Monday, March 29, 2010

Fort Union on the old Santa Fe Trail: It's How the West Was Won!

Rising above the grasslands like an adobe Stonehenge, the remaining chimneys and walls of old Fort Union still silently beckon travelers to this historic military outpost on the old Santa Fe Trail.

Once the primary military depot for U.S. Army soldiers serving to protect westward settlers and to suppress the Indians, it was the biggest military installation in the Southwest at the time.

The fort at one time featured one of the best hospitals in the West, an ammo depot, a military prison, warehouses, mechanics shop, corrals and troop quarters

It also served as a vital stopping point on the Santa Fe Trail for merchant’s wagon trains and other travelers seeking safe refuge from marauding Indians and welcome relief from the open road.

Today, upon leaving Interstate 25 to visit this old fort located on the historic Mora Land Grant, one will immediately come across remnants of the deep ruts left by the endless procession of wagon trains and others who settled the West back in the 1800s.

During the eight-mile trip to the fort one may come across of a herd of antelope grazing on the plains or see real cowboys working among cattle in the fields. A sea of grass extends for miles, flanked by pinon, juniper and ponderosa studded hills.

At the entrance to the old fort, visitors will find friendly and informative staff and plenty of history to absorb within its small but detailed museum.

But it is on the grounds of the fort itself that the place seems to come alive. One might even imagine hearing the creak and groan of wagon wheels, the crack of a whip or detect the musky odor of leather and horses upon the wind.

A walk of the grounds provides an excellent hike and plenty to learn from interpretive signs featuring photos from the period providing information about the ruins and what purpose they once served.

The fort played a pivotal role in New Mexico history as Union officers leading local, volunteer troops stationed at the fort marched out to meet an invading Confederate force and defeated them at the battle of Glorieta near Pecos during the Civil War.

Ironically, there were numerous, former, Union officers from the fort who had resigned their commissions and took up with the Confederates found among the invading, rebel forces, according to the national monument’s 1992 administrative history compiled by author Liping Zhu and available for review on the monument’s website at

And prior to the Civil War, soldiers from the fort conducted many of the campaigns against Indians in the area who were preying upon Western settlers. U.S. soldiers took on the Apaches and Utes first and then later turned to the plains Indians, the Kiowas and Comanches, in a relentless and brutal war against the native people.

In the end the Indians were routed from their territory and saw their primary food source, the buffalo, decimated by the onslaught of invading settlers and the soldiers who protected them.

Fort Union served as the U.S. Army’s primary supply depot for almost forty years, extending military might into the Southwest and supplying the great many smaller military outposts located throughout the region.

Hispanic land grant historians might look upon the fort as an affront as the land it was built upon belonged to the Mora Land Grant and was seized, occupied and then abandoned without any compensation provided to its Spanish owners.

Hiking the grounds of the fort, visitors will get a feel for the size and scope of the garrison upon seeing preserved adobe walls from which many of the buildings were constructed, the stone walkways and foundations laid out in military precision and the eerily intact brick chimneys and stone prison cells.

A visit to Fort Union is a real bargain for the cost conscious as the entrance fee is only three dollars, which entitles the bearer to also visit the Pecos National Monument for free upon presenting the same receipt or vice versa.

The Pecos National Historical Park features intriguing ruins of what was once a great Indian Pueblo and the remains of an imposing Spanish church.

Located within the Pecos-area park visitor center is a comprehensive, concise and rapidly absorbed museum of early, regional history for this part of northern New Mexico.

Leashed dogs are allowed at both facilities.

If You Go:

Fort Union National Monument is located about 90 miles northeast of Santa Fe off I-25. Take exit 366 at St. Rd. 161 just after Watrous. Follow the signs. The Pecos National Historical Park is located about 25 miles northeast of Santa Fe just outside the village of Pecos on St. Rd. 63. Coming back from Fort Union get off at the Rowe, Pecos exit, # 307 and take St. Rd 63 about five miles to the park. Stopping at the park on the way to Fort Union get off I-25 at the Glorieta, Pecos exit, # 299 and take St. Rd. 50 into Pecos and then bear right at the intersection of St. Rd 63 for a short drive to the park. Follow the signs. For an interesting side trip stop in Las Vegas to see the old Harvey Hotel at the train station.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Northern Indian Pueblos Stock Up for Spring Fishing

Dave Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo Ranger.

