In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through remote and unfamiliar country, encountering people with vastly different languages and cultures, not knowing what awaited them at the end of the journey. The land is now known as New Mexico, and the route Onate followed became El Camino Real, "the royal road", which up until then only reached the frontiers of northern Mexico. Onate's journey was the beginning of almost three centuries of travel and commerce in New Mexico on the Camino, which is commemorated by a state Scenic Byway.
El Camino Real threads through New Mexico, a unifying force in the landscape and history. The city of Las Cruces ("the crosses") may have been named for crosses on the graves of unfortunate travelers on El Camino Real. The Mesquite Street original townsite was laid out in 1849 by the Army in an attempt to protect local communities and travelers. It is charming with its small adobe houses painted bright pink, green, and blue. Casa Colonial at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum (4100 Dripping Springs Road; 505-522-4100) represents an earlier style of Spanish architecture.
Troops were stationed at Fort Selden (1280 Fort Selden Road, Radium Springs; 505-526-8911) and at Fort Craig (505-835-0412) in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on El Camino Real. Both forts were established near parajes (camps) which were first utilized by the Onate expedition. Fort Selden is at the southern end and Fort Craig at the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto ("journey of the dead man"). The rough country around the Rio Grande forced travelers to cross 90 miles of flat but waterless and much more dangerous desert.
North of Fort Selden, the byway follows the Rio Grande to Truth or Consequences. The linear green oasis created by the river contrasts with the brown Caballo Mountains and Sierra de las Uvas nearby, and the faded blues of the San Andres Mountains and the Black Range on the horizon. A diorama at the Geronimo Springs Museum (211 Main Street, Truth or Consequences; 505-894-6600) depicts the Jornada del Muerto, located about 15 miles east of town on State Road 51. A visit to this lonely area in the summer shows why early travelers moved by night and rested by day.
When Onate reached the Piro Indian pueblo of Teypana, his group was near starvation. The Indians welcomed and fed the colonists, prompting Onate to name the place for the Spanish word for help, Socorro. The settlement was a stop on El Camino Real until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The pueblo is gone, but a sculpted "Wheel of History" north of Socorro's main plaza commemorates the history of the area.
Many small settlements north of Socorro which originated on El Camino Real are still inhabited today. One of these, Tome, is the site of "Paso Por Aqui", a monumental sculpture depicting the historic procession of travelers on El Camino Real. Tome Hill has been a landmark for travelers since prehistoric times.
The juxtaposition of El Camino Real, a good ford on the Rio Grande, and fertile farmland attracted settlers to what is now Old Town in Albuquerque in 1706. Old Town is a window into the past of New Mexico's largest metropolitan area. History comes alive at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 4th Street SW; 505-246-2261) and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (2401 12th Street NW; 800-766-4405), both located on the byway.
Agua Fria Street leads into the heart of Santa Fe, as it did when it was called El Camino Real. Sculptures in Frenchy's Field Park (Agua Fria and Osage Avenue) and Santa Fe River State Park (Agua Fria and Guadalupe Street) commemorate the centuries of travel through Santa Fe on El Camino Real. The Palace of the Governors (107 West Palace Avenue, 505-476-5100) was built around 1610, when Santa Fe was established as the capital of New Mexico. It now houses a museum full of artifacts and information on New Mexico's rich history.
The byway terminates at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate's journey. The timeless thread of El Camino Real weaves through the evolving landscape of New Mexico, connecting past and present, Rio Abajo and Rio Arriba. Today is just another knot in the thread of history that is El Camino Real.