Southwestern US, US National Parks

A smattering of New Mexico history

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 National Monument

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.

Original path of the Santa Fe Trail

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 original Fort Union was built at the base of those cliffs

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.

Prison
Hospital

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.

Fort Union

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.

Sandhill Cranes (be sure the volume is turned up)
Coronado Historic Site
Square kiva (center) and the museum

We did, however, enjoy learning the history and walking the path along the Rio Grande with the Sandia Mountains rising in the background.

Rio Grande and Sandia Mountains

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 pueblo is on top of this hill

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.

Kiva at Pecos Pueblo
Walls from the first church, built c. 1625
The shorter walls are from the first church and the taller/closer ones are from the second church, built c. 1717

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:

Fort Union:

  • 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

Coronado:

  • 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

Pecos:

  • 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

32 thoughts on “A smattering of New Mexico history”

  1. What a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving week. All three of these places look interesting and it was cool reading about the history of each. Looking forward to seeing what else you got up to in New Mexico!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to see you on my native soil! New Mexico’s kind of the black sheep of the Four Corners states, but there’s so much great stuff there, especially for anyone willing to dig a little and look beyond the obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It looks like a completely different landscape to the green and lush mountains – it’s very flat and dry, and looks like there’s so much of interest to see in the state. I’ve never been but feel a US roadtrip is calling my name for 2024

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Diana,
    I completely agree with your statement that Mexico is “underrated, beautiful, and diverse.” We have visited many times and are in love with the state, and its state parks, where one could spend a night for $10, as opposed to $28 in CO!
    We also enjoyed visiting Ft. Union and Pecos and I look forward to your next posts which might bring back more memories.
    Best,
    Tanja

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the tradition of taking a Thanksgiving road trip. The landscapes are glorious, and discovering the historic sites in New Mexico would be amazing. I’d particularly love to see the 400-year-old wall illustrations.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gorgeous! I’ve only ever been to Albuquerque in New Mexico, but I know that there’s so much more to see there that I’m dying to return to the southwestern US state! There’s something mystical and awe-inspiring about the wide and open land, once home to the indigenous population (and the subsequent sad history of it all…). I had no idea that the US Civil War had extended that far West, but it’s always exciting to learn about it outside of history textbooks! Thanks for sharing the lesser-known parts of NM, and I can’t wait to read more of your adventures there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We were surprised to learn that the civil war made it to NM as well. But then, when we realized that it borders Texas, it started to make a little more sense. But I agree, you think of the civil war as being a Deep South thing, when really it spread so far north and west at times

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Being the ranger at Fort Union National Monument might be the best or worst job around depending on your point of view. Sounds like there is not much to do. Thanks for showing me these places. New Mexico landscapes and history really appeal to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, we commented that he must get kind of bored in the offseason with very few visitors to interact with (and so many people don’t bother to talk to the rangers at all, either, so then he just had to stand there)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You guys are great at getting off the beaten path. Like your other readers, I love your idea of a Thanksgiving road trip, too. We have a rotating holiday schedule with our family these days, so I might have to put this into action next year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a pretty good time of year to travel, as long as you’re willing to dress warm and cram things into limited daylight hours. I’m not sure I’d head north this time of year, but going south has worked well. I hope you’re able to plan a thanksgiving roadtrip on the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A rugged and historic part of your country. I have often thought I would like to visit that part of the world. You just have to love all the Spanish myths about cities of gold and fountains of youth. I wonder if that is how the leaders motivated their men to explore. Thanks for sharing Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a wonderful tradition to take a road trip over Thanksgiving. I love the rural scenery in New Mexico and it looks like you had fabulous weather. I find visiting historic sites is such a fun way to learn more about the history of certain events or places.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, it’s so much more tangible to be there seeing where things actually happened than just to read about them in a history textbook. I’ve learned far more history from traveling than I ever did in school.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh well then you’ll be happy to know that there will be 8 of them in total (we may have crammed a little too much into 9 days haha)! Sadly I did not get all the passport stamps, at least a couple places were closed due to the holiday or just the offseason

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve had great luck using the contact form for a park on the NPS site and asking if they could mail me passport stamps for the day I visited! I did it for a few parks on my big Utah trip, and then for Mount Rainier as well. Most of the time they’ll enclose a brochure and other goodies. Worth a try!! And bring on the 8 posts!

        Liked by 1 person

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