El Camino Real National Scenic Byway
- DesignationNational Scenic Byway (1998/2005)
- Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric
- Length299 miles
Route 66 may be New Mexico’s best-known signature highway but, centuries earlier, El Camino Royal de Tierra Adentro, The Royal Road to the Interior, threaded 1,500 miles northward from Zacatecas, Mexico to the far edges of known Spanish world. Our country’s oldest and most continually used “highway,” the Camino Real brought European colonists to New Spain 22 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. Follow the royal purple signs along the Camino, which traveled much the same route as I-25 does today, from the southern edge of New Mexico to Santa Fe. There, the Camino Real veers off toward its eventual terminus, near what is Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo today.
Story of the Byway
El Camino Royal de Tierra Adentro, The Royal Road to the Interior, threaded 1,500 miles northward from Zacatecas, Mexico to the far edges of known Spanish world. Our country’s oldest and most continually used “highway,” the Camino Real brought European colonists to New Spain 22 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. Follow the royal purple signs along the Camino, which traveled much the same route as I-25 does today, from the southern edge of New Mexico to Santa Fe. There, the Camino Real veers off toward its eventual terminus, near what is Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo today. Don’t miss a stop at the EL CAMINO REAL HISTORIC TRAIL SITE, south of Socorro, for a full orientation to the Camino’s history on both sides of the border.
The byway can be easily accessed from I-25 near Santa Fe to Anthony, New Mexico; Beginning at the San Juan Pueblo (north of Santa Fe), take NM-291/NM-74 to NM-68; Travel south south on NM-68; Turn east onto Fairview Lane and drive for approximately 1 mile; At the intersection of McCurdy Road (NM-583) and Fairview Lane, go south for approximately 1;5 miles; At the junction with NM-76, go west until the junction with NM-106 (approximately 0;5 miles), then continue south; After about 7 miles, past Pojoaque Pueblo, take US 84/285 south for 25 miles into Santa Fe; From US 84/285, exit to Guadalupe Street; From Guadalupe Street, turn left on to W San Francisco St, right onto Don Gaspar Ave, right on W Alameda St, and then left on Agua Fria St/NM-22/NM-588; Continue southwest until the junction with NM-284; Take NM-284 until turning right onto E I-25 Frontage Rd; From E I-25 Frontage Rd;, take on ramp to I-25/US Hwy 85; Exit on to NM-16; Follow NM-16 and exit on to NM-22 going south; From NM-22, exit on to Indn Service Route 88 going west; Exit on to Indn Service Route 84 and follow road to NM-313; Take NM-313 through Bernalillo; Follow NM-313 as it turns into 4th St NW/NM 47 near Albuquerque; Take 4th St NW south; Follow road and make a right on Marquette Ave NW, a left on 5th St NW, a left on to Central Ave SW, and a right back on to NM-313/4th St SW; Continue on route and exit on to NM-314 going west; Continue south on route as it turns into Isleta Blvd; Follow road and exit onto NM-147; Follow NM-147 until you get on to NM-47 near Isleta Village Proper; Continue on NM-47 until the NM-304 exit near Belen; Stay on NM-304 until US 60, and then take US 60 west to Bernardo; In Bernardo, get on I-25 and head towards Alamillo and San Acacia; Exit on to Alamillo Rd and turn right on to I-25 Frontage Rd; Follow I-25 Frontage Rd and then exit to NM-408; Follow NM-408 and take on ramp to I-25 going south at Escondida; Drive to California St/US Hwy 60 and follow road to State Hwy 1; Follow State Hwy 1 to on ramp for I-25; Follow I-25 south to off ramp to NM-181; Follow NM-181 to Truth or Consequences where you will get on Date Street; Follow this street to Main Street, and then go to Broadway; Follow Broadway to Williamsburg; Take NM-187 from Williamsburg to Hatch, and then take NM-185 from Hatch to Las Cruces; Next, take NM-188 (Valley Drive) to Avenida de Mesilla, and follow this street to Mesilla; Take NM-28 from Mesilla to Canutillo, and then take NM-273 from Canutillo to New Mexico/Texas border.
Points of Interest
Old Town, the historic heart of New Mexico’s largest city, sprang to life some 70 years before the American Revolution. The lovely San Felipe de Neri Church anchors the plaza. Old Town stretches out over the surrounding 10-block area, defined by its flat-roofed Pueblo-Spanish adobes, all punctuated by courtyards and other charming nooks perfect for exploring on foot. Most of the buildings house restaurants, galleries, and small shops today. The Royal Road passes by two major cultural centers as it weaves through the city, the National Hispanic Heritage Center and Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Center
Early Spanish settlers named the area of woods and wildlife for the Natives they saw camped out in the area. The Camino Real ran right through what is today a national refuge along the cottonwood-shaded banks of the Rio Grande, most famous for spectacular bird-watching. See thousands upon thousands of migrating flocks, including sandhill cranes, Arctic geese, great blue herons, and both bald and golden eagles. The Bosque makes an appealing destination year-round but is at its peak appeal in the late fall. Popular Festival of the Cranes is mid November.