The coming of spring marks the beginning of the fishing season for many of northern New Mexico’s tribes who have heavily stocked their lakes to satisfy eager anglers.

“We’ve got loads of fish in there,” says San Ildefonso Pueblo Ranger, Dave Martinez, as he waved an arm at the tribe’s five-acre lake located west of Pojoaque just off the highway to Los Alamos. “And some big ones, too.”

Anglers have reported seeing a legendary trout reputed to be well over 22 inches cruising the lake and sporting a tag from last year’s fishing derby. The fish is worth $100 to the lucky angler who lands him and many have tried, Martinez said

“A lot of people swear they hooked him but then he got away,” Martinez says.

That fish is just one among over 5,000 trout stocked in recent weeks to satisfy anglers who pay $12 a day to catch and keep up to six fish. Kids under 12 fish for six bucks.

During a St. Paddy’s’ Day outing to the lake last week the weather was sunny and warm, the lake surface dimpled by rising trout and fellow anglers friendly and hospitable.

It proved to be an exciting afternoon for fishermen like Fred Vigil, 46, of Pojoaque, a school maintenance worker who bagged himself a 19-inch rainbow trout and was giddy with joy. 
“Just look at him,” he said as he showed off the big fish and a danced a little jig. 

Due to a supply of fresh river water and a set of aerators that pump oxygen into the water some of the pond’s trout can survive over the winter and grow to good size, Martinez said.

The pueblo doesn’t plan to host a fishing derby until the last week of April so anglers have plenty of time to get in on the great fishing action, Martinez noted.

The lake is open daily, well behaved, leashed dogs are welcome and the atmosphere at the pond amid the Bosque is informal and friendly.

Anglers looking to get up into a little higher country can expect to find good fishing at Nambe Lake and Falls when it opens on March 25, says Nambe Ranger, Joe Vigil.

The tribe stocked the mountain lake with about 10,000 fish after it closed for the season last fall and just added another 6,000 in the last couple of weeks, Vigil says.

During last year’s fishing derby a 4-year-old Truchas boy fishing with his grandfather caught a 22-inch rainbow trout on a Mickey Mouse rod and earned himself $1,000 , says Vigil, a retired Santa Fe and Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputy.

Nambe Lake features good bank fishing and allows small boats with electric motors, float tubes and rafts. Well behaved dogs on leashes are welcome. Anglers will find some fishing supplies and a limited amount of groceries and ice at the ranger’s shed at the entrance to the lake.

The tribe charges $15 a day for adults, $8 for kids ages 7 to 12 and $10 for seniors over 60 years old, Vigil says.

And anglers seeking a more urban experience can try their luck at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo’s lakes located just north of Espanola where the a fishing derby is scheduled for opening day on April 10th, says Martin Monroe, Director of retail for the tribe’s Tsay Corp.

Monroe says the tribe will stock about 5,000 fish before the derby and feature cash prizes including $1,000 for the top fish. Cost to enter the derby is $25 at the gate on opening day or $20 up front beforehand at the tribes’ RV Mini-Mart located in the Conoco/Phillips gas station off Riverside Drive about a quarter mile north of the Wal-Mart on State Rd. 68.

After the derby fishing at the tribes’ lakes costs $8 a day with kids under 16 and seniors over 65 paying $5.

Anglers fishing on tribal lands do not require a state fishing license. Current state fishing licenses expire April 1st.

If You Go:

San Ildefonso Pueblo fishing lake is off St. Rd. 502, west of Pojoaque on the way to Los Alamos. Follow the signs. Nambe Lake and Falls is off St. Rd. 503, north of Pojoaque. Follow the signs. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo lakes are off Riverside Drive in Espanola just north of the Walmart on St. Rd. 68. Turn in at the Conoco/Phillips RV Mini-Mart.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Visit to Tsankawi at Bandelier Takes One Back in Time

Sitting upon the edge of a cliff at Tsankawi, legs dangling in space, basking in the midwinter sun, one can look out over the snow dusted valley below and perhaps understand why the ancient Indians choose to live here hundreds of years ago.

