporated in 1848 and has a lively history. Murders, drunken brawls, shootings, hangings and incarcerations were the norm back in the day, and even Billy the Kid spent some jail time there.

Today it is best known for its historic downtown and a couple of great restaurants. At both La Posta and the Double Eagle you can sip killer margaritas and feast on dishes featuring the area's famous chilies while hearing about various ghosts that are said to haunt the premises.

There is something appealing and otherworldly about the undulating miles of constantly shifting snow-white sand dunes at White Sands National Monument. It is touted as the largest gypsum dune field in world, with the sand here engulfing 275 square miles of desert. There are several ways to enjoy the experience.

Dune Life Trail is a one-mile loop hike on a family-friendly trail that is moderate in difficulty due to a couple of steep dune climbs. The 650-yard-long, fully accessible, Interdune Boardwalk snakes through the fragile interdune area for a look at the desert vegetation and geological features, which are explained on interpretive signs. More ambitious hikers might want to try the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, which goes over unbroken dunes marked by posts.

Established in 1945, the White Sands Missile Range is America's largest overland military test range, spanning more than 2 million acres. The White Sands Missile Range Museum recounts the history of this 3,200-square-mile parcel of land from prehistoric times to rocket technology.

At the museum's Missile Park there's an outdoor display of 50 rockets and missiles once tested on the range.

Golfers looking for a unique venue can tee off at the nine-hole White Sands Missile Range Golf Course, the only course in the United States located on an active missile range.

When one thinks of wines, New Mexico is hardly the first state that springs to mind, but actually it is the oldest wine-producing region in the country. The first grapevines were brought to New Mexico in 1629.

The wine business grew until the end of the 19th century, when weather conditions took a toll on the vineyards, and by 1920 there was no production at all. But in the 1970s a rebirth started, and today there are more than 40 wineries in the state.

Rio Grande Winery is a lovely 10-acre vineyard located near the town of Mesilla that produces both red and white wines and offers wine-tasting on the weekends. Amaro Winery Tasting Room in Mesilla is a casual venue where you can sip a glass of wine, either indoors or on the patio, and then buy a bottle to go.

Amaro wines are produced using grapes grown in the region, and they have won several awards, including a Gold Medal and Best in Show for their 2010 Gewurztraminer at the State Fair Wine Competition in Albuquerque.

Nature-lovers and hikers don't have to go far to get into the unspoiled desert landscape. Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, one of the state's newest parks, encompasses 300 acres of bosque (riverside forest) along the Rio Grande and 600 acres of Chihuahuan Desert. The park is particularly interesting in the early morning when the birds, rabbits and reptiles are out.

Asombro Institute for Science Education (formerly Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park) is a 960-acre park that includes a section of the Dona Ana Mountains. A 1.5 mile circular trail offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

Dripping Springs Natural Area will delight birders, since there is an impressive variety of birdlife, including the ladder-backed woodpecker, golden eagle and cactus wren. A three-mile round-trip hike ends at the ruins of a resort and sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the 1920s, shaded by craggy mountain faces that weep water.

Those fascinated with space will want to see Spaceport America where, in the not too distant future, you won't need to be an astronaut to travel into space. Spaceport America Preview Bus Tours of the work in progress facility are available — by reservation only — Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a minimum of three people.

Besides a general tour of the area, visitors will see the various components of the Spaceport infrastructure currently under construction, including the airfield, operations center, fuel-storage complex and terminal hangar facility, as well the 10,000-foot-long-by-200-foot-wide concrete "spaceway."

WHEN YOU GO

To learn more about all that the Las Cruces area has to offer: www.staysunny.org.

 Ellen Clark is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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