Updated: Nov 17, 2022
The Southern terminus of the Magdalena Mountains is home to one of the most striking and least visited wilderness' in New Mexico, the Devil's Backbone Wilderness Study Area. This rugged spine jutting out of the desert floor is an outdoorsman's paradise with no shortage of rare sights. Just get ready for a purist backcountry adventure. Trails don't exist here.
The Devil's Backbone WSA is located roughly 34 miles South of Socorro, New Mexico. This wilderness represents the Southern most point of the Magdalena Mountains, albeit with a much different type of scenery to be experienced. The Magdalena's are more of a traditional type of mountain, full of pine trees and standard mountain scenery. Once you start to see the actual Devils Backbone WSA, it is extremely apparent that you will be in for a much different type of adventure. This area is full of high desert peaks, a razor thin edge at the highest points, and long treeless vistas in spanning every direction. The beauty of this juxtaposition is that you still have high up views of the area but without tree coverage blocking your line of sight. If you have never experienced traversing a desert peak, this is an excellent place to immerse yourself into the high desert.
Access to this location is very much a challenge, and a 4x4 vehicle is necessary. I recommend following these directions presented here. Do not use google maps, it will not send you to the right location. Have a topo map cached to your phone or gps device, there is no service while driving to the starting point. Bring lots of extra water as well, there isn't a single stable source of water in the area. I could imagine this area would be dangerous to access during the monsoons because you have to traverse around a dozen small and deep arroyos.
Here is my recommended directions, take with a grain of salt. Be ready for a 4x4 excursion before your backcountry adventure:
1) In San Antonio, NM, turn off onto highway/frontage road 1 going towards the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge headed South.
2) Remain on this road until you eventually reach a small turnoff going West numbered/named King’s Highway Rd / County Road 124 / A40. This turnoff goes directly underneath the interstate.
3) Remain on this road for approximately 6 Miles. You will cross a closed fence a couple of miles in. Pass this fence, don't turn left on the unmarked road. At about the 6 mile point, you will be facing a locked ranch gate. Turn right onto the unmarked road going Northeast.
4) At this point stay on the road you are currently on and don't take any turns going directly East. Stay on this road until you can see a big water tank with property fence ~100 feet behind it. Go towards the tank and stay on that road for about a mile.
5) Eventually you will see a closed gate on the right with a BLM sign stating that this is public property past this fence. Cross the fence and remain on this road for the rest of the way.
6) Once you past this closed fence, the remainder of the road will become very rough with deep cut arroyos you will have to drive past. If you aren't comfortable driving this rough road, just park before you drive over the hill and start your trek there.
7) This is where it becomes tricky. I drive a capable SUV and I was white-knuckling it the entire way. I definitely scrapped my bumper multiple times. You will have to cross several deep cut arroyos that require finesse to not bottom out on. You may need to fill the arroyo with rocks to cross them. If you feel comfortable with your 4x4 driving skills, remain on this road for a number of miles until you eventually reach a section of gate that states "private property past this point". This is where I set up my home base. Technically, there is a way to access the wilderness further North, however I didn't feel comfortable driving any further. I feel this fence is a decent place to start trekking with a flat part where you can sleep in your car or tent comfortably.
8) Like I said earlier, this is not an easy wilderness to access. Make sure somebody knows you are trying to access this spot because you are very far from help. You will need a capable off-road vehicle with high clearance, this is a necessity. There are directions from the BLM website, however you will need some kind of topo map to actually get there due to lack of signage.
Once you finally reach the wilderness, you will be greeted with a variety of hardy desert plants surrounded by dramatic hills. The foliage of this area is worth noting if you are coming from out of state. Everywhere you see is covered with Russian Thistle, aka tumbleweeds. These tumbleweeds are surprisingly pointy and are irritating once they poke you. If you set your hand on the ground for a split second, guaranteed they will be covered with some pointy plants of many varieties. The other dominant plant of the plains is common grass. Much more gently when they brush up on your legs. You will spot some prickly pear cactus here and there, although not in large amounts. Around the arroyos you will see some healthy juniper growing, taking advantage of the monsoons downpours. These junipers are some of the only sources of shade in the entire area. Possibly the coolest plant you may encounter in the area is called a Oak Leaf Thorn Apple. These plants grow big seed pods with very sharp spikey thorns. They look like vegetation that the Devil would plant himself! These Thorn Apples are rare in the area but there is a bush or two on the side of the road you may spot if you're very attentive.
Once you start hiking to to the Devil's Backbone itself, you will notice more Cholla growing than in the valley. The Cholla becomes more and more prominent the higher up you go, culminating in a strong population right at the top of the ridge. I have never stepped on as many Cholla as I did while hiking around this wilderness! I recommend hiking in long pants, and with gaiters if you have them. Once the Cholla get stuck on your legs, simply raise your pants to unhinge the spikes. If you wear shorts your legs will get torn up, guaranteed. There is also a very healthy population of yucca. I believe it is dominantly Chaparral Yucca, however I could be mistaken. There is a decent amount of dead juniper on the ridge with a gnarly and wretched appearance. For whatever reason, the trees seem lifeless in the Devil's Backbone ridge itself. These lifeless juniper do have a very striking appearance though.
The rock formations in this wilderness may be the most striking feature of this area. In the lower parts of the land, there is a noticeable rocky outcrop, named the Indian Hills. This outcrop is full of what appears to be a porous sandstone with numerous small caves and holes cut throughout the rock. This type of rock is only found in this one specific area. It seems like this could be some excellent bouldering if one is looking for far off climbing opportunities. The stone has a rough texture and is full of excellent hand holds. It's also not too far from the road so access isn't too difficult.
The ridge of the Devil's Backbone is noticeable for being a razor sharp drop culminating at the peak. This rocky ridge is full of large boulder and rock outcrops that eventually lead to a sheer, several hundred foot drop on the West side of the peak. It becomes apparent why this area is called the Devil's Backbone. Looking around from the highest point, you will notice what appears to be larger than life stone vertebrae undulating up and down until eventually receding into the desert floor. The whole range has the appearance of an ancient dragons back, spikey and rugged.
The views from the highest point of this WSA offer unparalleled vistas of the Mount Withington range and San Mateo Mountains to the West, Fra Cristobal Mountains and the Elephant Butte hills to the South, and the Oscuro Mountains and San Andres Mountains to the East. These mountains and lowlands to the East are actually all on the White Sands Missile Range, so they can only be observed from afar. The curious thing about being so close to this missile range is you will most likely see military vehicles flying in the area. And you will definitely hear the rumble of helicopters in the distance. You can actually see where they detonated the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity Site from the Devil's Backbone. Although it's impossible to see exactly where it was detonated, you can get a sense of the history of the forlorn area where history was forever changed. The devil was watching.
This wilderness blew me away with it’s stark beauty and rugged aesthetic. The name “Devil’s Backbone” suits it very well because this spine juts out of the desert in dramatic and fierce fashion. Wandering these hills lead to many stunning sights and rare views of an otherwise unvisited part of New Mexico. This is a perfect place for any outdoorsman to get lost at while indulging in stark desert beauty.
Follow along on this photo journey, it may inspire you to visit this deviously wild place. Enjoy!