New Mexico’s Highway One — slow-paced route reflects the region’s best

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One of N.M. Highway One's Historic Markers

Separate from the crowd. Exit Interstate 25 and find yourself on New Mexico’s own Highway One, a slower, quieter route. The road hugs the topography, its narrow, low bridges and sweeping ridgetop climbs reward those taking the alternate route from Elephant Butte to Socorro.

Running parallel to Interstate 25, this remnant of the paved road between Albuquerque and Las Cruces was built in the 1930s, and has a good driving surface. It charms travelers with beautiful vistas, a leisurely pace and a trace of the Camino Real, far from the Interstate’s noise and speed.

The journey begins on I-25 heading north from Truth or Consequences, at Red Rock Exit, #100, about 15 miles north of Elephant Butte. Exit the Interstate, and then turn left to cross the freeway. A rare view of Elephant Butte Reservoir opens to the south. Turn right, note the highway sign for Highway One, and begin this leisurely adventure.

Travelers are rewarded by little traffic and a slower pace to experience the land and wildlife. Occasionally golden eagles and deer are seen along this stretch of road.

The landscape was created by water. Huge watercourses flow from the western mountains east to the Rio Grande. Usually dry, they fill with water during the rainy season, washing away more dirt to the river. The deep arroyos and canyons are why those who journeyed on the Camino Real chose to go without water for three days on a flat route to the east, rather than descend and climb these steep canyons with oxen and wooden carretas (carts).

Here, you are ringed by mountains. The Fra Cristobal Mountains are to the east, across the lake. The San Mateo Mountains rise northward; the Black Range Mountains in the Gila National Forest are to the west, with the Caballo Mountains to the south. Each day brings a different palette of colors to the mountains, sky and land.

Past the Rest Area and the Santa Fe Diner and Truck Stop, a sign marking the turn-off to Ft. Craig rests in the shadow of an electronics tower. A short dirt road leads to the ruins of Ft. Craig, established in 1854. The fort’s mission was to protect settlers and caravans from raiding Apaches and Navajos. It became one of the largest forts to aid in settling the west, and the Civil War Battle of Valverde took place north of the fort. Its adobe ruins and foundations overlook the river and the abundant pasture necessary for the cavalry’s horses.

Back on NM One, a stone monument marks the turn off to San Marcial. The monument remembers the soldiers of the Texas Regiment, who fought the Union soldiers at Ft. Craig in the Battle of Valverde.

Two miles down the dirt road, the Rio Grande is closer; many trees and the very old community of San Marcial, invisible from the freeway, can be seen. The residents were originally squatters who moved in when the land grant owners retreated to El Paso after repeated Indian raids. The squatters somehow survived and were legally awarded their land in the early 1900s. Great floods in the 1920s and 1930s washed away much of the village and farmland, and there are only two homesites still visible. A stone torreon, used for protection from Indians, still greets travelers. A small gravesite is nearby, ringed with a white picket fence.

Mesa del Contadero, the end of the Jornada del Muerto of the Camino Real

From Ft. Craig and San Marcial, a large mesa looms from across the river. It is the Mesa del Contadero, where the caravans of the Camino Real watered their herds after the deadly march without water across the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death). Atop the mesa, herdsmen counted their animals to see how many survived the journey. Ruins of sheep pens and temporary camps are found near the large black mesa that marked the end of the brutal march.

Driving Highway One again, the boundary to the Bosque del Apache, a world-renowned bird and wildlife refuge, approaches. A shallow pond contains upturned tumbleweeds looking like grass hummocks. Canada Geese and a few ducks swim in the lake. On the west side of Highway One, the Canyon Trail beckons hikers as part of the Bosque attractions. Rushes and ponds appear at the Bosque’s Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center offers hands-on activities to acquaint you with wildlife in the area. We’ve seen coyotes, foxes, turkeys, hawks, sandhill and whooping cranes as we circled the Loop Trail. Winter is the best time to see the thousands of birds that migrate here.

Traveling north, the Bosque Birdwatcher’s RV Park provides camping for bird-watchers and other travelers. Farms, ranches, old adobes with tin roofs and the railyard escort you into San Antonio. A beautiful Church sits on the west side of the highway and old family houses line the road.

The junction of Highway 360 and Highway One in San Antonio is a corner with a history. The Owl Bar and Café, famous for its green chile cheeseburgers, served the men who prepared the Trinity Site for the first test of the atomic bomb. Photos and articles decorate the walls. Across the street is the Galeria del Bosque, offering locally made pottery, paintings, wooden castles and jewelry. You’ll find books, cards and photographs of the region.

Rio Abajo Antiques, on the west side of Highway One, south of the junction, provides hours of treasure hunting. A Hopi ceremonial rattle, a children’s book featuring Roy Rogers, tin handmade electric lights rewired for someone’s remodeled adobe, branding irons, and swords are just a few of the links to the past offered here.

Still heading north, the little town of Luis Lopez strings along the road. Ranches and farms create an inhabited pastoral zone until you reach Socorro. The road crosses the freeway again, leading into town.

A glimpse of the history, wildlife, culture and beauty of Southern New Mexico is part of the journey on Highway One. Like clouds reflecting the sun’s colors, Highway One reflects the best Southern New Mexico has to offer.