Splendor In New Mexico's Mills Canyon

Mills Canyon is a hidden treasure where you can bushwhack through history.
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Mills Canyon is a hidden treasure where you can bushwhack through history.

Hidden in the vast grasslands of northeastern New Mexico lies a canyon that looks like it was snatched from the Colorado Plateau. And "hidden" is the key here. You'd have no idea Mills Canyon exists unless you happened to drive through this part of the state on Route 120, a paved but lonely road that stretches across the wind-scoured flatlands.

The Canadian River has carved a dramatic rift 30 miles through the surrounding shortgrass prairie. Twelve miles of the rift are within the Kiowa National Grasslands, and Mills Canyon lies smack in the middle of it, inviting hikers who are intrigued by the prospect of bushwhacking through history.

Named for Melvin W. Mills, a territorial-era politician and businessman, Mills Canyon is the site of the homestead he established in the 1880s. In its heyday, the ranch boasted fruit and nut orchards, vegetable gardens, and cattle. It was even a stop on a treacherous 100-mile Santa Fe Trail shortcut. Although Mills abandoned the canyon in 1916 after a flood plunged him into financial ruin, you can explore the ghostly remnants of his homestead. Old irrigation ditches and a handful of buildings remain, including Mills's two-story stone house and an adobe bunkhouse. During the monsoon season (late June through August) and in springtime, hikers should be wary of the kind of flashflood that soaked Mills.

There are no established trails in the canyon, but the hiking is pleasant--though at times brushy--on the floodplain. You'll generally follow the course of the Canadian River as it meanders between the sloping canyon walls, occasionally craning your neck to look 800 feet up at the red sandstone awash in desert varnish.

Mills Canyon hides several side canyons where you may find wildlife, including deer, pronghorn, black bears, mountain lions, or Barbary sheep (a large African import with curved horns, introduced in the 1950s). In fact, there's a good chance you'll see more wildlife than people in this hidden gem.

QUICK TAKE:

Kiowa National Grasslands, NM

DRIVE TIME: Mills Canyon is about 210 miles (31/2 hours) from Albuquerque and 160 miles (21/2 hours) from Santa Fe.

THE WAY: From Albuquerque or Santa Fe, head north on I-25 to NM 120 (exit 387). Take 120 east to Roy, then head north on NM 39 for about 10 miles. The marked turnoff is on the left. This dirt road runs west about 10 miles, finally switchbacking into the canyon bottom. Call the Kiowa National Grasslands office for road conditions, since heavy rain makes portions of the road impassable.

TRAILS: There are no established trails in Mills Canyon, but it's tough to get lost even in the several side canyons. If you get confused, just hike downhill to the Canadian River. No permits are required to hike or camp in the canyon.

ELEVATION: The canyon rim tops out at 5,800 feet, while the river bottom ranges between 5,000 and 5,100 feet. The canyon walls are steep and rocky.

CAN'T MISS: The skeletal remains of a once-bustling ranch that housed nineteenth-century buckaroos.

CROWD CONTROL: Most visitors seldom venture more than a mile from the primitive campsites on the dirt road entering the canyon. Hunters arrive mid-October through November, when hikers are advised to wear brightly colored clothing.

GUIDES: USGS 7.5-minute quads Mills West, Beaver Canyon, and Canon Colorado cover Mills Canyon (888-ask-usgs; http://mapping.usgs.

gov/esic/to_order.html).

PIT STOP: The enchiladas--with red or green chile--are worth stopping for at Martha's Cafi on NM 39 in Roy.

WALK SOFTLY: Feel free to gaze, but don't disturb any historical artifacts.

MORE INFORMATION: Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, (505) 374-9652.