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Stalking New Mexico’s Wild Iris

Lake Maloya Sugarite Canyon State Park, 11 miles northeast of Ratón

Text by Sharon Niederman
Photograph by Steve Larese

It’s one of New Mexico’s great spectacles: masses of graceful irises swaying on slender stalks in the spring breeze. The beautiful Western blue flag iris is one of the season’s first flowers, unfurling its translucent lavender-blue petals from late May to early June; blossoms can last up to three weeks.

This delicate looking but hardy plant thrives in open, moist habitats ranging from 7,500 to 10,000 feet in elevation. The iris is particularly at home in Sugarite Canyon State Park, 11 miles northeast of Ratón in northeastern New Mexico, right on the Colorado border.

Here, great bunches of irises carpet the meadows and hillsides above the park’s two shimmering alpine lakes, Maloya and Alice. When the irises are at peak bloom, a drive through the park along Soda Pocket Road reveals meadows of glorious blue.

In this uncrowded park, you can take the easy 4 1/2 mile hike on the Lake Maloya Trail and scarcely see another visitor. You will see iris and views of caprock, mesas, and the sweep of the valley below. The trail follows Maloya’s shoreline, heading up and down shady, gentle slopes and through sunny meadows. Built originally to provide Ratón’s water supply, Lake Maloya is now a popular spot with picnickers and anglers (it’s stocked with rainbow trout).

The park’s name — Sugarite — descends from the Comanche word chicorica, meaning “an abundance of birds.” Indeed, bluebirds, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and warblers are as abundant as the various wildflowers. The park is also rich in wildlife, from mule deer and wild turkeys to beavers and bears.

There’s a wealth of history too. When Sugarite Coal Camp operated here from 1910 to 1941, a village of about 1,000 people sprang up. For a look into the past, stop at the visitor center, housed in the village’s old post office. If you want to stay overnight, there’s camping at Soda Pocket and Lake Alice.

Where: 11 miles northeast of Ratón off State 72 (watch for signs to the park) and State 526.
Contact: Sugarite Canyon State Park: (505) 445-5607. Ratón Chamber of Commerce: 445-3689 or (800) 638-6161.

This article was first published in the May,
2001 issue of Sunset Magazine in the
“Travel Guide” under “Day Trip”

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