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U.S. Forest Service

Southwestern Region Viewing Area


Map of a portion of the Kiowa National Grasslands displaying the roads in the Mills Canyon area.

A view of the Kiowa National Grasslands dominated by gently rolling almost-treeless short grass prairie. The Kiowa National Grasslands are dominated by gently rolling almost treeless short grass prairie. Photo source: USFS files, Charlie McDonald.

the Canadian River. The Canadian River has cut a canyon almost 1,000 feet deep through the national grasslands. Photo source: USFS files, Charlie McDonald.

the Mills Canyon Hotel, now only a ruin. The Mills Canyon Hotel, now only a ruin, was part of a thriving farming and ranching enterprise established by Melvin Mills in the late 1800s. The entire operation was wiped out by a devastating flood in 1904. Photo source: USFS files, Charlie McDonald.

sign indentifying a publicly owned unit. National grasslands are a patchwork of public and private ownership. Signs like these identify the publicly owned units. Photo source: USFS files, Charlie McDonald.

Mills Canyon

Forest: Cibola National Forest

District: Kiowa/Rita Blanca National Grasslands

Description: As you approach Mills Canyon from the east, you drive through High Plains short grass prairie. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), galleta (Pleuraphis jamesii), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) dominate the vegetation, with only scattered trees and shrubs. This is excellent habitat for pronghorn antelope and you are likely to see several herds.

The terrain and vegetation change drastically when you approach the edge of Mills Canyon, which descends almost 1,000 feet to the Canadian River below. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), pinyon pine (P. edulis), Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), and junipers (Juniperus monosperma and J. scopulorum)add interest to the canyon’s sandstone boulders and cliffs.

With the right rainfall patterns in mid to late summer, there can be spectacular sunflower (Helianthus annuus and H. petiolaris) displays. Otherwise, do not expect showy wildflower displays; you will have to be content just finding interesting plants here and there. But, the diversity is good with 493 species and varieties being identified in 73 families during surveys (PDF) done in the early 1980s. Bush morning-glory (Ipomoea leptophylla), desert four o’clock (Mirabilis multiflora), and oak-leaved thornapple (Datura quercifolia) are some of the showy plants you are likely to find in the sandy soils of the river floodplain.

Mills Canyon has an interesting cultural history. Melvin Mills planted orchards with over 14,000 trees in the late 1800s. A few pear, apple, apricot, mulberry, walnut, pecan, plum, and Osage orange trees still persist.

July through September are the best months to visit for wildflower viewing. Daytime temperatures during these months can exceed 100 degrees, but at an elevation of 5,000-6,000 feet the mornings and evenings are usually pleasant.

Safety First: This part of New Mexico is sparsely inhabited. You will see few other people and cell phones may not work. Be prepared for auto breakdowns or other emergencies by carrying provisions in your can such as water, blankets, first aid kit, and food.  If you go hiking, take a pack with protective clothing, compass, map, flashlight, first aid kit, water, and food. During the summer months, rattlesnakes are common in the rocky terrain; pay attention to where you walk and place your hands.

Directions: From Las Vegas, New Mexico, go north on I-25 to Wagon Mound (50 miles), east on New Mexico Highway 120 to Roy (33 miles), then north on New Mexico Highway 39 for 10 miles. Look for the road sign to Mills Canyon or the Mills Canyon Road street sign. Proceed west on this gravel road for 10 miles to the rim of Mills Canyon. The road from here to the bottom of the canyon is narrow with several sharp switchbacks. It is not suitable for motor homes or vehicles with long trailers. There is a campground in the bottom of the canyon with pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. There is no running water or trash disposal (pack it in, pack it out!).

Contact: Kiowa/Rita Blanca National Grasslands, 714 Main Street, Clayton, New Mexico 88415. Phone: (505) 374-9652.

Closest Town: Roy, New Mexico.