Scenic Drive: Carrizozo, Ruidoso, and Claunch, New Mexico

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After visiting the Trinity Site, my primary goal for the day, I suddenly realized that I needed to figure out what to do, and where to go, next.  My admittedly poor planning led to several frustrating hours of driving around central New Mexico.  I chose to head towards the mountains around Ruidoso, hoping for some nice pine-scented scenery.

From the Trinity Site (or nearby Socorro), take US 380 east (and slightly south) to the crossroads town of Carrizozo.

Just a few miles outside Carrizozo, you’ll pass the black lava fields of the Valley of Fires Recreation Area.  There’s a roadside turnout that allows you to climb around on the volcanic rock.  If you want to extend your stay, the official state recreation area offers bathrooms and picnic shelters (but you’ll be required to pay a day-use fee).

Continue on US 380 through the crossroads at Carrizozo.  A few miles past the town, NM Rte. 37 splits off and heads into the mountains.

While driving towards Ruidoso, I saw a sign promising “Bonito Lake”, just 4 miles away.  “Bonito” means “pretty”, so I thought it sounded like a good side trip.  After 4 painfully slow miles up a 1-lane forest road, I found this:

… a small, manmade lake with a mostly dry lakebed.  Perhaps under different conditions this patch of water deserves the “pretty” title, but not this day.  After struggling to find a parking spot (the lake is popular with fishermen), I snapped a couple of pictures as proof that I’d been there, then made a u-turn.

With Bonito Lake somewhat of a bust, I returned to Rte. 37 and continued towards Ruidoso.  It’s a picturesque mountain town filled with condos and resorts, but very little worth photographing.  If you lived in New Mexico and needed a break from the desert, it might be a nice place to spend a few days.  But for my road-tripping purposes, it offered very little.

Rte. 37 ends just north of Ruidoso.  Take Rte. 48 North to return to US 380, which will return you to Carrizozo.

A few miles north of the Rte. 37 intersection, and once you’ve left behind most signs of civilization, you’ll come across the only other place I found worthy of a photo.

This roadside turn-off provides a view of the sometimes snow-capped mountains above Ruidoso and the surrounding towns.  While Sierra Blanca tops out at 11,973 feet, it’s rather small from this distance.  It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t find a single place in town to view them, without a condominium complex in the way.

The next town you’ll reach is Capitan, which is home to the Territorial Theatre, a building which I know nothing about, but I thought it looked photo-worthy.

You’ll also find the Smokey Bear State Historical Park at the downtown crossroads in Capitan, which is home to the final resting place of the famous fire-singed bear cub, Smokey Bear.  If seeing the bear’s grave is worth the $2 admission fee, then stop by.

Smokey Bear was rescued from a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains, back in 1950.  He drew big crowds while living for 26 years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  After his death, he was returned to Capitan for burial.
From Capitan, take US Rte. 380 west to Carrizozo.

Back in Carrizozo, consider playing a very hot and not-so-very green game of golf at the public course.

Turn north at the intersection at Carrizozo, onto US 54.  The road is only 2 lanes and traffic moves fast, so stay alert.  Roughly 18 miles north of Carrizozo, NM Rte. 55 turns off to the left.

Claunch, New Mexico

There’s not a lot along New Mexico Rte. 55.  The land is flat to gently rolling, and very dry, with just an occasional tree.  Any mountains are far in the distance, and chances are, so is the nearest car.  Enjoy the tranquility of desert driving for about 20 minutes before reaching the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town of Claunch, New Mexico.

Claunch has a main street…

… a couple of farm houses (this one also serves as the post office and library)…

… an old, boarded-up dry goods store…

… a church…

…and the shell of an old building, which used to be the “Claunch School”.  It’s behind a fence now, so I couldn’t explore.

You won’t find much information about Claunch anywhere on the internet.  I dug up a few facts at New Mexico Wanderings, which explains that Claunch was named after L.H. Claunch and the Claunch Cattle Company.  Apparently, the town’s pinto bean crops led to a boom about 100 years ago.  Since then, it’s been pretty quiet.

You may be surprised to hear that Claunch has any people at all.  But get this: it actually has its own museum!  It was open when I drove by (at least the sign said open), but I didn’t stop–a decision I now regret.

Once you’re satisfied with your exploration of Claunch, continue north on Rte. 55.  The road will make several 90 degree turns as it stair-steps its way to Mountainair and US 60.  But our next stop comes long before that: the Gran Quivira division of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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