Physical Geography

New MexicoNew Mexico is a state in the Southwest region of the United States.

New Mexico occupies part of four major physical regions of the United States: the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Colorado Plateau, and the Basin and Range.

The Rocky Mountains cover north-central New Mexico and consist of almost parallel ranges jutting southward from Colorado. They are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east and the San Juan and Jemez mountains in the west. Between them is the Rio Grande Valley. In many places the ranges are rugged and contain peaks of 10,000 to 13,000 feet (3,000 to 3,900 m). Wheeler Peak, near Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Range, rises 13,161 feet (4,011 m>—the high est elevation in the state.

The Great Plains occupy the easternmost third of the state. Unlike the terrain in many parts of the Great Plains, the topography here is quite diverse. The High Plains lie along the northeastern Texas-New Mexico border. The northernmost section of the Great Plains, around Raton, is hilly and dotted with such volcanic landforms as lavacapped mesas and buttes, necks, and cones. The land becomes extremely flat south of the Canadian River in the Llano Estacado (Staked Plain). West of the Llano Estacado lies the broad, relatively low Pecos Valley The valley, which stretches for about 250 miles (400 km) along the Pecos River, consists of fairly level land fringed by mesas, canyons, and cliffs. The lowest point in the state is Red Bluff Lake on the Pecos River; its surface is 2,817 feet (859 m) above sea level.

The Basin and Range region occupies the southwest and a corridor northeastward to Santa Fe. It consists of alternating dry basins and barren mountain ranges. Some of the ranges are rugged, but most are rounded and of relatively low relief. Among the chief ranges, those with elevations above 8,000 feet (2,400 m) are the Sacramento, Guadalupe, San Andres, Manzano, Black, Mogollon, San Mateo, and Gallo mountains.

The basins, also called bolsons when completely enclosed by mountains, lie at elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet (1,200 to 2,100 m). Within them are such features as salt flats, sand dunes, and lava flows. Among the larger basins are Tularosa Valley, Jornada del Muerto, and Estancia Valley.

New Mexico'sNew Mexico's state flower is the yucca flower.

The Colorado Plateau, in the northwest, is an area of broad tablelands rising 5,000 to 7,000 feet (1,500 to 2,100 m) in height. Breaking its surface are high mesas and buttes, deep canyons, sharp ridges, and several mountain ranges. Landforms of volcanic orgin, such as lava flows, necks, and dikes, are prominent landmarks, especially in the south.

Interesting facts about New Mexico
El Camino Real (the Royal Highway) stretched from Santa Fe to Mexico City. It was the first road established by Europeans in what is now the United States. It was traveled from about 1581 and was later used primarily as a trade route. Portions of it still exist and can be explored.
The Smokey Bear Historical State Park was established in Capitan in 1979. The symbol of Smokey was first used by the United States Forest Service in 1944. In 1950, a real "Smokey Bear" was found clinging to a burned tree after a fire swept through Lincoln National Forest. The orphaned bear cub became the living Smokey Bear. The bear died in 1976 and was buried in what is now Smokey Bear Historical State Park.
The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is the oldest government building in the United States. The Spanish built it as part of a fortress during the winter of 1609-1610. In 1909, it was converted to the Palace of the Governors History Museum. The building now houses exhibits on Spanish, Mexican, and American colonization dating back to the late 1500's.
New Mexico'sNew Mexico's state tree is the pinon.

Most of New Mexico is drained by two southerly-flowing rivers—the Rio Grande and the Pecos, its tributary. The northeast is drained mainly by the Canadian River; the northwest, by the San Juan; and the southwest, by the Gila. The San Juan and Gila systems lie west of the continental divide and flow to the Pacific Ocean; the rest drain southeasterly to the Gulf of Mexico.

The state's principal rivers have varying seasonal flows and carry little water during much of the year. Most other rivers are intermittent (seasonally wet and dry). Some of these are enclosed within basins and have no outward drainage. There are also numerous channels, called arroyos, that flow only after heavy rains.

Because of the undependable water supply, some of New Mexico's rivers have been dammed. Their reservoirs provide water for irrigation, power, domestic use, and recreation. Chief among these man-made lakes are Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, on the Rio Grande; Conchas Lake, on the Canadian; and Navajo Reservoir, on the San Juan. There are few natural lakes in the state.


Except in the mountains, where the climate varies with elevation, New Mexico has a dry continental climate, known also as a middle-latitude steppe climate. Among its chief characteristics are a wide range in annual and daily temperatures, little precipitation, low humidity, and abundant sunshine throughout the year.

Summers are cool in the high mountains, but elsewhere they range from warm to hot. Average temperatures for July, the wannest month, vary from about 65° F. (18° C.) on some northern mesas to more than 80° F. (27° C.) in the low-lying valleys of the south. Daytime temperatures are high everywhere, often reaching 90° to 100° F. (32° to 38° C.) or more. Nights are generally cool throughout most of the state.

Winters are mild in the south, with average January temperatures hovering near 40° F. (4° C.). They drop to below freezing in the north and much lower in the mountains. Temperatures below 0° F. (-18° C.) occasionally occur in the northernmost mountains.

Precipitation varies greatly within the state and from year to year. The mountains receive as much as 20 to 25 inches (510 to 630 mm); the Great Plains, 12 to 16 inches (300 to 400 mm); and the southern and western lowlands as little as 8 inches (200 mm). Most of the moisture is brought by thunderstorms during warm months. Winter is the driest season. The average annual snowfall ranges from about 3 inches (75 mm) along the southern border to well over 100 inches (2,500 mm) in the northern mountains. Destructive storms that occasionally strike the state include blizzards, tornadoes, and hailstorms.


New Mexico's numerous mountain ranges support a wide variety of plant life. In the Rocky Mountains, the lower slopes have mixed forests of mainly Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and aspens. On the upper slopes Engelmann spruce, various firs, and Rocky Mountain white pine are intermixed with stands of aspen. Above the timberline is alpine tundra. In most of the state's other mountain ranges ponderosa pine and Douglas fir are the predominant types of trees.

Grasslands prevail in much of the rest of the state, especially on the eastern plains Areas of desert shrub vegetation interspersed with grasslands are found in the west. Desert shrub vegetation includes pi-non and juniper trees, sagebrush, and sometimes yuccas, cacti, and creosote bushes.