Sierra Grande • Highpoint: Union County
• Raton Mesas

Date Climbed
May 26, 2002

8,720 feet

1 mile round trip

45 minutes

550 feet

Clear but humid

1,880 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Sierra Grande from the east

Informative sign
about Sierra Grande

N.M. PageMain Page


Northeast New Mexico is an interesting transition region where the flatlands of the Great Plains come to meet the beginnings of the hills that eventually merge in with the great mountains such as the Sangre de Cristo Range and, of course, the mighty Rocky Mountains cordillera. All of the northeast corner of New Mexico is within Union County. This is ranching country, most of the land being fenced and private. There are pockets of public and state trust lands contained in the county.

The land here is “mostly” flat but with very broad, very gentle swells, and includes a few interesting volcanic plugs and domes, some that jut up from the ground rather dramatically. The most famous of these old volcanic remnants is Capulin Volcano, which is now a state park and features a road to near its summit. However, the highest point of Union County is Sierra Grande, a very broad, symmetric peak located near the little town of Des Moines. Sierra Grande cuts an impressive profile and is visible from many miles in all directions. My measly photograph (left sidebar) does not do this peak justice. It really is an impressive chunk of real estate.

I was on a week-long driving tour through New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Utah, this being the first day of my trip. The previous day I had left my home in Phoenix around 3 p.m. and made the long drive through Albuquerque to Raton, on the New Mexico-Colorado boundary. It was past midnight when I finally pulled off the road to catch some sleep. Somewhere in the high plains of Union County I had found a pull-out where I slept in the back of my truck, awaking to the distinctive songs of meadowlarks the next morning. I was very near Sierra Grande, and it was my primary objective this morning.

I quickly learned the whole area is mostly privately owned, but was aware of a narrow strip of state trust land (see note below) that runs to the summit from the east side. So I drove through some gates, trying my best to stay on public rights-of-way (none of the gates were locked), but I found myself in a very rocky pasture and it just didn’t feel right, so I retreated and drove into the town of Des Moines to ask around. The whole town has less than 100 people and it seems everyone has been to the top at least once, so they were actually helpful in a way. Most mentioned the strip of state land I had already scouted (I even went back once to be sure I hadn’t missed a turn-off or a gate or something). On the west end of town at a gas station, the lady mentioned a ranch-retreat center called the Mandala Center, which I had seen coming into town. She mentioned this as a lead, so I went there to check it out.

I drove the roads into the Mandala Center and came upon some very nice, modernistic “new-age” buildings, but no people. I drove randomly around the roads hoping one just might go to the top, but all led to dead ends. I was giving up hope when, as I was exiting, an SUV pulled in. We rolled down our windows to chat, and it turns out the lady driving the SUV was the owner of the Mandala Center, and that she lived next door (so to speak) at the AR Ranch a mile or two west. When I explained my intentions, she kindly gave me permission to cross her property via a very rough dirt road.

I drove west to the AR gates, entered onto the property, and following her directions, veered right from the main road onto some rougher roads that bent around some hills in such a way that it seemed to go away from the peak. The road was very rough, mainly covered in big rocks, so I needed 4-wheel drive and had to take it very slow. In time the road bent back “toward” the peak and started to gain up the slopes. I passed through a couple gates, some already open and one looking like it was completely thrashed. I was able to drive about 80% up the road, parking at a small clearing where I had room to turn my truck around. From here, I would walk the remainder, only about a half-mile distant, but with over 500 feet of gain.

The hike itself went quickly and without incident. I arrived to the summit area after maybe 20 minutes and spent about the same inspecting the flattish summit for the actual highest point. There are a few buildings and towers atop Sierra Grande, but not so many as to upset the overall views. The viewshed was amazing, with 360-degree views over the grassy plains, and the bigger mountains to the west. The weather was steady and slightly humid. I was back to my truck after about a 10-minute descent.

The drive down was slow but straightforward, and I simply exited the property and back onto the state highways. I was happy to have had success on Sierra Grande and relieved not to have had to climb it via the state trust strip, which looked kind of long and tedious. From here I headed east toward Clayton, then popped into the extreme northwest corner of Texas near the community of Texline. For the remainder of today, I knocked out a couple more north-Texas plains county highpoints, starting with Dallam County, proceeding east while evading giant panhandle thunderstorms, ending my day in Elk City, Oklahoma.

Important information: The following information is from David Eck, of the New Mexico State Land Office, regarding the status of the state trust land that leads to the summit from the east side, as well as lands surrounding the summit itself:

The summit, and a majority of the slopes of Sierra Grande are state trust land. It is important to note that state trust land is not in fact public land, and that all authorized access to trust land is only via the written permission of the head of my agency (whose official title, which is admittedly confusing, is the "Commissioner of Public Lands"). Our neighbors and lessees are not empowered to authorize access to the mountain. Point your browser to for more information about the New Mexico State Land Office and state trust land.

(c) 2002, 2011 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.