Thanksgiving road trip has become a tradition for us. I always have the entire week off from work (well, sort of… I have the week off from classes but not from grading, so my work laptop definitely came with us), and it turns out that November is a pretty good time of year to travel around the southwestern US. After spending the previous two Thanksgivings in Utah, we decided to mix things up a little this year with a trip to New Mexico. It’s a very underrated, beautiful, and diverse state, and over the next nine days we had plans to visit museums, historic sites, mountains, volcanoes, and everything in between. I’m not actually sure what one finds between museums and volcanoes, but anyway.
Over the course of the next couple months here on WordPress, I’ll be sharing all of this with you. Up first is a compilation of some of the smaller places we visited that don’t necessarily warrant their own post, but that we enjoyed nonetheless. So grab a warm beverage (or an alcoholic one, depending on what time of day you’re reading this) and get ready for a tour of the historic sites of north-central New Mexico.
Fort Union National Monument
Our first stop was Fort Union National Monument, which is pretty well in the middle of nowhere, located near no town you’ve ever heard of unless you’ve spent a significant amount of time in New Mexico. And in case you’re wondering how many people actually drive all the way out here, let me answer that question by showing you a photo of the road into the monument, which is slowly being taken over by grass.
Fort Union was initially built in 1851 to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, an international trade route between Missouri and Santa Fe (which was, at the time, part of Mexico). After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848, New Mexico became a US territory and the trail was no longer international… but it was still an important trade route. Therefore, the US rationalized, it needed to be protected; hence the first iteration of Fort Union.
However, the construction was shoddy. As if that wasn’t enough of an issue, as the Civil War approached New Mexico and the US Army took over the fort, the soldiers realized the location at the base of a large cliff was not at all strategic. So the soldiers set about building a new fort further out on the plains.
The second iteration wasn’t a lot better. It was earthen and hastily built and, as it turned out, still close enough to the cliffs to be reached by cannonballs shot from above. Fortunately, the Confederacy never reached Fort Union; they were rebuffed by Union soldiers at nearby Glorietta Pass.
The third iteration of Fort Union was built more durably out of adobe. This final iteration of the fort became a major supply depot for the entire region. In addition to living quarters and ammunition stores, it included a mechanic shop, a prison, and the largest hospital between Kansas and California.
It also became instrumental in facilitating the westward expansion of the US – in other words, removing indigenous peoples from their land to make way for settlers. The region was the native homeland and hunting ground of the Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Southern Ute, and Navajo. By 1870s, most were on reservations and children were being sent to boarding school and anglicized, including being given new names and being unable to speak their native languages. Troops at Fort Union facilitated this.
Today, what’s left of Fort Union is remnants of this third iteration, including adobe walls and foundations that must be maintained regularly to prevent deterioration. A 1.3 mile (2.1 km) flat gravel path loops around the fort, passing each building and stopping at various interpretive signs. It was sunny but cold, so we walked fairly quickly and completed the loop in about 30 minutes. We also spent some time in the visitor center watching the video, reading the exhibits, and chatting with the ranger.
Coronado Historic Site
Named for Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, one might arrive at this site expecting it to have something to do with, well, Coronado. It does, but only tangentially.
In 1540, Coronado and his men (all told, about 1300 soldiers, indigenous men, and slaves, plus over 1000 horses) set out in search of the famed Seven Cities of Gold. They never found them – unsurprising since they didn’t exist – but they did stumble upon the people indigenous to the region. Written records left behind by these men ultimately led archaeologists to the region to excavate the massive villages – or pueblos – they described. Artifacts left behind suggest that some of these pueblos came under fire from the Spanish military. Coronado Historic Site is home to one such pueblo.
Kuaua Pueblo – pronounced “kwah-wah” and meaning “evergreen” in the local Tiwa language – was first built around 1300 CE on the banks of the Rio Grande. It was inhabited for more than 200 years and expanded to over 1500 rooms! Perhaps the most unique aspect of Kuaua is the square kivas. A kiva is a subterranean space used for ceremonial purposes. Most kivas are circular, so the presence of square ones is very unusual. In particular, excavation of one square kiva revealed walls painted with illustrations, somehow preserved for almost 400 years! Some of these illustrations are on display in the museum, but photography is not permitted in that room.
After touring the museum, we stepped outside to the soundtrack of sandhill cranes swirling overhead. It’s a small site and a short walk and, honestly, I’m not entirely sure it was worth the cost of admission. The original structures have been filled back in to prevent further deterioration, and what’s visible above-ground is entirely reconstructions.
We did, however, enjoy learning the history and walking the path along the Rio Grande with the Sandia Mountains rising in the background.
Pecos National Historic Park
Last up is Pecos National Historic Park. Pecos has a similar history to Coronado, originating as a pueblo before being overrun by the Spanish in the 1600s, where they destroyed kivas and other Puebloan religious figures and built a church as part of their mission to spread Christianity. The Spanish were pushed out at the end of the 1600s during the Pueblo Revolt and the church was destroyed. However, they returned about 12 years later and built a second church and convent here. The population of the pueblo – which peaked at over 2000 due to its strategic location for facilitating trade between the Rio Grande Valley and the Great Plains – dwindled over time, and by the 1840s it was abandoned.
The pueblo was excavated in 1915 and today is encompassed by Pecos National Historic Park. We arrived as soon as they opened and began by watching the film in the visitor center. The museum was closed for renovations, so we proceeded outside to the walking path through the ruins. This gravel path climbs a little to reach the top of the hill, but overall it felt like less of a hike and more of a walk. I guess it depends on your perspective.
The unique thing about Pecos was the combination of the pueblo ruins and the church ruins; it’s a combination I haven’t seen anywhere else. We were also allowed to walk through the church ruins on the paved path and climb down into a couple of the kivas.
And that was it. Pecos was actually our very last stop before we headed home. It was a fun way to wrap up an awesome trip. But fear not; we did many other things in our nine days in New Mexico. This is just the beginning. Stay tuned next week to learn about the volcanic history of New Mexico!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: from I-25, take exit 366 and drive 8 miles (13 km) west on NM Route 161. The monument is open 362 days per year; hours vary so check the website before heading out
- Fees and passes: none
- What to see: spend a few minutes at the visitor center, then head out back and walk the short (0.5 mile/0.8 km) or full (1.3 mile/2.1 km) loop through the fort
- Where to stay: there is no lodging in or around the monument; the nearest town is Las Vegas, New Mexico, about 30 minutes north
- Getting there: from I-25 exit 242, follow brown signs to Coronado Historic Site. Open 10am-4pm Weds-Mon (closed Tues)
- Fees and passes: $7/person, purchase tickets online or in-person
- What to see: walk through the museum and gallery (don’t miss the room with the painted kiva walls), then follow the short path through the site and over to a view of the Rio Grande
- Where to stay: there is no lodging at Coronado, but it’s in the town of Bernalillo and Albuquerque is just a few minutes away
- Getting there: from I-25 north exit 299 or I-25 south exit 307, follow the brown signs to NM Route 63 and Pecos. The monument is open 362 days per year; hours vary so check the website before heading out
- Fees and passes: none
- What to see: spend some time at the visitor center and museum, then walk the Ancestral Sites Trail (1.3 miles/2.1 km, 80 feet/24m elevation gain) through the ruins
- Where to stay: there is no lodging in or around the park; Pecos is located about 30 minutes east of Santa Fe, New Mexico