Today it offers visitors spectacular views, a great winter hike and a quiet, contemplative place in which to consider what life must have been like for the native people over 400 years ago.

High atop this mesa, ancestors of San Ildefonso Pueblo built a village and on the south facing cliff face, they carved out shallow caves in the soft volcanic rock where they cooked, slept and hid from the elements.

Their comings and goings cut deep trails into the soft rock crisscrossing the site and following them leads one into a glimpse of what their world must have been like then.

In the valley floor below they grew dry land crops such as corn, beans and squash, gathered wood and water and hunted game.

Crawling into one of the sandy floored caves, a visitor finds the roof blackened by the smoke of previous cook fires and a window carved in the wall that provides a view upon the valley and the far off Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Stepping carefully amid the rocky ruins of the mesa top village a sharp eye may see that someone has placed a couple of pottery shards atop a flat rock. They should be left them alone because this is an outdoor museum and removing them is a federal law offense.

And on the trail below, if one stops often enough to look up at the rock walls above, a visitor may see one of the many messages that the Indians left behind, like a large spiral carved in the rock or a depiction of an animal.

More clues about the life they lived arise as one rounds a corner and sees a series of steps notched into the sloping rock face.

Climbing those leads to a natural depression with a slight overhang, what appears to be a natural cistern that collects rain water runoff from the rock face above.

The rock here was formed by residue from the volcanic eruption of the nearby Jemez Mountains which also formed the massive, grassy meadows of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The soft rock that makes up the colorful mesas, buttes and canyons in the surrounding area is easily eroded by water and also easy to excavate.

Tsankawi is an intriguing 1.5 mile hike involving a climb up and down three sets of ladders fashioned from lodge poles, incredible scenic views and a great deal of Native American history as spelled out in a guided, numerical tour pamphlet available at the park entrance.

Tsankawi is a remote section of Bandelier National Monument which is located about 15 miles farther south on State Rd. 4 after passing through the town of White Rock.

Tsankawi in Tewa, the traditional language of San Ildefonso Pueblo means “village between two canyons at the clump of sharp, round cacti,” according to the park’s brochure.

The village ruins at Tsankawi remain unexcavated at the wishes of the San Ildefonso Puebloans but modern technology has allowed archeologists to determine the village consisted of 275 rooms alone on the mesa top.

It is believed that the ancestors of San Ildefonso Pueblo left their mesa top village sometime during the 1500s to relocate in the valley below along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Valles Caldera Offers Sleigh Rides, Cross Country Sking, Snow Shoeing and More

Sleigh driver Jeff Grider of Bear Creek Adventures and passenger, Rourke McDermott, Landscape Architect for the Valles Caldera National Preserve,  ride atop the a horse drawn sleigh at the preserve in the Jemez Mountains during a recent outing.

A brilliant bed of deep, creamy snow awaits visitors to the Valles Caldera National Preserve this winter where cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sightseeing is at its best right now.

“You couldn’t ask for better conditions,” says Kimberly DeVall, Recreation Specialist for the preserve. “We’ve got about three feet of snow on the ground and another full moon night coming up.”

The preserve is scheduled to be open to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sightseeing under the full moon on Saturday night, Feb. 27, Devall says.

“It’s spectacular seeing your shadow at nine o’clock at night,” DeVall says of the moon-lit 90,000-acre preserve located off State Road 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs.

The last full moon event on Jan. 30 which features campfires and hot beverages and snacks at the visitors’ center drew about 300 outdoor enthusiasts to the preserve.

Weekend and special event visitation so far this winter has passed all of last year’s total for the entire season, says DeVall.

Last year the preserve saw 1,814 visitors during the winter season and earned $12,474 while this year, with several weeks still yet to to go, the preserve has already seen 2,979 visitors and earned $31,699 in revenues.

