Once one of the busiest trade routes in North America, the Camino Real is now the focus of preservation and research efforts in both mexico and the U.S.
Don Juan de Onate might have stood like this, perched on the crest of a juniper-studded butte, watching the setting sun wash across a parched desert plain and the great, shimmering peaks of the San Andres Mountains beyond. Maybe he was out of breath from climbing the gravelly hill, slipping in his rush for the top. Maybe his hands were scratched by mesquite, his coat peppered with saltbush seeds, his fine leather boots caked with red desert dust from the arroyo below. But he must have felt a triumphant surge that made it all worthwhile, for he knew he was blazing a trail for his king, Philip II, and for Spain.
Onate, impatient, wealthy son of a Mexican conquistador, had already traveled far when he saw his great vista in present-day southern New Mexico, just north of Las Cruces. He had started in Santa Barbara, near present-day Chihuahua, in January 1598. After a grueling passage through the merciless Chihuahuan desert, the ragged group of 129 soldiers - many of whom had brought theft families along with eighty-four wooden ox-drawn carts and more than seven thousand farm animals - finally reached the Rio Grande four months later, on April 20. From there, they traveled across the dry mountain pass Onate had seen from his hilltop vantage point, the dreaded Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death, so named later for all the travelers who would die there.
After making it safely through the Jornada, the first Spanish colonizers continued north along the bosque - the cool cottonwoods lining the Rio Grande - and through a strange mountain pass later known as El Contadero, only making prolonged stops in the many, dusty adobe pueblos clustered along the river. On July 27 Onate finally ended his seven-month, 750-mile journey in the now-abandoned Indian pueblo of Ceypa, about thirty-five miles north of present-day Albuquerque. A few years later, other explorers would extend Onate's trail a few miles further north, across a plain dotted with pinon trees and a hilly landscape cluttered with creosote bushes and ocotillo - the bajadas. Around 1610 they would found the terminus of the new trail, Santa Fe.
Onate had succeeded where others before him had failed - to blaze a route to the most remote, northern realm of the Spanish empire in the Americas. His trail would be known by future Spanish travelers as the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro - the royal road to the interior - and by nineteenth-century Americans as the Chihuahua Trail. Along this trail would travel thousands of Franciscan missionaries and Spanish colonizers, centuries before the arrival of settlers from the east. For these early pioneers in northern Mexico and current-day Texas and New Mexico, the Camino Real would be their material and cultural lifeline to Western civilization, as they knew it.
"The Camino Real is probably the most significant trail in the country," says Santa Fe-based historian Gabrielle Palmer, director of the Camino Real Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Camino Real. "It changes the way we think about the history of the Southwest. Settling the West was not the east-to-west movement that most people think. The West was settled from Mexico."
In 1993, to preserve the few existing remnants of the Camino Real, the National Park Service and the Spanish Colonial Research Center at the University of New Mexico began to compile historic information and prepare a historic dictionary of sites and structures along the trail. The study is conducted under national legislation passed in November of that year, in which Congress directed the Park Service to evaluate the Camino Real as a possible candidate for the National Trail System. The first binational accord occurred in January 1994 when the University of New Mexico and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) agreed to cooperate regarding technical, academic, and cultural projects related to the Camino Real. …