Smokey Bear Meets Billy the Kid? Carrizozo, Capitan, and Valley of Fires, New Mexico

Lisa Fritscher July 18, 2011 No Comments

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Billy the Kid Country Sign

Walking up to this sign, we could feel the energy of the place

When Dad and I were in Roswell, New Mexico, we stopped by the official Visitor Center. A wonderful representative there helped us plan a new route–the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, which runs through the Hondo Valley region and includes the town of Lincoln New Mexico, where Billy the Kid got his start as an outlaw.

A trip to Lincoln was clearly a must-do, but what about the rest of the region? We soon discovered that the route included Capitan, home of Smokey Bear; Carrizozo, the county seat since 1913; and the Valley of Fires, a massive lava flow three miles from Carrizozo that happens to offer a developed campground. The main tourist hub for the area is Ruidoso, but we wanted to do something a little different.

Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires was breathtaking

Valley of Fires is a recreation area adjoining the Carrizozo Lava Flow, created approximately 5,000 years ago from lava vents in the Earth’s crust. The molten lava flowed south, ultimately creating an area of lava rock 44 miles long and 2 to 5 miles wide. The total surface area is approximately 127 square miles. At its thickest points, the lava is 165 feet deep.

Towing the travel trailer into the Valley of Fires was quite an experience! As we left Carrizozo, the terrain changed, surrounding us with giant black rocks on either side. As of 2011, the nightly fee is $7 for tent camping, $12 for primitive RV sites, or $18 for a site with electric and water hookups. Valley of Fires is operated by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that accepts Golden Access and Golden Age National Park passes for half-price camping. The day use fee is $3 for one person, $5 for a carload or free for National Park pass holders.

RV View of The Valley of Fires

This was the view from our front door

The paved RV section of the campground is literally built on the side of a mountain. The road is steep but well-graded, and the sites are tiered along the mountainside. The tent section offers level tent pads and is sheltered against the mountain for protection from wind. That’s a good thing, because the wind whipped through our RV site so badly that our satellite dish nearly fell down the mountain! As it is, the LNB arm is permanently bent.

We chose a site directly across from the small visitor center and gift shop, staffed by an extremely helpful volunteer. A clean, modern bath house was just a few steps away. The view from our site was truly stunning–overlooking the Hondo Valley and Ruidoso on one side, and the lava flow on the other.

Lava Walk - Valley of Fires

The lava walk is the main attraction

The main attraction at the Valley of Fires is the lava walk. The paved trail through the lava flow offers 14 interpretive signs explaining the history, flora and fauna of this unique location. The majority of the trail is wheelchair-accessible. Carry plenty of water when hiking the trail. A hat and sunscreen are essential, as there is no shade and the sun is intense.

Valley of Fires also offers a steep and rocky, but short, hike to a stunning overlook. Rumor has it that with a telescope, it is possible to see the Trinity Site from here. The Trinity Site is the spot at the nearby White Sands Missile Range where the atomic bomb was tested in 1945.

Carrizozo

Carrizozo Museum

The Carrizozo Museum is well worth a stop

As the county seat for Lincoln County, we expected Carrizozo to be a bustling government town. Instead, we found a nearly abandoned shell with a couple of restaurants, a gift shop or two and an extremely cool museum.

Carrizozo got its start in 1899 when the railroad came to Lincoln County. As the new railroad town boomed, the former county seat of Lincoln and the mining town of White Oaks declined. By 1913, the bustling Carrizozo was the obvious choice for a new county seat.

In 1940, Carrizozo built a new ice house and frozen food locker to match the 1938 power plant next door. Families could rent space in the locker to hold game and other foods that needed to be kept frozen. The place also sold blocks of ice for home iceboxes. By the mid-1950s, most people had freezers at home, and the locker was no longer needed. Briefly operated as a milk processing plant, the frozen food locker sat empty until the Lincoln County Historical Society renovated it into a museum in the 1990s.

