I've never really done a hike in the East Potrillo Mountains. I've visited more popular features; Cox Peak, Kilbourne Hole, Aden Crater and lava flow that are nearby,but the time investment involved in reaching the region, and the East Potrillos lack, at first and perhaps at several glances, of any outstanding feature to draw one in, meant it was always pushed to the back of my list of places to visit. I probably still wouldn't have gone for awhile longer, if it weren't for the hiking guidebook for the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument that I'm working on. The section on the remote and difficult to visit West Potrillo Unit( which includes the East Potrillos), is thin and I really felt I needed at least one hike in the East Potrillos, just for the sake of some measure of completeness.
So, this past Monday(2/20/17) I ventured out with David Soules to see what we could see on both sides of the mountain by doing a ridgeline hike. Because the range is basically a fault block that runs a straight line( from northwest to southeast) with a ridge that has relatively minor elevation changes for most of its seven or so miles, it is well suited to walk along its spine, something that can't be said about most of the other mountains in the county.
We used NM 9 to access Doña Ana County roads A-8, A-10 and A-7. In the gap between East Potrillos and Mount Riley, we headed south on an unsigned, unmaintained road just past a cattleguard which heads south into Desert Rat Canyon. It was a pretty little place where we parked at the very end of the road in the secluded canyon, with scattered junipers, red rocks that jutted from the hillside, old mines in the distance and steep peaks of folded sedimentary rock surrounding us.
On foot we headed up the canyon. It was pretty easy walking to gain more than half of 750 feet or so we needed to get up to the range's highpoint. We occasionally looked backed for views of the towering Mount Riley framed by the canyon sides.
At a saddle we took in views all around, rested a bit then began our pitch up to the peak. Shortly thereafter we found an old mining prospect,really just a 10x5 hole in the side of the peak, where there was barite, quartz, and calcite. We made it up to the peak and then began walking southeast along the ridgeline. In just a short distance we had to make a maneuver to the west to avoid walking off a cliff,but then we were soon back on the ridgeline doing some easy walking through low growing desert shrubs, sparse( but varied) cactus species, and widely spaced lechugilla, ocotillo and sotol.
The limestone layers here are thick with marine fossils which gave us interesting views close up to go with the magnificent views to the distance all around. Far ranges in New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico could all be seen in stark silhouette, while closer by and wonderfully clear, the West Potrillos, Cox Peak and Mount Riley and the volcanic maars, Hunts Hole and Kilbourne Hole were constant companions, as was the ruggedly scenic ridgeline of the East Potrillos as it stretched out before us.
In a short while we came to a natural arch, which David had spotted on a previous trip. It's about 20 feet wide, but the height of the opening is only 4- 7 feet. Still it's a fun feature, and we realized later it can be see from the road down in the flatlands if you know where to look.
On we walked,and the limestone beds gave way to sandstone layer that tilted skyward. These rocks, as with several other sedimentary ranges around our region, are abrasive and sharp and can draw blood quite easily as I was reminded in my only spill of the day. Gloves are good idea for any maneuvering out here and a hiking staff or a pair of poles( I had one pole and one sotol stalk) are recommended. The cloudless late winter sky allowed the sun to redden my face and neck. The breeze only kicked up occasionally. The temperature in the low sixties was perfect. It became apparent that while the unrelentingly steep hillsides on east side had little in the way of canyons to explore, the west side had several that beckoned for further consideration, with alcoves, overhangs, old mines and long forgotten trails and roads.
This was a shuttle hike. We had left one vehicle on the east side at the end of the unmaintained road that leads to the Pure Oil Number one drilling platform. Yes, there was some oil exploration,albeit unsuccessful, out here, which few people know about.
We didn't take the best route down, but in truth, there may not be good way down the truly rough and steep east face of the range unless one were to walk all the way to very southern end of the mountains. We got off somewhere between mile 4 and 5( of 7), picking our way very slowly, finding another old mine, a stone foundation and an old ski pole along the way down to and then along a second road which runs parallel and just north of the one our vehicle was parked on. We encountered our first fence and first cow pie of the day on the short walk to our terminal trailhead as we contemplated the continued feasibility of cattle ranching in the virtually grassless, and waterless environs of the East Potrillos.