Photographing some of New Mexico’s remote corners reveals the need to protect these magnificent places.
As I stood alone on the summit of Mount Withington, the late-afternoon sun cast golden beams of light through the clouds and onto the grasslands that rolled endlessly toward the west. It felt as if I was the only person around for hundreds of miles.
Last fall, on assignment as The Wilderness Society’s photographer, I took a jaunt through some of New Mexico’s most scenic and wild swaths of unprotected land—including one very recently protected national monument—in hopes of capturing a small slice of their beauty. These are just a handful of areas The Wilderness Society is working to protect in the Land of Enchantment.
Landscape photography is a practice of patience and persistence—you win some, you lose a lot. That very notion made me a little nervous when I set out to photograph four different unfamiliar places over the course of only five short days. What if the light didn’t cooperate? What if I couldn’t find a decent composition? Those concerns quickly dissolved as I realized that epic light was not required to expose the beauty of these locations.
These places are special. While each location is breathtaking in its own unique way, the one thing they all have in common was their undeniable wildness. Each roadless expanse offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and excellent conditions for quiet recreation. They’re all places that I will certainly visit again.
My first stop got off to a rocky start, and a long day of traveling had taken its toll. After flying into El Paso I drove over 3 hours north to the Magdalena Mountains in west-central New Mexico, where I arrived shortly before sunset. The conditions seemed promising as I hastily drove as far and high as the dirt road would take me. Then I ran to the summit of South Baldy only to be greeted by a thick wall of fog that quickly consumed the entire range.
I wasn’t able to take many photographs on the first evening, but the inclement weather gave me a chance to acquaint myself with the subtle beauty of the area without having to experience it all through my viewfinder. Dozens of well-established trails offer great opportunities for exploration as they spread throughout this isolated range’s widely varied habitat.
The next morning my luck was much better. Dynamic patches of fog intermittently rolled over green ponderosa ridges to punctuate a colorful sunrise. Between windows of clouds I could see for what seemed like forever into New Mexico’s vast, open plains. Just as quickly as the sun came up, it was time for me to move on to my next location.
San Mateo Mountains
After tumbling more than 30 miles up a jeep road and into the mountains, I arrived at the lookout station on the top of Mount Withington. I hadn’t seen a single other person all day, and the expansive 360 degree view added greatly to the sweet sense of solitude. It was that quintessential feeling that keeps me chasing wilderness time and time again. Sweeping grasslands stood between me and the Magdalenas, some 20 miles to the northwest, where I stood just a few hours before.
There were some challenges in finding an unobstructed view beneath the summit since the ridgeline was so heavily wooded, but every opening I found in the piñon and juniper revealed subtle rolling contours that slowly shifted with the passing of the afternoon sun. Portions of the San Mateos are currently designated wilderness, but this vast mountain range still has large areas that warrant protection.
Another 20 miles down the jeep road I began to descend out of the mountains. The transition zone between forest and grassland offered some of the best views and the most interesting vegetation. I could have easily spent several days exploring this area, but it was time to make the haul back to Las Cruces before heading out on the next adventure.
In May 2014 the Organ Mountains were designated as a national monument, protecting this unique area for future generations. While traveling through Las Cruces, I decided to take a quick detour to shoot the sunset at these jagged peaks. This was one of the most photogenic areas I’ve had the privilege of shooting in quite some time.
At first I thought open grasslands would be drab, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Otero Mesa, an area we’re trying to protect near the Texas-New Mexico border. It was immediately clear to me that this area is truly wild. In a single day we saw more wildlife than I had seen all year: pronghorns, desert box turtles, four species of snakes (including a Western diamondback rattlesnake, pictured below), countless birds of prey (including the endangered aplomado falcon) and so much more.
The remnants of Otero Mesa’s prehistoric cultures can still be seen today. The area’s salt deposits made it a major Native American hub for various tribes dating back 10,000 years. Standing at the foot of Alamo Mountain, it was easy to imagine myself in an ancient setting. The view stretched on forever in all directions, and it would have been an ideal spot to watch for game or encroaching enemies. I stood there with a sense of solitude that I never imagined I would find on flat, open grasslands.
Not even the dreariest of lighting conditions could put a damper on my Otero Mesa experience. I was already sold on this magical location before the overcast day gave way to a picture-perfect rainbow and an explosive sunset. It was as if the mesa was showing off to prove that it is indeed worthy of being permanently protected.
Photos by Mason Cummings