Land Water People Time

At the nexus

Key historic trails crisscross here


New Mexico is a land of trails. High in the mountains are the game trails of elk and deer. At the middle altitudes are the paths that rabbits take and trails left by turkeys in the mud of riverbanks. At the lower elevations are trails of lizard tails dragging in the sand, of coyotes on the prowl. These are the first trails, the original trails, the trails of animals.

The first people to settle in the Americas, Pleistocene hunter-gathers, followed the game trails. In the Southwest, the Pueblo peoples made their own paths, building hundreds of miles of roads radiating outward from Chaco Canyon and forging trade routes southward to the Indians of Mexico.

Then came the trails of European colonists, first the Spanish and then the Anglo-Americans. We are a land of trails still; they crisscross this realm from high to low. Along them walk the past, the present and the future.

The U.S. National Park Service oversees 19 national historic trails, three of them in New Mexico. Here’s a brief look at their history and their role in shaping the American Southwest.

El Camino Real del Tierra Adentro

El Camino Real del Tierra Adentro — the Royal Road of the Interior Lands — is the oldest trade route in the United States. Juan de Oñate blazed it in 1598 when he founded San Gabriel, one of the first European colonies in what would become the United States, at today’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Following in part prehistoric Indian trails, it ran 1,600 miles from Mexico City to San Gabriel. The New Mexico portion, some 400 miles, mostly followed the Río Grande, which provided a natural, watered pathway north and south.

Oxen-driven wooden-wheeled carretas (carts) traveled slowly on the camino, taking three to six months to make the entire trip. While a difficult, even deadly journey, the route did allow for manufactured goods, rare foods, apparel and even a few books to make their way northward into the region. It also provided for the export of raw wool, wool products such as blankets, live sheep, animal hides, tallow and other natural resources, as well as a flow of soldiers, priests and government officials. The trail was in use for almost 300 years.

Designated a national historic trail by Congress in 2001, it is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. These agencies maintain and promote the trail in close partnership with El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association, government agencies, private landowners, and nonprofit heritage conservation groups. For additional details, visit or

Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail once linked Los Angeles and Santa Fe, crossing six states on an exhausting 2,700-mile course. Blazed in 1829 by New Mexicans seeking to open a trade route to the West Coast, it was labeled “the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America” by trail historians LeRoy and Ann Hafen. During the winter of 1829-1830, Antonio Armijo led a caravan of 60 men and 100 pack mules from New Mexico to Mission San Gabriel in California, east of Los Angeles, crossing huge canyons of the Colorado River and the deserts of Nevada and southern California. It took his party three months to get there and six weeks to return, but others soon followed.

Variations of the route soon developed. One led northward from Santa Fe to Taos and Gunnison, Colorado, and then turned northwest and west. Another went up the Chama River to present-day Durango, Colorado, and then northwest. Another struck the San Juan River and ran west across southern Utah. All converged near present-day Las Vegas, Nevada, and then diverged into subroutes for the final leg into southern California. In his report on his 1844 journey to California, general and explorer John C. Fremont labeled the route the Spanish Trail.

New land and sea routes to the West Coast reduced traffic on the trail substantially, and in 1869 the completion of the first railway from the Midwest to San Francisco spelled the end of the trail. It was designated a national historic trail in 2002 and is overseen by the NPS and the BLM, in conjunction with the Old Spanish Trail Association. For details visit or

Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail, the “Great Prairie Highway,” spanned 1,200 miles and crossed portions of five modern states: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

The trail transformed New Mexico and the Southwest. Spain had forbidden trade between New Mexico and the United States, so only the Camino Real provided a link to the outside world. When Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821, it immediately okayed trade with the U.S. The first “prairie schooners” rumbled into the Santa Fe Plaza later that year.

In New Mexico, there were three primary routes: the Mountain Route (over Raton Pass), the Cimarron Cutoff Route (past present-day Clayton) and the Fort Union Granada Route (approximately between the two main trails). They converged around Fort Union and Las Vegas and then ran along today’s I-25 corridor into Santa Fe and the Plaza.

The eastern terminus of the trail originally was Franklin, Missouri, on the Missouri River. This was the starting point for the first commercial venture, led by William Becknell in 1821. Over the coming decades, the eastern end moved progressively westward, to Independence and Westport, Missouri, and Council Grove, Kansas.

Established as a national historic trail in 1987, it is overseen by the NPS, with many partner organizations, including the Santa Fe Trail Association. For details visit or

In addition to the three national historic trails in New Mexico, two other trails warrant attention. One leg of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail bisects the state north to south, including a segment running from the Colorado border to Lake Abiquiú. It offers hikers, bikers and horseback riders tremendous opportunities for isolation among beautiful high-country pine and aspen forests, lowland slick rock canyons and desertlike terrain. Portions are still being completed. For details see

Another trail-in-the making is the state-run Río Grande Trail. Eventually, it will run some 500 miles north and south, along the length of the Río Grande. It will link four national wildlife refuges, six national monuments, one national heritage area and six state parks, touching nearly 10 counties and more than 22 cities and towns. Only short stretches of the trail currently are in operation. For details visit

National Park Service Role

Besides the trails noted above, the regional NPS trails office—directed by Aaron Mahr in Santa Fe—manages the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Juan Bautista de Anaza Trail (in Arizona and California) and the Camino Real de los Tejas, which once linked Texas with Mexico City.

NPS is considering other routes for congressional designation, including Route 66 and the Butterfield Stage Route across southern New Mexico. “Congress has established very tough criteria and standards for designating these trails,” explains Mahr. “They must hold national significance and provide opportunities for education and public participation.” 

Mahr stresses that no private lands are appropriated in trail designations; landowners participate on their own accord. He says, “Heritage tourism is really important for a lot of communities, and we work with them to develop these resources if they seek our help. As Americans, we recognize the value of protecting our historic sites, as they help us understand our national tapestry and ourselves. Historic trails reveal routes of transportation, of discovery, military activity and cultural interchange. Routes like the Camino Real help us understand what it was that made America. And because trails play themselves out over long distances, they also provide the public with the opportunity to get out on very beautiful and significant landscapes. These trails are part of our natural and historical heritage. We see them as especially important for new generations to connect with our past.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of our national trail system in 1968, the NPS is working with many communities and partner organizations on special events, such as the dedication in June 2018 of a new 6-mile public stretch of the Camino Real, just west of Santa Fe along the Buckman escarpment from the Dead Dog Trailhead. And on Oct. 20, the Fiesta of Cultures at the Coronado Historic Site in Bernalillo will commemorate Trails Day with multiple events. 

Daniel Gibson ( is the founding editor of this magazine. A native New Mexican, he has written numerous nonfiction books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles about the region over the past 40 years.


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