Are you looking for a short vacation getaway this month? Maybe someplace that is just a little bit warmer? The area around Carlsbad has long been a cool weather destination for savvy New Mexico travelers. At 3300 feet of elevation and in the far southeastern corner of the state, the average high/low temperatures for the middle of March are a pleasant 71 and 41 degrees.
Carlsbad Caverns immediately comes to mind when thinking of a weekend getaway. In fact, Albuquerque’s legendary correspondent Ernie Pyle called the Caverns, “the best one-day National Park in America.”
But there is another attraction near there that is not to be missed: Sitting Bull Falls. It is a remarkable and rare jewel in the southern New Mexico desert, a true oasis with a spring-fed waterfall, pools of quiet water, and grasses gently waving between shady canyon walls. Those walls are part of the Capitan Great Barrier Reef system which dates from the Permian period 250 million years ago. This area was at the edge of an ancient sea.
The water emanates from springs and streams above the waterfall and eventually drops 150 feet into the canyon below. There are several trails in the area including a nice trail which follows the streams above the falls.
Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area is part of the Lincoln National Forest. It is a day-use area with numerous limestone picnic structures and a short paved trail leading to the falls area. Some of the buildings were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940. A wildfire which swept through the canyon in 2011 did some damage, but it has been repaired. Thankfully, the large iconic CCC pavilion at the center of the picnic area was untouched.
The origin of the name Sitting Bull Falls is a bit vague. Most think that it was named by a couple of cowboys who discovered some Apaches camped in the area. It should be noted that Sitting Bull was never in southern New Mexico.
The turn-off to Sitting Bull Falls in about 12 miles north of Carlsbad, right across from the entrance to Brantley Lake State Park which, incidentally, is the lowest state park campground in New Mexico elevation-wise and offers excellent facilities even if the lake itself is well below "normal" levels.
MaryAnn and I have camped at Brantley a couple of times and like the ramadas at most campsites. They kind of make up for the virtually shade-free vegetative cover. The low water levels at Brantley Lake expose pieces of land that the water covered up long ago. Bushes, bottles, and even forgotten fishing gear lie half-buried in the sand, remnants of a late 20th century optimism now left for us to ponder.
The drought conditions have been hard on wildlife in the area. Deer have taken advantage of the low water levels to forage for roots in the damp sandy soil. You can see their hoof prints where they have dug into the ground. Birds still abound, although maybe not the same varieties that were there a few years ago. We did see plenty of cormorants perched on branches sticking up out of the water.
To get to the falls, turn west from US 285 onto NM 137. After about 20 miles, turn right on CR 409. Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Site is at the end of this paved road. It is currently open Friday-Monday noon to 5:00.
A shorter version of this story was previously published in NM Marketplace.