El Camino Real

June 10, 2007

I took the day off from writing to bike along a historic trail called El Camino Real, picking it up inpicture-1.png Mesilla, New Mexico and taking it almost all the way to El Paso, TX. This path was originally forged in 1598 by Don Juan de Onate, who was ordered by the King Philip II of Spain to colonize the upper Rio Grande, now known as New Mexico. The route Onate followed became El Camino Real, “the royal road,” which up until then only reached what is now Juarez. It’s a beautiful trip, and I took some pics along the way. Click to enlarge any photos.

This was taken in of Mesilla (meh-SEE-uh, pop. 2,200), where many historic adobe homes and commercial buildings are still standing. Though Mesilla wasn’t founded until 1848, the area had long been the crossroads of the southwest until 1881 when Las Cruces (just a few miles east) offered free land to the Santa Fe Railroad, essentially freezing Mesilla in time (the historic square wasn’t paved as late as the 1970s). This turned out to be a good thing in terms of character and preservation. While the two places are separated only by railroad tracks, Las Cruces is a sprawling suburb while Mesilla is a historic, compact, walkable town.


The Mesilla Valley has long been an agricultural center, and further south along the El Camino Real, there are miles of pecan trees that shade the road, planted by W.J. Stahmann and his sons in the 1930s. Combined with land they purchased in Australia, this family became the largest pecan producer in the world. The climate is so dry that to water the trees, the ground is often flooded up to six inches, and as you bike underneath the canopy, you can feel a mist from the leaves perspiring.

I stopped at this overpass over the Rio Grande, which I’m told in the winter is completely dry from all the water being siphoned for agricultural uses. At first I didn’t notice the birds that were perched on a wire, but they noticed me, and began swirling about, as if to put on a show.

There are a couple of tiny little towns along this part of El Camino Real, mostly run down. This was taken in San Miguel, NM. But there is also a rich motorcycle culture here with a few lively hang-outs.


Last but not least, this was taken just south of La Mesa, with the Organ Mountains in the distance. The sad part is, El Camino Real is now on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered places because of Richard Branson’s Spaceport, which is set to be built north of Las Cruces. According to the Trust, “El Camino Real is considered by many to be one of the largest and most important artifacts of the Spanish Colonial era in the United States and one of the most valuable single markers of the Hispanic experience in the Southwest.”

As a side note, also on the Trust’s list of endangered places are motels along Route 66, which I just wrote about for the Times (click here for a pdf route66final.pdf).

Polis will return to its usual gritty New York content in Sept.