Why you should care
Because it is a diamond in the rough, remote grasslands.
When people say something is a hidden gem, they usually mean it’s hidden only in the realm of public perception. But in the case of Mills Canyon, a 1,000-foot dip secluded among the Kiowa National Grassland, the meaning is literal. Sure, there is almost no reason anyone but a local would drive along New Mexico State Road 39, three hours east of Albuquerque and west of Amarillo, Texas. Even if they do, it’s impossible to spot an oasis lurking along this horizon of open skies and gritty plains.
Yet take a 10-mile detour off the highway and trust us: What awaits you is further proof that even the middle of nowhere can hide a spectacular somewhere.
Mills Canyon, unseen amid the gently rolling, treeless prairies, was cut along the Canadian River. The freshwater depot boasts 493 species of plants, from the colloquially named bush morning glory and desert four o’clock to the oak-leaved thornapple. “It’s incredibly scenic” with “cultural ties, both to the New Mexico pioneers and the hickory Apache tribes,” says Mike Atkinson, a district ranger for the United States Forest Service, which manages the region. Melvin Mills settled here in the 1800s; he started a hotel and planted orchards with more than 14,000 trees, with some pear, apple, apricot and plum trees still surviving. Unfortunately, a near-biblical flood wiped out Mills’ hideaway in 1916. Its ruins are ripe for exploring, although hikers should beware of flash floods, which can cut off parts of the road here, particularly in the spring and summer.
The night sky and pristine air, virtually untouched by human influence, are breathtaking.
What’s left in that watery wake is well worth visiting. Redstone cliffs soar upward, and it’s blissfully quiet except for the whistling wind and the chirping of birds that fly beneath billowing clouds so unreal they look like wallpaper. Deer, pronghorn and black bears live in these hills, as do mountain lions that mark their territory with urine in the spring (it doesn’t smell as rank as it sounds). And Mills Canyon is a prime camping spot, with firepits and picnic tables. The night sky and pristine air, virtually untouched by human influence, are breathtaking. It’s seclusion money can’t buy — in fact, it’s free, although donations are welcome.
While the canyon’s remoteness is part of its charm, it can also be a drawback. The nearest town is Roy, a respite 10 miles south. It has a gas station and a single restaurant — Martha’s Cafe, serving a range of New Mexican and American fare — and that’s about it. Everything else will be more than an hour’s drive, so stock up on supplies: The U.S. Forest Service suggests hikers bring a first aid kit, protective clothing, blankets, a flashlight and a compass. Know that rattlesnakes like to nestle in the rocky terrain during the summer months.
Years ago, “people would come and camp and fish, but maybe only a handful,” says Mary Libby Campbell, executive director of Harding County Main Street, an economic development program for the area. “But now it’s busy — very, very busy.” That’s because a nascent climbing community has started proclaiming Mills Canyon as one of the best bouldering sites in the Land of Enchantment. Owens Summerscales, who wrote the New Mexico Bouldering guidebook in 2016, has reportedly called it home to “arguably the best sandstone boulders” in the West. The winter seasons, with cold enough weather to keep your fingers from slipping, are best for intrepid climbers looking to make their mark on the sprawling canvas of unclaimed canyon faces.
But whether you’re a climber, a camper or someone who just loves an off-the-beaten-track ramble, Mills Canyon is worth seeking out. If only for the satisfaction of having found it.
Go There: Mills Canyon
Directions: From the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, go north on Interstate 25 to Wagon Mound (71 miles), east on New Mexico Highway 120 to Roy (33 miles), then north on New Mexico State Road 39 for 10 miles. Look for the road sign to Mills Canyon. Proceed west on the gravel road for 10 miles to the rim of Mills Canyon, including a descent through a series of sharp switchbacks. The campground is at the bottom of the canyon.