The Kiowa National Grassland (NG), comprised of 136,505 acres and administered by the Cibola
National Forest, stretches across the northeast corner of New Mexico from the isolated ranching
community of Roy to Springer and across to Clayton. There are two developed campgrounds,
one of which meets the selection criteria.
It's hard to see the Kiowa NG as anything other than what it is today but there are "old-timers"
who remember.The area now designated as "grassland" was settled in the 1800s under a variety
of "Homestead Acts," which opened the land to people, generally farmers, and helped to settle
the west. A prolonged period of drought in the late 1920s into the 1930s caused some homesteads
on sub-marginal farmland (a location receiving 15 or less inches of annual moisture) to literally dry
up and blow away. During this time, Congress established the Land Utilization Program (LUP)
which bought homesteads from bankrupt private owners and returned it to public land status.
The Work Program Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees
helped to stabilize the eroding soil. In the 1950s, the LUP holdings were assigned to the USDA
Forest Service and they were tasked with management of these sub-marginal lands. Over the
years the Forest Service has established some twenty National Grasslands from those sub-
marginal lands. "The designation of the area as National Grassland is not a description of the
area as much as a statement of policy and effort to restore the area to multiple uses and benefits."
Today, the Kiowa NG, a patchwork of public and private land, has come a long way from a land
once devastated by a drought in the 1930s. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Kiowa NG
experienced weather conditions as bad, if not worse, then those of the 1930s. However, because
of the USDA Forest Service's land management practices, there were no massive dust storms or
related damage to the land. The Kiowa NG continued to provide feed for cattle and wildlife and
offer many forms of outdoor recreation including camping, hiking, and scenic drives.
State Rt. 39, designated a scenic byway, runs through the larger section of the Kiowa NG. The
gentle rolling landscape of endless grass is interrupted only occasionally by a farmhouse. About
halfway between Roy, NM and where Rt. 39 intersects with US Rt. 56, is a road across the
grassland to the spectacularly beautiful Mills Canyon on the Canadian River. Most summers, the
Canadian River is basically a series of muddy ponds, but Mills Canyon is always amazing. It is
hard to imagine, driving along Rt. 39, the Canadian River could carve something as scenic,
geologically diverse, and historically interesting as Mills Canyon.
The land looks so flat but just beyond Mills Rim campground, a
pleasant campground for all types of campers including equestrian, the road (Forest Rt. 600)
drops into Mills Canyon. During the road's rapid descent the grass is replaced by Juniper, Pinion
and a scattering of Ponderosa pine. Quickly, the vegetation changes to mostly Juniper and the
lush green floor of Mills Canyon is seen stretching along the Canadian River. Melvin Mills,
attorney, Territorial legislator and entrepreneur, established the Mills Orchard and Ranch in this
canyon. For a number of years it was a successful enterprise but flash floods in 1904 and 1906
destroyed the orchards containing up to 5,000 trees and the complex irrigation system that
supported the orchards. There is nothing left of those orchards but several of the structures, such
as the Mills house, bunkhouse, and orchard house, remain and await exploration.
For people willing to disperse camp and interested in history should head for Kiowa NG north of
Clayton, NM and the Santa Fe Trail. A gate just north of the Santa Fe Trail picnic area provides
access to a two-mile stretch of the Santa Fe Trail's Cimarron Route. A high clearance vehicle
should be able to manage the two-track path where dispersed camping is possible along the way.
While the whole Trail is identified as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and stretches from
Franklin, MO, to Santa Fe, NM, the piece on the Kiowa NG explores a small section and gives
one some insight to the challenges and hardships travelers on this Trail must have experienced.
Some may look at the vast expanse of endless grassland and think it is empty and boring,
basically the "lone prairie." But there is a flawlessly deep blue sky above the grassland that rolls
on forever and under that sky is a dynamic and evolving landscape waiting for discovery and
2113 Osuna Road, NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87113
RANGER DISTRICT ADDRESS
Kiowa and Rita Blanca
714 Main St.
Clayton, New Mexico 88415