New Mexico’s Scenic Byways: The Salt Missions Trail

You say you’re bored, the kids are restless, nothing to do! Well, how about spending a day discovering some of New Mexico’s great history? This scenic drive will take you to three ancient Indian pueblos and the ruins of three awe-inspiring Spanish mission churches that are some of the most beautiful to be found anywhere in the United States. Along this route you can also hike and play in the Cibola National Forest, bike, camp or fish among the pine, aspen, and maple forests of the Manzano Mountains at Manzano Mountains State Park.

The Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway is one of 24 state designated Scenic and Historic Byways and six of these are National Scenic Byways. The Salt Missions Trail is approximately 140 miles long and roughly follows NM 333, NM 41, US 60, NM 513, NM 55, NM 337 and NM 131. A good map can be found online at http://www.heartnm.com/english/trip4_saltmission_lgmap.html.

Start the tour by visiting the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument Visitors Center at the headquarters in Mountainair. This is located one block west of the U.S. 60 and N M. 55 junction. The Visitors Center is open 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM daily. Phone: 505- 847-2585. Once you are finished at the Visitors Center and have armed yourself with maps and information, head nine miles west of Mountainair on US 60 and one-half mile north on N.M. 513 to Abo.

Abó

The late afternoon sun illuminates the ruins of Mission San Gregorio de Abó. Photo by Jim Hunter.
Abó 

The unexcavated pueblo ruins at Abo date back to the 1300s though there is evidence that Mogollon pit house builders had occupied the area beginning around 1150 AD. Located in a pass that opens to the Rio Grande Valley, this was a major trading center for the area.

Fray Francisco Fonte built a small church at Abo beginning in about 1622. Then in 1629, Francisco de Acevedo, who was assigned to the Salinas district by officials in Santa Fe, enlarged the Mission of San Gregorio de Abo to reflect its importance as the headquarters church of the Salinas district.

This church, which was completed in 1659, employs buttresses on the 40-foot high walls. It is one of the few remaining examples of medieval architecture in the United States.

At Abó and at Quarai, kivas or underground ceremonial chambers were built in the patios of the conventos. The presence of both Christian and Pueblo sacred buildings and symbols indicates that both belief systems were being maintained at these sites.

Quari

Sitting in a grassy meadow in the shadow of 10,000-foot high Manzano Peak are the ruins of the Mission La Purísima Concepción de Cuarac (Quari).
Photo by Jim Hunter.
Quari 

Quari is located eight miles north of Mountainair near the village of Punta de Aqua on N.M. 55.

Sitting in a grassy meadow in the shadow of 10,000-foot high Manzano Peak are the ruins of the Mission La Purísima Concepción de Cuarac (Quari). The magnificent red sandstone ruins of the mission at Quari have walls five feet thick and 40 feet high. Quari is smallest of the three ruins but the church here is the most complete.

In 1630, Fray Estevan de Perea who was one of the most influential figures in the colonial New Mexican church directed the construction of the mission. The cruciform church was 50 by 104 feet. The adjoining convent and pueblo enclosed three plazas and a number of kivas or underground ceremonial rooms used by the Indians of the pueblo.

Gran Quivera

Ruins at Gran Quivera — Matates and manos were used to grind corn and other grains. Photo by Jim Hunter
Gran Quivera 

Gran Quivera lies 25 miles south of Mountainair on N.M. 55.

At Gran Quivera, two missions were constructed high on a barren, wind-swept hill along side the Pueblo de las Humanas. The first church was called San Isidro and was built in 1629 by Fray Juan Letrado and thirty years later a much larger and more imposing mission was built by Fray Diego de Santander. This church, which was called San Buenaventura, was never finished.

Unlike the missions at Abo and Quari that were constructed of red sandstone, the pueblo and missions at Gran Quivera were built using thousands of pieces of carefully fitted limestone bound together with adobe mortar.

Prior to the coming of the Spaniards the Pueblo de las Humanas was an important trade center and the largest of the Salinas Pueblos and the only one that has been excavated.

All three units of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument are open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day from 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM. There are no entrance fees. Picnic facilities are available but there is no camping within any of the units. More information about the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument can be found on their home page at http://www.heartnm.com/english/trip4_saltmission_lgmap.html.

Manzano Mountains State Park and the Cibola National Forest

Located just south of the town of Manzano and approximately 13 miles northwest of Mountainair, Manzano Mountains State Park and Manzano Lake is a beautiful place to enjoy a picnic or go hiking, bird watching, fishing or enjoy a week-end camping trip. The park is open from April to October and has 45 developed campsites, eight of which have electricity. There is also an RV dump station as well as restrooms.

The Manzano Mountains also serve as an important flyway for migrating raptors. Each year from August 15 through November 5, Hawkwatch International sets up a monitoring site and banding operation at Capilla Peak. To reach this site, go north on NM 55 to the town of Manzano. Turn east on the dirt road directly across from the church. Follow the signs to Capilla Peak Campground where the road will end just below a Fire Tower. Park off the road and follow the unmarked forest trail west approximately ¾ of a mile to the site. Visitors are always welcome at the site and here the ecology and conservation needs of raptors can be learned from full-time volunteer educators. For more information about Hawkwatch International you can visit their web site at http://www.hawkwatch.org/.

Much of the Manzano Mountains are within the boundaries of the Mountainair Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest which has six developed campgrounds and 100 miles of hiking and horseback trails, it also includes the Manzano Mountain Wilderness Area.

In the fall, a beautiful loop drive can be made through Cañon deTorreon and Cañon deTajique. Take NM 55 north to the town of Torreon then turn west on to Forest Road 55. This road makes a loop and you will come out at the town of Tajique just north of Torreon. Here you will find bright yellow aspens and stunning Rocky Mountain and Big-tooth Maples. At the upper end of Cañon de Tajique is the Fourth of July Campground. The campground has 25 camping sites, 4 picnicking sites with tables and grills. There is also drinking water available as well as vault toilets. There is also a four-mile long loop trail here where you can take a beautiful hike through the Cibola National Forest.

The Salt Missions Trail is a wonderful way to spend a day discovering some of New Mexico’s incredible history as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the Southwest. So take a day, or maybe two, and discover some of the many gifts that New Mexi
co has to offer. Enjoy!