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June 2000

Splendor In New Mexico’s Mills Canyon

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.

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