The 93-mile Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway beckons you to experience the beauties of southwestern New Mexico. Walk where the spirits of all the people — miners, homesteaders, Indians, Spanish explorers, mountain men — who have passed through this area left their mark. And, like those who came before, the beauty of the surroundings will leave its mark on you.
Start in Silver City, at the junction of state roads 152 and 180. Take 152 east toward the huge Chino mine. An overlook on NM 152 reveals a panoramic view of the mine, one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world. Trucks bigger than houses look like mechanical ants. The Kneeling Nun, a landmark geological formation and the source of many local legends, overlooks the mine.
From there, travel east into the beautiful Mimbres Valley. San Lorenzo is a quiet village, but on the feast day of its namesake, pilgrims have been known to come from as far away as California to walk, sometimes barefoot, to the small miracle room at the historic San Lorenzo church. Plaster statues of religious figures gaze benignly from all around the room. The intense warmth seems to emanate from their eyes as well as the many burning candles.
Drive on north on NM 35 through the Mimbres Valley. Watch for the cutoff to Bear Canyon Lake, a little jewel offering fishing and recreation. On the lake road, look off to your left at a view that captures the essence of the Mimbres Valley: horses grazing peacefully in lush, irrigated fields. It’s easy to see why this valley has been a desirable place to live for thousands of years.
A little farther, you will see a sign marking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a primitive hiking trail. The loop made by the Trail of the Mountain Spirits crosses the Continental Divide Trail twice, accessing a 14-mile-long segment through forested country that is a visual feast of butterflies, birds, and wildflowers. Combine hiking and birding on a new trail created by the New Mexico Audubon Council. At eight designated stops along the Byway, you can look for some of the 337 species of birds that frequent the area.
Continue to Lake Roberts, an oasis for the creatures of the wilderness. It’s common to see herds of deer grazing along the road near the lake. Past the lake, turn right on NM 15. Nineteen miles on a mountain road take you to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Although small next to Bandelier National Monument or Mesa Verde National Park, it doesn’t suffer in comparison. The beauty of the setting and the few visitors you will encounter make this destination well worth the drive.
Head back south down NM 15 to the old mining community of Pinos Altos. Gold was discovered here in 1860, and many of the buildings from that era are still standing. On a Friday or Saturday night, you can catch a melodrama at the Opera House like “Dumb Guns, or I Got Brains that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” and take in the local color at the Saloon.