I lost cell service as I turned on state Highway 15 and gripped the steering wheel tighter as the road snaked through the mountains, narrowing with each passing mile. I was navigating the edges of the Gila (pronounced “hee-lah”) Wilderness, the nation’s first wilderness area, lined with rows of the tallest trees I had seen in New Mexico.
An hour and 20 miles later, the highway dead-ended at my destination and the inspiration for my solo New Mexico road trip – the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, ruins of stone buildings constructed in caves by the ancestral Pueblo people of the Mogollon region in the 13th century.
My first glimpse of the cliff dwellings was from the top of a series of switchbacks on the hiking trail that ran along the edge of a volcanic crater. The structures, which were abandoned around 1300, were so well camouflaged that I almost walked by two of the five caves that contained them. In 1907, looting and vandalism led President Theodore Roosevelt to make the area the eighth national monument and the third in New Mexico (Roosevelt designated the first monument in 1906 and added 17 more).
I had learned about the monument by chance before the pandemic while researching destinations for annual hiking trip I take with friends, which usually focuses on national parks. The remote location of the site – six hours round trip from the interstate – was impractical, so I scratched it from the itinerary of a trip that the pandemic later canceled.
Now, fully vaccinated and eager to hit the road safely, I was taking a solo May road trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings and other national monuments in New Mexico, hoping to avoid crowds while taking a deep dive into the state’s history. I succeeded on both counts, absorbing lessons about New Mexico without ever encountering more than 10 people at each site. Park rangers told me, however, that the monuments, especially ones with limited parking, can be crowded on summer weekends.
That’s partly because of their size. National monuments, I learned, are usually smaller than national parks, preserve at least one nationally significant resource and are designated by presidential proclamation rather than congressional vote. There are 84 national monuments in the United States and nine in New Mexico, the second-highest number after Arizona. I was visiting seven of the nine on this trip. I had toured two – Bandelier, which has cliff dwellings within its stunning canyon, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, where you can hike through multicolored cone-shaped stone formations – on previous trips.
This, after all, was hardly my first time in New Mexico. I had started my annual hiking tradition in the Southwest five years earlier after visiting a friend in Santa Fe. I fell in love with the state and keep going back. My first stop on this trip was the adobe brick ruins of Fort Union National Monument, the third fort built to protect the Santa Fe Trail, a commercial highway from Missouri to Santa Fe, in the 1860s.
The monument’s roughly one-mile trail provided a detailed view of the brick foundations and chimneys of the officer’s quarters and nearly intact walls of the quartermaster and supply depots. Two-hundred-year-old wagon wheel ruts from the trail are still visible at the fort, which was decommissioned after the arrival of the railroad.
Fort Union aside, as I continued my journey, I began to notice a few themes that repeated themselves – ancestral settlements, volcanic landscapes and Spanish influence – and at some monuments, two or three themes would overlap. Each enhanced my understanding of New Mexico.
Ancestral settlements are well represented in New Mexico’s monuments. The name for such a settlement, pueblo, is Spanish for village, and the inhabitants are referred to as the ancestral Pueblo people to distinguish them from more nomadic peoples.
Defining that term is difficult, however, according to Eric Blinman, director of the Office of Archaeological Studies for the Museum of New Mexico. He says it covers a variety of peoples, ranging from the Hopi in Arizona to Taos in New Mexico, whose histories overlapped because of migrations due to climate change. “The common features that linked them, in the past and today, are corn agriculture, pottery and living in … and adapting to this spectacular landscape,” Blinman said.
The Pueblo settlements protected by the monuments were inhabited at various periods from the late 11th to the 17th century. The settlements evolved from half-buried pit houses to aboveground multiroom and often multistory complexes made of stones and mud mortar, with thick wooden beams supporting roofs topped with a layer of dirt. Kivas, circular ceremonial chambers, also were key features.
The best and most accessible example was Aztec Ruins National Monument. A self-guided audio tour led me on a half-mile trail through the ruins of a three-story, 400-room great house, including rooms with the original timber roof still intact. Standing on the highest point of the site, I tried to imagine how it looked newly constructed in 1130.
I would also highly recommend Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. It interweaves the stunning geology with the history of the ancestral Puebloans who carved at least 90% of the 25,000 petroglyphs. The Piedras Marcadas Canyon, my favorite of the three trails, seems unassuming at first, bordered by a neighborhood.
But the houses disappeared as I walked deeper into the canyon along the sandy path between the walls filled with piles of black volcanic rocks decorated with a variety of petroglyphs, including handprints, figures and birds, all easily visible from the trail. Most people on the trail were locals exercising with their dogs, which made me wish that walking through such history was part of my daily routine.
One of the most fascinating lessons I learned about New Mexico on my latest trip is that the state contains the largest concentrations of well-exposed and uneroded volcanoes on the continent thanks to the dry climate that aids preservation. The volcanic landscape is very apparent in the features of several national monuments: Petroglyph, where the symbols were carved into lava rock; Tent Rocks, where the formations are a result of volcanic eruptions; Capulin; and El Malpais.
I had planned a rim hike at Capulin Volcano National Monument for the second day of my trip but woke to a grim forecast – 37 degrees and cloudy. I feared the clouds would obstruct the views of the crater. I rushed to the top and was greeted by an unusual sight for May – ice on the pinyon pine and juniper trees that lined the rim, the result of a cold front combined with the 8,182-foot elevation. The ice on the trees was peculiar – it was only on the northern side of the branches and resembled miniature patches of toothpick-size icicles.
Despite the overcast skies, the view was unobstructed, and the ice only made my hike more magical; I stopped every 10 feet to photograph another ice formation. Three hours later, as I hiked the trails at the base of the extinct cinder cone volcano, the skies cleared, and the temperature increased 20 degrees. So, I drove to the top again to take photographs with the blue-sky background – and realized that I preferred the icy magic of the morning.
I discovered another volcanic landscape 70 miles west of Albuquerque at the 114,000-acre El Malpais National Monument. I hiked across 200-million-year-old sandstone cliffs and New Mexico’s youngest lava flow at Lava Falls Trail that – thankfully – was well marked with rock cairns. I was surprised to learn the lava tubes at the monument were studied by researchers in the 1970s because of their similarities to formations on the moon.
Rumors of cities of gold led the Spanish into New Mexico in the mid-1500s. When these riches failed to materialize, they decided to maintain a colony as a missionary effort in the Salinas Valley, one of the most populous parts of the Pueblo world and a major trade hub.
At the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, I explored the ruins of three separate mission church sites from the early 17th century that were built among existing Pueblo communities whose remnants also can be seen. The interiors of two missions – Abó and Quara – contained an interesting feature: Each had a kiva.
Historians are not sure why the Puebloan ceremonial chambers were built in the middle of the convents or why one was square. Disease, cultural conflict and natural disaster – other recurring themes found at many of the monuments – led to the demise of the settlements around 1670.
The Spanish also left their mark by carving their names into the sandstone cliffs at El Morro, a watering hole that, for centuries, was a popular stop for travelers. More than 2,000 inscriptions are visible at the base of the cliff left by passing ancestral Puebloans, Spaniards and Americans. A 2-mile trail took me past the inscriptions and to the top of the bluff, where I found the remains of a prehistoric Puebloan settlement partially covered in red cactus and abandoned long before the Spanish arrived.
I didn’t leave my mark at El Morro; no inscriptions have been added since the site became the second national monument in 1906. But it, and the other monuments, left their mark on me. By the end of my trip, I was grateful the pandemic had canceled my original plans and led me on an unexpected adventure through the history of New Mexico.
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