This region, defined by the border with Mexico and cloaked by the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest, offers ruggedness and remoteness, and always an echo of history. It's the region that wealthy Zacatecan mine owner Juan de OƱate passed through in 1598 to take possession of the territory for the Spanish King.

It was and still is a good place to hide out. Billy the Kid lived here; so did Geronimo. You'll stumble upon relics of their past at many junctures. You'll see thousands of snow geese taking flight at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. You can even contemplate the vastness of space at the Very Large Array (VLA), the world's most powerful radio telescope.

The most settled part of the area is down the center of the state, where the Rio Grande marks a distinct riparian line. Throughout history, this river has nourished the Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo settlers who have built their homes beside its banks. The river land was especially fertile around modern Las Cruces; the settlement of La Mesilla was southern New Mexico's major center for 3 centuries.

West of the river, the Black Range and Mogollon Mountains rise in the area now cloaked by Gila National Forest. This was the homeland of the Mogollon Indians 1,000 years ago. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument preserves one of their great legacies. This was also the homeland of the fiercely independent Chiricahua Apaches in the 19th century. Considered the last North American Indians to succumb to the whites, they counted Cochise and Geronimo among their leaders.

Mining and outdoor recreation, centered in historic Silver City (pop. 12,500), are now the economic stanchions of the region. But dozens of mining towns have boomed and busted in the past 140 years, as a smattering of ghost towns throughout the region attest, some such as Silver City and Hillsboro now home to artists who have opened galleries along the Old West streets.

Las Cruces, at the foot of the Organ Mountains, is New Mexico's second largest city, with 86,268 people. It's a busy agricultural and education center. North up the valley are Truth or Consequences (pop. 7,500), a spa town named for the 1950s radio and TV game show, and Socorro (pop. 9,000), a historic city with Spanish roots. West, on the I-10 corridor to Arizona, are the ranching centers of Deming (pop. 14,500) and Lordsburg (pop. 3,379).