Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 19, 2017

A Pile of Rocks #2: The City of Rocks, New Mexico

The first post in this 2-part series was about Joshua Tree National Park in California.

One of the largest U.S. National Parks, Joshua Tree is easily reached from interstate highway 10 and the nearby metropolitan area of Palm Springs. As a result, it receives about 2.5 million visitors each year.

For Part 2, I’ll go to a less-visited, more remote pile of rocks in New Mexico.

Our destination is the City of Rocks (flag on map below), between Silver City (red circle) and Deming (blue circle).

City of Rocks NM map Google

The New Mexico-Arizona border is at the left. The border with Texas is in the lower right (the border with Mexico is 33 miles south of Deming). The City of Rocks is about a 4 hour drive from Albuquerque,  3-1/2 hours from Tucson, 2 hours from El Paso. I’ve starred two other natural attractions in the region: White Sands National Monument to the east and the Gila Wilderness to the north.

The Google map has an inaccuracy. It’s “City of Rocks,” plural. There’s more than one rock.

city of rocks NM Marcy Vincent 034 - PS1 (640x480)

Volcanic Origin

Those formations are granite, the result of a volcanic eruption, shaped by 35 million years of subsequent erosion. Occupying approximately a one mile square area, City of Rocks is a sudden and striking anomaly in the wide-open plains.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 030 (640x480)

Some of the granite formations are as tall as 40 feet.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 038 (640x480)

The numerous trails that wind through the City of Rocks are relatively easy because the formation rests on more or less level ground in the midst of the high plains of the Chihuahuan Desert (5,200 feet elevation).

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 049 (480x640)

Yes, when you go, you can truthfully say you’re out in the wide open spaces.

You’ll find ample opportunities to scramble off-trail through the labyrinth of monoliths.

Close-up, you see how solid blocks of granite are eaten away by millions of years of wind, rain, snow and even lichen.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 048 (480x640)

One encounters impressive results from the accidents of erosion in any big pile of rocks, like this boulder perched on a tiny pedestal.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 031 (640x480)

I couldn’t resist doing the math. At an average for granite of 150 pounds per cubic foot, that boulder weighs 7 or 8 tons. There’s a story there. How did it end up poised on that small base? Did it fall or roll onto it, or did water and wind erode the ground beneath it?


As always, wildlife sightings depend on the season, time of day and our old friend, blind luck. Numerous species of birds, reptiles and mammals inhabit the area, but visiting in the middle of the day, we saw the usual suspects: lizards, a jackrabbit and this sentinel ground squirrel on his solitary outpost.

City of Rocks NM Brad Nixon 046 (640x480)

When You’re There

As a New Mexico State Park, City of Rocks provides a reasonable number of services, including direction signs from the main road (always welcome), a visitors’ center, water, parking area, restrooms and camping. When skies are clear, there’s world-class stargazing, a long way from any light pollution. Click here for the park website.

Daylight viewing, though, provides plenty of memorable vistas and opportunities to contemplate nature’s ability both to create and destroy.

city of rocks NM Marcy Vincent 041 (640x480)

It can be blistering hot in summer, which is also the season for thunderstorms, including lightning, so go prepared.

Nearby Deming has a few attractions, but I don’t know it well other than its funky local museum. It’s a major stop along interstate highway 10, with plenty of shops and services. Silver City is well worth a visit, with an interesting historic downtown. It’s a college town (Western New Mexico University, where the museum has an excellent collection of Mogollon culture artifacts) and is the gateway to the Gila Wilderness. I’ll write about both the city and the wilderness in future blog posts.

I repeat my invitation to post a comment with your own favorite big pile of rocks, from whatever part of the world.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google.


  1. Such a unique part of the country! Worth driving out west to experience for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As there has been a series of articles on rocks here recently, I have reconsidered my prior reply to the UWS May 8 “Levitated Mass – Is It Art?” post on whether the boulder at LACMA is art. It’s a good question, especially for a very large installation at a major art museum. “Art” really defies precise definition. It depends on whether one’s standard is broad or narrow. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and so is art. For me, a strict constructionist, the boulder doesn’t work as art. That said, the boulder still gives meaning to what art is.

    I see the boulder as in the tradition of Dada, which some have called “anti-art,” and as such has a certain irony when something so large is the focus of an art museum. Marcel Duchamp, an early proponent of Dada during World War I in the early 20th C., would probably have loved this huge rock (which he would have called a “found object,” or a “ready-made” object not made by the artist) being passed off as art. Duchamp once offered an upside down urinal which he signed “R. Mutt” (a “ready-made”) as his sculpture entry to an exhibition in New York, which was summarily rejected by the exhibition’s organizers (even ​though​​​ the exhibition was supposed to have been “open” and they had promised to admit anything to the show).

    Many people enjoy Dada works because of their intellectual component, ​though​​ they are rarely an object of beauty or inspiration. So here, the boulder serves to recall a part of art history during a turbulent and uncertain time a century ago, and to guide us to a realization of what art may or may not be, which ultimately will be a reflection of the times we live in.

    Love the pix of the colorful rocks in your post!


  3. You said summers are very hot and dry with thunderstorms and lightning. Might you know how Grant County summers typically compare to those Pima County AZ? @


    • Gregory. You’ve now caught me. I generalized. There are a number of climates in the southwest, depending on altitude, latitude, absence or presence of mountain ranges, plains, grasslands.
      I’d like to invite you to correct me, and I’ll incorporate your correction into the post. Thank you for commenting. I’m capable of learning. Thank you. Brad


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