The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips: Sitting Bull Falls, New Mexico

Hidden recreation area in the mountains

By Gerald E. McLeod, September 20, 2019, Columns

Sitting Bull Falls in the southeastern corner of New Mexico emerges from a cliff wall and tumbles 150 feet to a pool of cool water deep in a desert canyon. The springs are an oasis in a sea of sage, cactus, dry grasses, and pink sand. 

The small recreation area is in a hidden corner of the Lincoln National Forest just a few miles, as the crow flies, northwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park

When the year-round water hole was discovered by soldiers in the 1860s, a band of Apache were camped nearby. How it obtained the name of a leader of the Sioux tribe is lost to time. 

By the turn of the century, the springs and surrounding grasslands were homesteaded for orchards and cattle grazing. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the 30-mile, two-lane road from the highway to the site and rock picnic shelters. 

The area around the falls is part of the Guadalupe Mountains and is a remnant of the Capitan Great Barrier Reef. During the Permian period, the mountains were on the edge of a great inland sea that covered most of Texas. 

While the scenic picnic grounds are quite small, the park has more than 16 miles of hiking trails through the canyons and desert landscape. A short paved trail leads to the pool at the bottom of the falls that is open to swimming before the water seeps back underground. 

Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area is a few miles northwest of Carlsbad, N.M., off Highway 285. The Bureau of Land Management maintains Guadalupe Backcountry Byway (NM 137) and the route to the falls is fairly well marked. 

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