Carrizozo Museum - Room of the Old West

The Room of the Old West was impressive

Today the museum is open extremely limited hours, so call ahead before planning a visit. Admission is free. We were the only visitors during our trip, and were given a private tour. The collection is a fascinating blend of artifacts from throughout Carrizozo’s history divided into a series of rooms and sections, each focusing on a particular type of artifact. A milliner, a model railroad exhibit and a tribute to Carrizozo’s first theater are among the highlights.

Our favorite was the “Room of the Old West,” separated from the rest of the museum by a set of saloon doors. Inside, a realistic mural blends seamlessly with actual artifacts to give the illusion of being inside an Old West saloon. At the other end of the room, a collection of saddles and a detailed history of barbed wire grabbed our attention.

The entire tour took less than an hour to complete. Though Carrizozo is small, its residents are fiercely proud of their town’s history. Carrizozo is well worth a visit on your way to or from the Valley of Fires. Walk through the museum, and then stop by the Four Winds restaurant for excellent home cooking.

Capitan

Living Mascot Bear Cub

The bear cub was a living mascot for the program

Roughly 30 minutes from the Valley of Fires along the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway is the small town of Capitan, home of Smokey Bear. You may be familiar with the Smokey Bear ad campaigns–“Only you can prevent forest fires.” What is less widely known is that Smokey was a real bear.

The National Forest Service developed its fire prevention campaign during World War II, when resources were stretched thin and the Japanese used wildfires as a weapon. After the film Bambi was released in 1942, Disney loaned the title character to the campaign for one year. Keeping the animal theme, Smokey Bear was chosen as the new mascot, making his debut in 1944.

The Capitan Mountains have always been prone to wildfires, both natural and human-caused. In 1950, a particularly devastating fire ravaged the area. Firefighters discovered a tiny bear cub, orphaned and badly burned, clinging to a tree in the destroyed forest. Local rangers took in the cub and nursed him back to health, soon naming him Smokey after the campaign mascot.

When he recovered, Smokey moved to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he became a national hero. As the living mascot for the fire prevention campaign, Smokey started receiving so much fan mail that he was actually assigned his own zip code! He was given a mate named Goldie in 1962, but the pair never had children. Little Smokey, rescued as a cub from another Lincoln Forest fire in 1971, moved in with Smokey and Goldie as their “adopted child.”

Smokey the Bear Gravesite Trail

The trail to Smokey's gravesite winds through desert plants

Smokey retired as the living mascot in 1975, passing the mantle to Little Smokey. When Smokey passed away in 1976, he was buried in the town of Capitan, close to the mountains where he lived as a cub. Smokey Bear Historical Park was built around his gravesite in 1979.

Today the site contains a small but highly informative museum with an orientation film and exhibits dedicated to conservation and forest fire prevention. Outside, the trail to Smokey’s gravesite highlights the flora and fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert, of which Capitan is a part. A small gift counter in the visitor center and a larger gift shop at the end of the trail sell all sorts of Smokey Bear memorabilia.

Our visit to Capitan lasted roughly two hours. The drive to town along the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway is breathtaking, and Smokey Bear Historical Park is extremely well-done. Kids of all ages have likely been exposed to the Smokey Bear message, and learning about the real bear adds a new layer to the experience.

Ruidoso/Ruidoso Downs

Old Dowlin Mill

The Old Dowlin Mill was a hotspot for outlaws and prominent citizens

Ruidoso and its sister, Ruidoso Downs, are the tourist heart of the Hondo Valley. There are “Old West in a box” museums, great for people who only have limited time, as well as grocery stores and chain restaurants. The only two stops that we found especially worthwhile were the Old Dowlin Mill, a preserved sawmill and great house where Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and other historic figures used to gather, and the Billy the Kid Visitor Center.

Billy the Kid Visitor Center

The Billy the Kid Visitor Center is incredibly informative

The Billy the Kid Visitor Center, in Ruidoso Downs, is a must-see for anyone planning a stay in the Hondo Valley. The center is packed with exhibits and information about the various towns in the region, including Alamogordo’s connections to the Space Race, the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument and, of course, Billy the Kid’s Lincoln County War.

A walk-through miniature of the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway and leaflets with suggested day trips help immensely with planning your stay. We actually got caught up for nearly an hour watching videos of local residents sharing their family histories in the region.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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