Fort Selden Historic Site, with the Robledo Mountains in the background. Photograph © Jack Parsons.

We are all descended from adventurers who traveled in search of opportunities and new lands to settle. This itch for travel has always been in our genes. Millennia before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, countless American Indian roads and trails existed, and many still exist.


These corridors, most of which were footpaths, connected settlements, hunting grounds, and ceremonial centers. Some were actual roads designed and built in ways that mystify engineers and surveyors even today.

According to Spanish chroniclers, the engineering and construction of the approximately 18,000-mile-long Qhapaq Ñan in South America, sometimes referred to as the Inca Trail, rivaled the roads of the Roman Empire in Europe. Probably the best-known example of a pre-Hispanic road in the United States is the Chaco Road System in New Mexico, where in the eleventh and twelfth centuries perfectly straight paths emanated from the great houses of Chaco Canyon in various directions (two directly north and south) across arroyos, mesas, and mountains to outlier structures and sacred landmarks.

When Europeans arrived in what is today the United States, they depended heavily on existing routes to get from one place to another, and on Native guides to facilitate their passage. Horse paths, mule trains, and roads made by carretas and wagon trains began incising the landscape and eventually developed into major cultural routes that have knitted our country together. Over the five centuries since European contact, many of these paths and trails have morphed into corridors that automobile highways, interstates, and rail lines still use to transport our nation’s commerce, and to facilitate our work and leisure travel. Others have been abandoned but can still be seen on the landscape as subtle swales, especially in the great open spaces of the West.

Many of us grew up with stereotyped stories of these old western trails through movies, novels, and music. The adventures experienced along these corridors are integral parts of what make up our collective American spirit. A number of them feature Santa Fe, a town that has been a crossroad for centuries — a melting pot of traditions, religions, philosophies, armies, and commerce. Three of these legendary trails converge in Santa Fe: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Old Spanish Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail. These linear cultural properties represent movement through, and close interaction with, the landscape. The historic buildings, village centers, parajes (campsites), and other historic properties are only a portion of what these roads to Santa Fe represent. The actual road traces — the ruts, swales, and subtle lines in the terrain — are the connective tissue that links the tangible sites, the thread that holds the pearl necklace together. The landscape features that guided the early travelers, such as mountains, hills, and springs, are also part of what makes up these trails, as well as intangible properties such as music, literature, language, foodways, and religion. Taken together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro is the earliest Euroamerican trade route in the United States. Tying Spain’s colonial capital at Mexico City to its northern frontier in distant New Mexico, the route spans three centuries, two countries, and 1,600 miles. In 1598 Juan de Oñate and over 500 soldiers and settlers, along with thousands of livestock, first blazed the trail atop a network of footpaths that connected Mexico’s ancient cultures with the equally ancient cultures of the interior West. The caravan traveled “as fast as a pig could trot.”

This trail corridor is still very much alive, 135 years after the railroad eclipsed its use. Today’s Interstate 25 generally follows the trail’s corridor and represents the continuum of traffic along this fabled royal road. Since I grew up in Mesilla (near Las Cruces in southern New Mexico) and have lived in Santa Fe for the past thirty-two years, I have made this road trip over 250 times to visit family, and I never tire of the experience. What used to take as long as twenty days by wagon now takes about five hours by car. Instead of having to spend each night out at a paraje as our ancestors did, I race through the landscape on the “superslab,” sometimes with the traditional pit stop for a green chile cheeseburger in San Antonio. Instead of being concerned about finding sufficient pasture and water for the livestock, I search for the best places to buy fuel for the car.

The Rio Grande corridor, the “Nile of the Southwest,” that vital narrow strip of pasture and water for livestock and humans, was paralleled through most of the journey by the Camino, which usually traversed the terrain just far enough above the floodplain to be out of its sand and brambles. One passes landmarks that have been guideposts for millennia — mountain ranges such as the Organs, Robledos, Fray Cristóbal Range, Manzanos, Sandias, and San Mateos — finally arriving in Santa Fe at the base of the often snow-covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. Other, smaller landmarks also served as pilot knobs (navigation points) on the horizon for those traveling north and south: San Diego Mountain, at the southern end of the Jornada del Muerto (the ninety-mile dry section of the Camino that diverged from the bend of the river to strike a straight line across the high-desert floor); Tomé Hill, near Los Lunas, which to this day is a sacred place attracting devout pilgrims; and La Bajada, the most difficult part of the journey, where an abrupt volcanic escarpment, 600 feet high, has traditionally separated the Rio Arriba (upper river district) from the Rio Abajo (lower river district).

These landmarks were essential for any traveler reading the terrain as they moved through and with the landscape. Each of them has ancient stories to tell. For example, the Robledo Mountains were named after Pedro Robledo, a colonist with the 1598 Oñate colonizing expedition, from whom many of us New Mexicans are descended. Robledo died on his trek northward and was buried near the mountain’s base, somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Selden Historic Site. His wife and children continued on to Santa Fe and married into families whose bloodlines still flow though many of us today. Landmarks were especially important for travelers along what is today called the Old Spanish Trail, a commercial route over 1,000 miles long, active for a relatively short time, from 1829 to 1848. It connected Santa Fe with what then was the small settlement of Los Angeles, California, and was used as a mule trail to take commercial goods (primarily textile and hide products) from northern New Mexico through a tortuous path to the Mexican province of Alta California. California horses and mules, healthy from grazing rich California pastures, were brought back to New Mexico to be sold.

