Hell on a Mesa

Tourists!  Come to New Mexico!  Come to the Land of Enchantment.  

Spend a weekend flying down the slopes of Taos Ski Valley.  Explore the shops of the historic Santa Fe plaza.  Marvel at the vibrant colors of the International Balloon Fiesta.  And stand at the very door of Hell itself—with nothing between you and all its demons but a juniper-scented breeze. 

That’s right, folks: the gateway to the underworld swings open right here—in New Mexico—on a lonely, high desert mesa. 

That mesa, Urraca Mesa, is a towering, steep-sided, basalt-capped plateau, approximately two miles long by a half-mile wide.  Its slopes and upper ledge rise crowded with ponderosa pines, strewn with hidden ruins and petroglyphs, and populated by wild turkeys, black bears, mountain lions, and the happily noisy urracas—magpies—for which it’s named.  

Rising over the mountains and canyons of the southeastern corner of the Philmont Scout Ranch—a sizeable, Boy Scouts of America-owned campground in northeastern New Mexico—Urraca Mesa contains so much iron and magnetite that lightning strikes it all year round, more than it does anyplace else in the entire state.  This high concentration of magnetic elements has also been blamed for compasses becoming unreliable, mesa-top photographs developing in strange and distorted ways, and a ghostly blue glow sometimes seen along the mesa’s rim. 

In 1968, geologist F. Leo Misaqi conducted a study of the myriad abnormal traits in the area’s rocks, and concluded only that, “There is no simple explanation for [the] geochemical anomalies….” 

The mesa also possesses an extensive and eclectic human history—of Ancestral Puebloan Indians (or Anasazi), Navajos, Apaches, Mexican settlers, mountain men, cowboys, and Boy Scouts—and an extraordinary number of these visitors have claimed to have seen things there that defy comprehension.  

On topographical maps, the bulging, westernmost end of the mostly level Urraca Mesa vaguely resembles a human skull, and in that skull’s eye, a highpoint of the mesa, there is allegedly a portal—a portal to a place referred to by American Indians as Hell, the Underworld, the Netherworld, the Fourth World, and the Fifth Dimension—a portal used to slip from that world into ours. 

Certain Navajo medicine men of the area, having studied the mesa’s enigmatic petroglyphs, believe that several hundred years ago—around the time of the sudden disappearance of the region’s Anasazi—an intense battle was fought on top of Urraca Mesa between the people of the Earth and the evil spirits of the Underworld.  Humankind only barely managed to win this battle, before forcing their enemies back into Hell through a spot of ground on Urraca Mesa.    

“Even today the mesa is taboo to local tribes including the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches,” wrote Ken and Sharon Hudnall in Spirits of the Border IV: The History and Mystery of New Mexico. 

Following the battle, the ancient Indians of the area charged their most powerful medicine man with watching the doorway—and yet demons and evil spirit creatures have still allegedly made it through, leaving Hell to hunt down the souls of their enemies, drag those into the gateway, and secure them there with them in Hell.  

Many visitors to the mesa today claim to have glimpsed some of these demonic beings—beings such as a three-foot-tall, pitch-black, humanoid form that darts from tree to tree after hikers, before appearing in their tents late at night.  Others claim to have had encounters with historic people and animals that seem to have been altered forever, perhaps by exposure to weird energies or by accidentally wandering through the gateway and into someplace different.  

According to Michael Connelly in Riders in the Sky: The Ghosts and Legends of Philmont Scout Ranch, these include a herd of ghostly horses that can be heard thundering across the sky, and a never-found 1940s-era Boy Scout sometimes seen crying around a campfire.  According to Connelly, when people talk with the scout and volunteer to help him hike down, the boy simply whispers, “I can’t,” and disappears. 

Another account, posted on a 2003 online forum by “Amazingracer,” recalls the story of a former Philmont staff member who, while camped out alone atop the mesa, woke up during a late-night rainstorm and saw “a blue vertical line appear a few feet above the ground and then drop like a curtain,” out of which came charging a group of American Indians on horseback.  The story is intriguing, but since it ends with the sole witness running panicked into a barbed-wire fence and then bleeding to death, you really have to wonder how anyone would have heard it. 

Many others claim to have seen the old medicine man himself—sometimes dressed as a man, although glowing blue, sometimes disguised as a mountain lion or a raven or a bear, and sometimes in the form of floating orbs of blue light.  

One modern-day legend, recounted in Lori and Jared Chatterley’s When the Sun Goes Down: A Collection of Philmont Ghost Storiestells of two early-twentieth-century astronomers conducting a study from two different mesas, Urraca and the nearby Fowler Mesa.  Every other day the two men would meet to check in with each other and compare notes, but every time they met, the Urraca Mesa astronomer seemed moodier and more introspective, talking often about unusual blue lights that kept interfering with his work.  Before long, the man stopped showing up for the scheduled meetings, and when the other astronomer went to find him, all he found was his notebook, detailing an apparent descent into a madness of blue lights, blue glows, a mysterious hum, disembodied chanting, and drumbeats.  The notebook, many versions of this story claim, is now kept on file at Philmont’s headquarters. 

Other pieces of local lore tell of four intricately carved wooden “cat totems” placed centuries ago at the four corners of Urraca Mesa by the apparition of the medicine man, placed as charms to keep the more malevolent spirits of the mesa from ever climbing down.  Only two of these totems supposedly remain today, but when the last of them falls, the legends say, our entire world will share in the unknown fate of Urraca Mesa’s first residents. 

If or when that happens, and if the stories are true, there will then be no need for visitors to come to New Mexico to see the demons of Hell.  

These demons will be everywhere, and they will find you, and they will drag you here themselves. 

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