“We’re really starting to come into our own as a winter recreation destination,” DeVall said of the big jump in visitors.

The preserve boasts 38 miles of winter trails with 29 of those groomed for cross-country skiers, ranging from an easy 1.5-mile loop to a more adventurous 15k circuit, DeVall said.

Those seeking the kind of quiet solitude only a wide expanse of snow-covered pasture and deep forest can provide should head up to the old “ Baca” location for some winter recreating while the snow is still around.

During one recent sunny weekend one could see many cross-country skiers and people on snowshoes dotting the bright white layer of snow covering the massive expanse of pasture formed by the collapsed volcano known as the Valles Caldera.

“We usually do the Sandias (mountains) but decided to try something different this weekend,” said Brain Schwaner, 45, of Albuquerque and an employee at Sandia National Labs. “This is so much easier and more scenic, I’m surprised there aren’t more people here, it’s a great place to learn the sport.”

Schwaner’s skiing partner, Michael West, 51, a cardiologist from Albuquerque, was impressed with the preserves’ stunning beauty and the gorgeous weather that day.

“Just fantastic,” he exclaimed while taking a break from the trail.

From Left to right,  Michael West and Brian Schwaner,  both of Albuquerque cross country ski at the Valles Caldera National Preserve during an early February weekend.

And drifting along upon a cold, clean mountain breeze one could detect the musty aroma of horses, leather and the tinkle of  bells as visitors enjoyed an old fashioned sleigh ride through the  snow covered woods and fields of this awesome public preserve.

“People really enjoy this ride,” said Jeff Grider, 34, of nearby La Cueva, as he quietly coaxed his team of Pinto Draft horses, Moonie and Molly, to pull a gently swaying sleigh along a road cut through the snow.

In the back, about a dozen visitors bundled up in blankets, snapped pictures and chatted excitedly as a tour guide provided details about the preserves’ history, wildlife and other attractions.

Vern Loose, 66, of Albuquerque said after the sleigh ride he was amazed at the preserve’s beauty.
“Being out in this is absolutely spectacular, “ he said. “I just love the combination of the sunshine and the snow.”

The last weekend to take a sleigh ride at the preserve is the weekend of Feb. 20 and 21st . Check the preserve’s website at for available reservations and other information about visiting.

Grider said the preserve remains essentially the same as it did when as a youth he used to visit his uncle who was the ranch caretaker for the Dunigan family of Texas who owned it and later sold it to the public.

The vast herds of elk, the great fishing in the little creeks feeding the East Fork of the Jemez River and the Rio San Antonio and the spiraling flocks of bald eagles can all still be enjoyed by those visiting the preserve during warmer months.

But in the middle of the winter it is the cold, quiet remoteness of the preserve that stirs memories of snowmobile trips to the ranch where his uncle would be working to carve out the road so the Dunigans could come visit.

“He’d spend days on it,” said Grider, who is a firefighter during the summer and does some ranch work himself.

Nowadays visitors to the preserve will still find the road into the preserve covered in snow and flanked by high drifts but it is easily managed in four-wheel-drive and an experienced winter driver can probably handle it in two if they just kept rolling and avoided the soft edges.

Visitors to the preserve will find a new visitors’ center just a couple miles in off the highway where snowshoes are available for rent along with other goodies like lip balm and some snacks and beverages.

Those wishing to cross-country ski need to bring their own gear. The cost of admission is $10 and no pets are allowed.

If You Go:

From Santa Fe head north on US84/285 to Pojoaque and take State Road 502 to White Rock and then follow State Road 4 up through the mountains and upon emerging into a great, open area look for the entrance to the preserve on your right, further down the road, about 65 miles. Make a round trip of it by continuing on State Road 4 through Jemez Springs and Jemez Pueblo to State Road 550 for a quick drive down to Bernalillo and then back up to Santa Fe on I-25.  Great green chile cheeseburgers can be had in a classic New Mexico bar, the Los Ojos, in Jemez Springs.

Popular Posts