Written by Rob McCorkle

The soaring spires of the Organ Mountains just east of Las Cruces mightily impress even from a distance. But the city’s most defining physical feature beckons the curious and adventurous to come closer. When I have out of town guests, a trip to the Dripping Springs Natural Area at base of the Organs, which top out at 9,012 feet, is always on the must-do list.

One way to elevate (no pun intended) the outdoor experience is by packing a picnic lunch to reward yourself after hiking almost two miles to view the Dripping Springs waterfall and former mountain resort ruins or taking the much shorter trek to see the federal property’s other natural and cultural phenomenon – La Cueva. While locals can pack their own picnic lunch, out of town visitors can purchase food and beverages from local restaurants and markets to fill their own picnic basket.

Picnic Lunch

Judy and I turned to FARMesilla, a farm-to-market business in Old Mesilla, to package a picnic lunch that included food items and a bottle of wine made in New Mexico. Owner Shawna Runyan selected a bottle of 2018 Chardonnay from Noisy Waters Winery in Ruidoso to go with some summer sausage, smoked gouda cheese, spiced nuts, pasta salad and two monster cookies from a Las Cruces bakery.

Two nearby restaurants, which open late morning, offer other picnic fare options. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro offers a Signature Nosh with a choice of meats and cheeses, grilled artichoke and olives, crackers, crostini and seasonal fruits. Choose from dozens of varieties of St. Clair and Lescombes wines. Choose the Antipasto Misto at Luna Rossa Winery & Pizzeria for a taste of Italy. Pick up one of their fine wines to go with sliced prosciutto crudo di San Daniele, artichokes, red bell peppers and fresh mozzarella.

La Cueva Cave entrance

Since the summer heat was in full swing and we had hiked to Dripping Springs before, we decided that going to the nearby cave – a one-mile round trip from the Visitor Center – would be the more prudent trek this time around. The hike affords visitors an up-close view of Chihuahuan Desert flora and fauna and visit to a prehistoric rock shelter associated with the Jornada branch of the Mogollon culture and occupied from about 5000 B.C.  Over the past decades, archeologists have excavated more than 100,000 artifacts from in and around the cave.  Roving bands of Apaches and westward bound pioneers are believed to have visited the rock shelter in the 18th and 19th centuries.  But the most intriguing inhabitant of La Cueva was an Italian hermit and healer who lived there in the 1860s. A marker at the entrance to the shelter tells the story of El Ermitano, Giovani Agostini-Justiniani, who was revered by those he befriended in Old Mesilla as a sacred healer. Unfortunately, his legendary powers couldn’t protect him from the killer that in 1869 put an end to his life with the blade of a knife.

La Cueva overlook

Hikers along the trail to La Cueva experience a slight change in elevation as they traverse the desert environment populated by a variety of desert plants such as creosote and prickly pear cacti, before descending a couple of hundred feet into a densely vegetated riparian area in Ice Canyon watered by mountain runoff that supports forests of wild grapevines, oaks and hackberries.  Just up a slight incline on a massive limestone outcropping, hikers encounter a number of small potholes known as bedrock mortars created by prehistoric peoples who used stone pestles to grind seeds and pulverize clay.

Banana yucca

Just a bit farther along the trail sits La Cueva, hollowed out of the base of the small rounded mountain of compacted volcanic lava and ash flow known as tuff.  The magma flow is even older than the towering, 30-milion-year-old mountain peaks that are composed of an uplifted and granite batholith, or igneous rock, exposed by wind and water erosion over the ages.

Barrel cactus

Late-morning heat limited our sightings of reptiles and amphibians, birds and butterflies that inhabit the arid, mile-high desert terrain.  I did catch a glimpse of a black butterfly with crimson-tipped wings unlike any I’d ever seen.  After several stops along the uphill return route to rest and hydrate ourselves (don’t forget to take plenty of water), we arrived at the Visitor Center to enjoy the antics of dozens of hummingbirds buzzing the feeders.

View from picnic shelter

We took a short drive to the La Cueva Picnic Area and picked out one of the hilltop picnic shelters that afford a bird’s eye-view of distant Las Cruces spread out along the desert floor and the soaring peaks of the Organ Mountains.  After a toast to our La Cueva trek, Judy and I enjoyed a repast that the old hermit no doubt would have truly enjoyed.