The Old Spanish Trail traversed the current-day states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. It has been called “the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America.” Three branches of the trail emanate from New Mexico. The original route, traveled by Antonio Armijo in 1829 with a caravan of 60 men and 100 pack mules, went from Abiquiu to Los Angeles. Another left from Abiquiu up through Durango, Colorado; and the third went through Taos, north toward Grand Junction, Colorado. One of its travelers was a New Mexican from Abiquiu, Julián Chávez, who became a prominent citizen in Los Angeles and settled in a valley that came to be known as Chavez Ravine. In the early 1950s hundreds of Latino descendants of this historic settlement were forced to move because of the construction of Dodger Stadium. The story was made into an epic recording by Ry Cooder in 2005. The route that officially connected the United States with Mexico was the Santa Fe Trail. Between 1821 and 1880, it was primarily a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe. From 1821 until 1846, it was an international highway used by Mexican and American traders. In 1846 the Mexican-American War began, and the Army of the West followed it to invade New Mexico. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the United States to the new southwestern territories. Commercial freighting along the trail continued, including considerable military cargo to supply the southwestern forts. The main supply depot was Fort Union, considered the Walmart of its time, which supplied many of the other, smaller forts in the Southwest. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, thousands of gold seekers heading to the California and Colorado goldfields, adventurers, fur trappers, and emigrants. In 1880 the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.

One of the best known of the old western trails, the Santa Fe Trail has a definite cachet, a brand that captures the romance of the West. Stories told through books and film perpetuated the lore of Manifest Destiny. The twentieth-century medium of film stereotyped American Indians and Mexicans, who played secondary roles to actors such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan as either troublemakers or exotic accoutrements to the setting.

Our family grew up with different stories about the role of Mexicans and Indians on the Santa Fe Trail. Our Hispano ancestors in northern New Mexico played key roles in the trail’s development and commerce. Miguel Romero y Baca, the Delgado family that he married into, and their descendants owned and operated freighting companies along the trail with contracts to Fort Union and commercial establishments in Las Vegas and other villages and towns at the New Mexico end of the trail (some think of it as the beginning of the trail!). They were some of the first “teamsters” (truckers, these days, but originally meaning those who drove teams of animals) in the US.

These intrepid New Mexicans have contributed much family lore, including the story of our pickled great-great-great-grandfather told in this issue (see “Tales of the Trails,” by Jack Loeffler), and many other intriguing stories about the history of the West. For example, Miguel Romero y Baca was asked by Giovanni Maria de Agostini, the legendary Italian hermit in Council Grove, Kansas, if he could join his wagon train heading back west to Las Vegas. Miguel and the Hermit (as he came to be known) became good friends and stayed in contact while de Agostini sought solitude on Hermit’s Peak, just north of Las Vegas. So many people sought his healing powers, however, that his solitude soon faded. He ultimately went to Mesilla, in southern New Mexico, along the Camino Real, which by that time was called the Camino Chihuahua, and set up his home in Hermit’s Cave in the Organ Mountains, just east of Las Cruces. There, in 1869, he was murdered by unknown assassins. So how can one experience these epic trails today? Opportunities are becoming increasingly available for the public to enjoy retracing these historic routes and experiencing a connection with the past by walking along centuries-old ruts, and also by visiting museums and interpretive centers like the wonderful El Camino Real Trail Historic Site, between Socorro and Truth or Consequences, here in New Mexico and beyond.

Through the 1968 National Trails Act, eighteen national historic trails (NHTs) have been designated by Congress, including the three trails discussed in this issue of El Palacio. The National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management co-administer the Old Spanish Trail NHT and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro NHT, and the National Park Service administers the Santa Fe Trail NHT. These agencies work with partners (property owners; federal, state, and local governments; and tribes) in creating opportunities to preserve, protect, and tell their story. Just as important, the US Congress directs NPS and BLM to provide opportunities for public recreation along these legendary routes. Each trail has its own nonprofit association made up of volunteers, or “rut nuts,” as they are affectionately called. Through these partnerships, a more complete story of what these trails represent, as seen through the eyes of American Indians and Latinos, is also beginning to be told and better understood by the American public.

The trails are not only connectors to our past, but connectors to places beyond our borders. For example, fully three-quarters of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro is in Mexico, a country that was successful in getting a serial nomination of the royal road placed on the World Heritage List in 2010 and has been very active in preserving and telling the story of the trail. These roads have been key in shaping the history of the West and the United States, and have served as vital links to other places throughout North America and the world.

Michael Romero Taylor has been working in historic preservation for the last thirty-seven years. His experience includes historic-site management, architectural conservation, management of cultural routes, museum / visitor center management, and the preservation of archaeological sites. He currently works as a National Park Service cultural resource specialist for nine congressionally designated national historic trails in the United States. Taylor is a sixteenth-generation New Mexican, whose family is descended from those who came up with Juan de Oñate’s colonizing expedition of 1598, and from those who helped shape the histories of the three national historic trails that converge in Santa Fe.


Historic Trails Websites

NPS National Trail Intermountain Region

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association

Old Spanish Trail Association

Santa Fe Trail Association