Tour Down New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway

Land of Enchantment

Map of New Mexico
Ruidoso is a small tourist village that I just happen to run across when I was heading home one trip.Cruiser

From Taos to Tucumcari, Silver City to Shiprock, I've had many intimate encounters with New Mexico over the years. I've eaten sopapias in Santa Fe, broken down in Deming and considered my fortune in Truth or Consequences. But this last ride to Ruidoso, via the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway, made me feel as if I were being introduced to the state for the first time.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
The start of a journey always begins with a cup of coffee.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

I’d had only one elusive glimpse of Ruidoso prior to my return there last summer. After investigating alien encounters in nearby Roswell, I’d taken a wrong turn on my westerly dash home and ended up in the small tourist-studded village. I remember thinking as I hurried about town searching for a connector road heading north toward my then-misplaced Highway 380 that Ruidoso seemed like a fine motorcycle destination. And so, it ended up on my To Do list.

Exploring Billy the Kid Byway.
Exploring Billy the Kid Byway.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

When I returned in the summer of 2002 for a full investigation of the area I exited Interstate 10 at Las Cruces for a swift approach via scenic Highway 70. The high, open plains here rise to the north like a golden skirt around a granite Christmas tree. Few realize this Scenic Byway is actually nestled in the southernmost section of the Rocky Mountains known as the Sacramento range. Yes, the famous Rockies sputter, then tumble, into high desert plains in southern New Mexico, but not before a last, lofty upsurge and impressive pinnacle, Sierra Blanca, the 12,000 foot sentinel that looms above the town of Ruidoso. Even fewer people guess there's some fine skiing to be enjoyed in the region during the winter. But snow and motorcycles don't jive, right? So we'll concentrate on what matters most. The Ruidoso area, Lincoln County to be more general, is indeed a biker's oasis from May through October. Temperatures are mild and the roads clean, clear and enticingly curvy, while wonderful delights—foods, shops, sites—seem to wait around every bend.

Exploring Billy the Kid Byway
Snow and motorcycles don't mesh well, but the drier weather in the May through October months is perfect for motorcycle touring.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

Billy the Kid’s trail is an 84.2-mile triangular loop, which has been recognized as a Historic Scenic Byway since 1995. I joined the circuit automatically since I was already traveling northeast on New Mexico 70. I decided to continue on Billy’s route, counterclockwise from Ruidoso, in order to draw out my anticipation of exploring the town by a few more hours.

Exploring Billy the Kid Byway in New Mexico
Rustic, or should I say rusty, folk art can be found in the towns along the Billy the Kid Byway.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

Here in Lincoln County, the folks are proud of their Billy the Kid connection. The famous ruffian, a murdering outcast who longed for redemption but could never afford it, pretty much terrorized the area for 20 years with his gang of “boys” who regularly committed crimes ranging from cattle thievery to cold-blooded killing. Seems an odd thing to celebrate, but one can easily conclude it’s the connection Billy offers to the Wild West that the area is passionate about. Such a legacy is always good business, and this region is rich with such ghosts. You’ll find sites all over Lincoln County that have played a part in the legends of famous outlaws, lawmen and Indians.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
Again, some more art. The area is rich with it.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

Ruidoso Downs shouldn’t be confused with Ruidoso proper. The Downs is a bump in the road mostly known for its Billy the Kid Casino and a horseracing facility. A little further on is San Patricio, a 19th century settlement where one can better picture the mischief that these mountains are famous for. In 1878 San Patricio was literally torn apart by a posse looking for the elusive Billy, who wouldn’t be found for another three years. When Highway 70 intersects 380 at Hondo the loop turns west toward Lincoln and the city’s courthouse where The Kid was last jailed in 1881. He escaped, as usual, and killed two deputies on the way out the door. Three months later he was gunned down in nearby Fort Sumner, where you’ll find a museum that glorifies his villainy. This corner of the triangle leaves the million-acre Lincoln National Forest briefly and dips down into the desert like the low end of a tortilla chip, which reminds you how much hotter it is that close to the salsa.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
Tanking up at a local station.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

From Lincoln you can take a little side trip to Fort Stanton, only three miles off Highway 380. It’s here the famous Buffalo Soldiers (two full regiments of African Americans whose hair reminded the Native Americans of buffalo fur, hence the name) were housed in the 1860s. These soldiers were stationed in the area to control the local Apache, and at one time the legendary Kit Carson commanded the fort. There is a small museum, but the site is a long way from being well kept. At Capitan, the birthplace of Smokey Bear, take New Mexico 48 south through Angus and Alto back toward Highway 70. This is the best portion of the loop for motorcycle riding, especially the winding approach to Ruidoso.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
Eclectic garden art.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

The name means Noisy River in Spanish, but I found Ruidoso and the Rio that dissects it incredibly quiet and gentle in ambience. Well, except for all the chainsaw artists slicing sculptures around the village. Perhaps before such an attraction was dreamed up the river’s babbling sounded more conspicuous. Nevertheless, the carving is fun to watch and the fresh wood smell that wafts through town is intoxicating. Finally arriving at my destination with time to kill made me feel giddy as I stripped off my sweaty riding suit and prepared to explore on foot. Cute shops abound, but what I was really there for was food. I ate heartily at the Café Rio, which calls its menu eclectic, offering everything from pizza to jambalaya to old-fashioned root beer floats. Terrific place. After a leisurely afternoon enjoying the main drag of Ruidoso I short-shifted through the cool summer evening in search of the perfect cottage, and found my ideal at a Dan Dee Cabins (but there are literally hundreds of cottages and cabins in this area, at different levels of extravagance). In the morning, I enjoyed a hearty breakfast at The Holiday House, an unlikely shack on the outskirts of town that came highly recommended by the locals.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
Let the woodcarving begin.Photography by Jamie Elvidge
Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
Wood-carved art is on rooftops.Photography by Jamie Elvidge
Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
It's in the yards, it almost seems to multiply in some places.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

Indian ruins, ghost towns and a perfect stack of pancakes. Yeah, I'll be back. Ruidoso may have been penciled in on my To Do list for 2002, but now it's in the permanent file. Maybe I'll make like Billy the Kid and keep showing up there until they make me a legend. Forget the evil tomfoolery; they can make me famous for shooting the breeze.

Exploring New Mexico's Billy the Kid Byway
The open roads are definitely welcoming me back for next time.Photography by Jamie Elvidge

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