In northern New Mexico, La Bajada is the hill to remember. Down south, that honor falls to the towering heights of Emory Pass. The difference is that the road over Emory Pass has not been straightened out--and though paved, it is still steep, narrow, twisting, and perilously beautiful.
Emory Pass is the highest point on NM Highway 152, which winds its way from I-25 at Exit 63 just south of Truth or Consequences through Hillsboro, Kingston, and over the backbone of the Black Range west to Silver City. The elevation at the top is 8228 feet, a whopping 4000 feet higher than Caballo Lake, whose diminutive reservoir 35 miles away is visible from the summit.
Hillsboro is the first town we come upon heading west on NM 152. Half ghost town and half occupied, it was founded in 1877 when gold and then silver were discovered in the area. The town’s population surged to well over a thousand, becoming the county seat of Sierra County until 1936. Roughly one hundred live there today.
It still has a couple of restaurants and wonderful side streets to explore. You can find a house made of slag, as well as the ruins of the famous courthouse where the trial for the murder of Albert Fountain and his son took place in 1896. That incident was so infamous, it was said to have delayed statehood for 16 more years.
Silver strikes accounted for the founding of Kingston, nine miles further up the road. Always wild and wooly, it once had 23 saloons, (some of which served fresh oysters around the clock!) Mark Twain, Black Jack Ketchum, as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed here.
The summit of Emory Pass has a parking lot and viewing area. The views are spectacular. But there are also a couple of interesting hiking trails that follow the spine of the Black Range. A trail to the north goes to Hillsboro Peak; the shady one to the south, Sawyer Peak.
The western slope of the pass offers four campgrounds and a picnic area. Some are high enough to stay cool most of the summer. Most are close to the highway but there is little traffic on 152, especially after dark. My favorite is Railroad Canyon, an extremely small campground with only four sites, tall trees, and tucked into a protected canyon. As always, bring water.
A version of this story appears in the May issue of NM Marketplace.