Las Cruces area offers sunshine, history and culture

The Southwest and the Old West come together nicely in this New Mexican city just north of El Paso.
BY KIMBERLY BURK kburk@opubco.com Published: March 3, 2013

It's the city where Gordon Steel finally opened his Rio Grande Vineyards and Winery in 2009 after decades of dreaming and scheming and saving the money he made as a military nurse.

The economy is vibrant in this city of about 98,000 residents, thanks to large-scale employers such as New Mexico State University, White Sands Missile Range and the health care industry. But for the visitor in search of stress relief, traffic is a nonissue, lines are short, the landscape is restful and the brilliant blue sky is ever-present.

“In Mesilla we stroll,” claims Jerry Harrell, general manager of the Double Eagle, a restaurant housed in the oldest building on the plaza and known for its aged steaks. “We don't really need to rush.”

One way to stroll is with a tour guide known only as “Preciliana,” who portrays a well-armed female soldier in Pancho Villa's army as she describes the colonial history and architecture of the town from which Billy the Kid escaped after being convicted of murder.

Chile pepper cuisine is an art form at restaurants all over town, and at NMSU it's a scholarly pursuit of more than 150 varieties ranging from mild to the hottest hot. As many as 5,000 people a year visit the Chile Pepper Institute, home to an endowed chair for chili pepper research. As one might guess, it's the only university in the world with an academic program dedicated to fiery peppers.

Much of what Las Cruces has to offer is just right — in size and complexity. The Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, Branigan Cultural Center, Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park and Las Cruces Museum of Art can all be toured in about an hour.

You'll want to reserve more time for the 275-square-mile White Sands National Monument. Less-active visitors can enjoy the breathtaking gypsum dunes from their cars along the 16-mile driving loop, but the more adventurous will want to hike, picnic, head for a backcountry primitive camping site — and just drink in the stillness of it all.

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