Around 1540, small bands of Pueblo Indians trudged east through the Rio Grande Valley, carrying maize, pinon nuts, beans, squash, and cotton goods, to trade with their Plains Indian neighbors. In return, they expected to receive dried buffalo meat, hides, flints, shells, and salt. The route these traders took led past the Pueblo of Abo, strategically located near a cluster of springs on the trail to Abo Pass. This old footpath is now the Abo Pass Trail Scenic Byway.
The byway links El Camino Real National Scenic Byway and the Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway. It starts on the east side of Belen, where NM 47 angles off to the southeast towards its junction with US Highway 60. The byway follows US 60 east for twelve miles, to Abo Pueblo. With Gran Quivira and Quarai, Abo is now part of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (505-847-2400).
Driving down the byway from Belen, the grass-carpeted plains of the Rio Grande Valley stretch into the distance. As the byway turns east onto US 60, the road starts to climb the foothills of the Manzanos, and the terrain changes to red rock formations scattered with pinon and juniper. Pull over and look back at the wide expanse of the plains, framed on the northeast by the Manzano Mountains. The Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (505-864-4021; not open to the public) unfolds to the west. Wildlife at Sevilleta includes desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer, mountain lion, bear and bird species, including bald eagle, peregrine falcon, wood duck, heron, sandhill crane, and burrowing owl.
Members of Don Juan de Onate's expedition in 1598 visited this area. The land grant of Nuestra Senora de Belen (Our Lady of Bethlehem) was established on El Camino Real in 1740, and was settled by Captain Diego de Torres and 32 others. With the coming of the Americans in 1846, immigrants began to stream into the area, and Belen developed as a mercantile center.
In 1880 the railroad entered Belen, and the Homestead Act of 1889 brought more hardy pioneers to central New Mexico. At the turn of the century, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway was looking for a new route over the mountains of New Mexico. The AT&SF built a bypass, the Belen Cutoff, from Belen to Texico over Abo Pass. Thereafter, all transcontinental freight trains were routed through Belen to refuel and change crews. The latest improvement to the Abo Pass trade route was the construction of the modern paved roads of NM State Road 47 and US Highway 60.
Trains travel with you all along this byway, whether you're crossing the tracks, you're driving next to them, or you're watching them recede into the distance. The tracks would seem to stretch into infinity if they didn't disappear into the Abo Pass.
Driving up the hill towards Abo, the jagged, red stone walls of San Gregorio de Abo Mission loom up through the trees. In contrast, only unexcavated mounds of melted adobe mark the extensive pueblo roomblocks. One of the southwest's largest Pueblo villages, Abo was inhabited from the 1300s until the 1670s. In the Piro language, abo is thought to mean "water bowl", or perhaps "poor" or "poor place".
The Salinas Pueblos are named for the salt flats and shallow brackish lakes in the Estancia Valley, remnants of a large lake which filled the Estancia Basin as recently as 10,000 years ago. (Don Juan de Onate called salt one of the four riches of New Mexico.) Drought forced Indians from the Salinas area to move to other pueblos in the 1670s. During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, they went south to the El Paso area with the Spanish, intermingling with other Pueblo refugees.
The people who forged the Abo Pass Trail could not foresee the future importance of their humble footpath. We sometimes forget that we owe our ease of travel to these primitive beginnings.