By Karl Moffatt
As the temps begin to dip and the snow gets to flying around northern New Mexico, it’s time to head south to warmer climes where one can visit other state attractions like historic Fort Selden while camping out at nearby Leasburg State Park.
Fort Selden, just outside of Las Cruces on the back road to the chile capital of Hatch, provides visitors a glimpse of the past when black Buffalo soldiers were stationed at the adobe fort and patrolled the surrounding countryside to keep marauding Indians at bay.
The out-of-the-way state monument and museum is at the heart of some very interesting country along the Rio Grande where t-shirt weather is routine during winter months.
Visitors will find displays inside the monument’s small museum depicting life on the frontier during the late 1800s when settlers risked their lives in any number of ways in the harsh, desert environment.
Fort Selden was home to the 125th Colored Infantry Regiment made up of black soldiers who joined the U.S. Army near the end of the Civil War and sent west.
The black soldiers’ fighting skills, tenacity and courage earned the respect of their Indian adversaries who called them “Buffalo Soldiers” in part because of their thick wooly hair, much like a bison’s.
The black soldiers performed so well that nine were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in the territory of New Mexico.
Old photos, artifacts and other materials displayed within the museum give visitors a good idea what life was like at the remote fort and friendly staff are available to answer questions.
The famous WW II general, Douglas MacArthur, spent a couple of early childhood years at the fort because his father was stationed there. MacArthur would later write of learning to ride and shoot before he could read and write while growing up there.
The museum boasts an impressive weapons display, including large caliber muskets and rifles of the era, a 12-pound cannon and a mountain howitzer. There are also uniforms and other equipment to be seen along with documents and other interesting materials.
A walk through the spacious grounds outside of the museum reveals the remnants of the still-standing adobe walls under the shade of a line of aging cottonwood trees.
A bronze statute statue honoring the Buffalo Soldiers is prominently displayed on the grounds where every second Saturday of the month re-enactors occupy the grounds and demonstrate for visitors the daily life of soldiers then.
From the grounds one can gaze across the Rio Grande riverbed upon the imposing but barren Robledo Mountains where soldiers on Lookout Peak kept an eye out for bandits and ill-intentioned Indians.
Admission to the monument is free for New Mexico residents on Sunday and free to seniors on Wednesdays.
Camping is available at nearby at Leasburg Dam State Park, a quiet, hilltop desert oasis with numerous sites for tent and RV camping. There’s an overlook of the Rio Grande below where hikers can explore the dry, sandy, riverbed as the river’s flow is cut to a trickle during the winter months
A recent remodel of the park includes a new visitor center, restrooms with showers and a playground.
Park guests can easily hike to the nearby fort or take a quick ride over to one of New Mexico’s last remaining roadhouses, the Blue Moon Bar, just across the river on State Road 185.
The bar has a rich history one might discover while downing a cold one and chatting with the locals.
For instance during the early 1980s, local musician Jack Quaintance often performed at the bar and then would amble down to the river on cool summer evenings to serenade the women prisoners being housed at the old, Radium Springs resort near the state park.
The spa still stands as does the historic dam-keepers house at the park and visitors to the area will find much to see and do while soaking up warmth and sunshine found in New Mexico’s vast, southern region.
If You Go:
From Santa Fe take I-25 south to the Fort Selden/Radium Springs/Leasburg Dam State park exit and follow to the facilities. For a more interesting trip with side shows follow old Route 1 which runs parallel to the interstate, getting on at the San Antonio exit just south of Socorro and following through the Bosque Del Apache and past the Santa Fe Diner, a throwback to the truck stops of old. Continue on Rt. 1 past the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, another great little state monument, and on through Nogal Canyon back to the interstate at the Mitchell Point exit.