The village of Tyuonyi. Courtesy of Sally King, National Park Service

Hiking Historic Northern New Mexico

Four Trips with a Tale

by Jason Strykowski

February/March 2016

From Stone Age habitations to railroads, New Mexico has witnessed eons of history, and much of it left tracks in the sand. We’ve compiled a few trails that hikers and history lovers can follow into the past.

A note: Even the short trails demand careful preparation. In New Mexico, especially at altitude, weather can change quickly and without warning. It’s advisable to check trail conditions before leaving. Always pack a jacket and first aid kit when going on a hike. Finally, bring plenty of water for everyone in the group.

A few of the hikes listed below require entrance fees. Be sure to check ahead for prices and availability.

Sandia Man Cave

A short, but twisted trail into prehistory
Difficulty: Extremely easy
Length: 1 mile, round trip
Directions: From Interstate 25 heading toward Albuquerque, take the New Mexico Highway 165 exit in Placitas; then head east for 12 miles. The hike is an out-and-back from the marked trailhead.

In 1995, mystery writer and Santa Fe resident Douglas Preston wrote an exposé for the New Yorker. In the article, Preston presented evidence that a cave located in the Sandia Mountains and discovered by University of New Mexico students may have been the site of an archaeological hoax. Legendary University of New Mexico Professor Frank Hibben reported the discovery of artifacts suggesting that the Sandia Cave was a 25,000-year-old residence for prehistoric New Mexicans. If accurate, this finding would have changed the concept of human history in North America, connecting humans in the present-day United States directly to ancestors in Europe.

Preston stops short of concluding that Hibben fabricated his research, and the mystery remains. Some clues linger in the old cave, which can be entered on this short hike. Do the walls and floors look altered? Would people truly have chosen to reside in this location? Explore this possibly historical site to decide.

Bandelier National Monument’s Village of the Stone Lions

Guardians of the ancestral Puebloan tradition
Difficulty: Strenuous
Length: 13 miles round trip
Directions: This trail is accessed through the visitor’s center at Bandelier National Monument. From Santa Fe take 84/285 north. Continue on New Mexico 502 toward Los Alamos. At the intersection with New Mexico 4, bear left to White Rock. From the visitor’s center, go north and to the west side of Frijoles Canyon. Pick up the marked Mid-Alamo trail and hike six miles to Yapashi Pueblo.

Built around 1300 AD and occupied for several centuries, Yapashi Pueblo is also known as the “Village of the Stone Lions.” The town itself had 350 rooms in its central plaza  and six kivas (places of worship).

Together with the neighboring village of Kuapa, this area sustained a sizable population. In the 17th century, residents of this area relocated to modern-day Cochiti Pueblo on the banks of the Rio Grande.

If you should see them, be aware that the stone lions remain off-limits. Around them can be seen a circle of stone blocks and a field of antlers—evidence that the lions are considered sacred by Native peoples. The residents of Zuni Pueblo, for instance, are said to have made pilgrimages because they believed the shrine to be the entrance to their underworld. The people of Cochiti consider the Village of the Stone Lions a former home, and often return. Visitors should keep in mind, therefore, that the lions sit on hallowed ground and must be treated with respect.

El Morro National Monument

Historic graffiti at the crossroads
Difficulty: Easy
Length: 2 miles round trip
Directions: Take Interstate 40 east to exit 81 and proceed for 42 miles. The Headlands Trail begins at the Visitor’s Center. It winds around the mesa before making a short ascent to the top.

Covering a thousand years of history in just two miles of trail, the hike around El Morro National Monument encompasses a solitary butte that captures rainwater at its zenith and filters it into a small pool along one of the sides. This natural spring drew travelers for more than a millennium. Some of those who stopped to water themselves and their horses left their names and a message in the soft sandstone cliffs. Their carvings are still visible.

Ancestors of the modern Zuni people built a village on top of the mesa around 1200 AD. They also carved sacred art into the rock walls. The Spanish passed by the watering hole nearly 400 years later and left their marks as well. During the Mexican-American War, Americans were the first to catalog the extensive petroglyphs. They were followed by pioneers who were traveling west past El Morro.

Rail Trail

A short spur
Difficulty: Easy
Length: 2 to 34 miles round trip
Directions: There are several access points between the Railyard in Santa Fe and Lamy, 17 miles down the historic trail. The path is paved between the Railyard and Rabbit Road; beyond this is open country.

Before the arrival of the railroad, travel to New Mexico’s capital city required carriages and horses. The road from the nearest whistle-stop in Colorado was a painful stretch of “buckboard”—laterally laid slats of wood. Although contemporary carriages featured rudimentary shocks and struts, they could hardly make the ride comfortable.

In 1880, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway finally arrived at Galisteo Junction (now known as Lamy), about 14 miles south of Santa Fe. Eventually, a spur line was built so that the train could arrive into the center of Santa Fe. The spur remained in commercial use until the 1960s. Since then, the space along the track to the Galisteo Junction has become the aptly named Rail Trail—a convenient spot forexercise and a brief look into the past.

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