Coronado State Monument
The monument marks where Francisco Vásquez de Coronado entered this broad valley on his search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Explore excavated ruins of the Tiwa Pueblo of Kuaua, one of the thriving villages discovered by Coronado. Famed New Mexican architect John Gaw Meem designed the visitor center in his signature Territorial style.
El Camino Real International Heritage Center
The newest state monument tells the story of 3 centuries of trade, commerce, conflict, and eventual confluence of cultures linking Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Following footpaths of indigenous peoples, Don Juan de Oñate claimed the land along the way for the Spanish Crown. The Center sits at the northern edge of the Chihuahua Desert, near what was an area of difficult passage, named the Journada del Muerto (the Journey of Death). The exhibits include many remnants from treks along this early highway.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park
Encompassing the largest lake in New Mexico, the park sits outside Truth or Consequences, and is New Mexico’s main water sports destination, with boating, fishing, water-skiing, canoeing, swimming, and more. The 40-mile long reservoir was created by damming a portion of the Rio Grande for irrigation and flood control. Along with 200 miles of shoreline, sandy beaches, and quiet coves, “The Butte” offers enough open water for cabin cruisers and houseboats, and full-service marinas to attend to them. The lake gets its name from a rock formation that resembles an elephant, at least to some observers who see the left side of its head, with a prominent ear, and its trunk curled by a foot. The butte formation, actually the eroded core of an ancient volcano, rises up in the lake’s center, just northeast of the dam. The area was once the hunting ground of the fearsome tyrannosaurus Rex, largest land-dwelling predator of all time. The park’s visitor center contains interpretive exhibits of the geology, history, and ecology of the area.
Between the Jemez Mountains and the Truchas Peaks, the city of Española sits in the valley where Don Juan de Oñate declared New Spain’s first capital in 1598.
Fort Craig National Historic Site
Fort Craig, was one of the eight forts situated along the primary north-south road in the Rio Grande Valley. Constructed in 1854, it was one of the largest and most important forts west of the Mississippi. Fort Craig was the epicenter of the largest U.S. Civil War battle in the Southwest. The battle involved thousands of Union and Confederate troops, many of them New Mexico volunteers under the command of Kit Carson. Troops from Fort Craig included companies of Buffalo Soldiers who were garrisoned here while involved in struggles with Native Americans, deemed at the time to be hostile. Ruins sit at what was the northern end of the Journey of the Dead, one of the toughest traverses along the Camino Real.
Fort Selden State Monument
The US Army established Fort Selden in 1865 in an effort to bring peace to the south central region of present-day New Mexico. Built on the banks of the Rio Grande, this adobe fort housed units of the U.S. Infantry and Cavalry charged with protecting settlers and travelers in the Mesilla Valley from desperados and Apache Indians. Several of the units stationed at the fort were famed Buffalo Soldiers. The young Douglas MacArthur called the fort home while his father was post commander in the late 1880s, shortly before the fort was decommissioned. At the southern end of the Journey of the Dead, one of the toughest traverses along the Camino Real.
The booming southern city of Las Cruces ("the crosses") may have been named for crosses on the graves of unfortunate travelers on El Camino Real. The Mesquite Street original townsite, with its small adobe houses painted in bright hues, was laid out in 1849 by the U.S. Army in an attempt to protect local communities and travelers. Casa Colonial at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum (4100 Dripping Springs Road) represents an earlier style of Spanish architecture.
Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo)
Just outside of Española, this Pueblo is also near the site of the original capital established by Don Juan de Oñate. Today it bustles with a casino and other commerce along the highway, but don’t miss a drive through the quieter heart of the scenic Pueblo. Just north of Española, off Hwy 68.
Santa Fe, NM
The Camino Real entered Santa Fe along what it now Agua Fria Street and made its way to the city’s center. The New Mexico History Museum, which includes the historic Palace of the Governors on the city’s plaza, is a great place for an overview of the area’s rich history.
Travel along the Rio Grande
Starting in the city of Las Cruces and heading north on NM-185 along the Rio Grande, your journey along the El Camino Real National Scenic Byway has begun. In the area of Las Cruces, you can find the Dripping Springs Natural Area, which has miles of hiking trails available for visitors. After that, head north on the Byway until you reach the Fort Selden Historic Site, which used to be a United States Army Outpost. Nearby to the Fort is Leasburg Dam State Park, which has plenty of opportunities for hiking, picnicking, and much more. Continuing, you will pass the village of Hatch and reach even more beautiful natural areas that have plenty of activities for you to experience. This includes both Caballo Lake and Percha Dam State Parks, which are both within a short radius of each other. From there, take a stop in the city of Truth and Consequences for a bite to eat and then continue the last leg of your trip for the day. Drive until you reach Albuquerque, where you can find a hotel to spend the night and enjoy the nightlife in the area.
From Albequerque, you are going to make your way towards Santa Fe, but there are plenty of places to stop by along the way. First, stop by San Felipe Pueblo and take in the history and culture of the Native American Tribes that are still located here. There are many ways to experience this area while also taking in the culture. After that, you will reach the city of Santa Fe where the possibilities are endless. Take in all of the culture in the Capital city of New Mexico and end your journey along this beautiful Byway.
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