The Santa Fe Trail by Bicycle

by SFAOL contributor Elaine Pinkerton

From her book by the same name

 

Route: Santa Fe to Las Vegas, New Mexico

Distance: 72 miles, 115 kilometers

Highlights: Santa Fe Plaza, Glorieta Pass site of Civil War battle, Pecos National Monument, Old Town Plaza in Las Vegas

Today's ride, which will be moderate and gently hilly, begins on the Santa Fe Plaza, the End of the Santa Fe Trail. If you haven't already done so, take some time to enjoy this ancient heart of Santa Fe, with its shady trees, wrought-iron benches and historical markers. Then make a final check of your gear, and begin the biking adventure of a lifetime!

Leaving the Plaza, walk your bike on Old Santa Fe Trail past the lovely La Fonda hotel. At the end of this one-way block, mount up, take a left onto Water Street, then an immediate right back onto Old Santa Fe Trail.

Heading out from the Plaza, you pass three historic churches, all on your left: St. Francis Cathedral, a massive Romanesque structure built by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy; Loretto Chapel, with its winding "miraculous staircase" (built without nails or visible means of support); and San Miguel Chapel, reputedly the nation's oldest church.

Santa Fe has many charms, but courtesy to cyclists is not one of them, so watch very carefully as you pedal out of town. After the Plaza, the Old Santa Fe Trail is narrow and heavily traveled, so use your rearview mirror and avoid weaving. If with others, this is a time to ride single-file ("drafting").

At the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Paseo de Peralta, about half a mile along the way, note the Roundhouse, New Mexico's state capitol building, designed after the sacred kivas of the Pueblo Indians and recently remodeled.

The road narrows beyond this intersection, and for a little less than a mile you will be pedaling gradually uphill. Then you come to a Y, which indicates that Old Santa Fe Trail veers off to the left. But you will go right, onto Old Pecos Trail (yes, it's a bit confusing). Do not angle left onto Old Santa Fe Trail-it just meanders into residential areas.

Do not worry about road signs at this point: just stay on Old Pecos Trail and travel east about 3.5 miles to a traffic light at the juncture of Pecos Trail and Rodeo Road. There you turn left onto the Old Las Vegas Highway, which is the frontage road for Interstate 25. Exercise extreme caution at this point; despite the traffic light, you may need to walk your bike across Old Pecos Trail to the Old Las Vegas Highway.

Mildly hilly terrain and lovely views of the Sangre de Cristo foothills make this stretch enjoyable, but the narrowness of the road requires vigilance. After going 9.8 miles, you come to the lovely red-roofed Canoncito adobe church, which is a good resting spot.

After your break, proceed under the overpass and turn right onto I-25. Watch carefully for traffic on this high-speed turnpike. The gentle pinon-covered hills and interesting rock formations on both sides of the road are an accompaniment more than a distraction. After just 5 miles on the Interstate, in fairly steep terrain, take Exit 299. At the top, turn left.

Signs there announce the Glorieta Baptist Assembly, off to your extreme left. A road sign at N.M. Highway 50 points toward the town of Pecos. Turn right. Just a short way down the road a historic marker commemorates the Civil War's Battle of Glorieta Pass on March 28, 1862, during which Uniion troops ended the Confederacy's hopes for taking New Mexico and then the California goldfields. Though the Confederates won the battle, Union troops captured all their supplies and ammunition, forcing them to retreat to Texas.

The road along this stretch, though usually not very busy, is patchy and occasionally dangerous. The countryside is lovely, however, with an interesting assortment of cabins, rural homes, auto repair shops, rock formations, souvenir stands and whatnot.

After the "Welcome to Pecos" sign you pass into San Miguel County and wind your way down the village's main street. At the stop sign, turn right onto N.M. Highway 63 and continue east out of town toward the Pecos National Historical Monument. On the left and right, note the lovely ranch land donated to the monument by movie actress Greer Garson and her husband Col. E. E. "Buddy' Fogelson. Look for the blue lightning bolts on the pink stuccoed walls, a symbol of the Forked Lightning Ranch.

The monument itself, administered by the National Park Service, is definitely worty of a visit. The Pecos ruins date back to A.D. 1100, when Anasazi farmers moved eastward from the Rio Grande. Then known by its Indian name Cicuye, Pecos Pueblo was originally five stories high and housed 2,500 people.

In 1541 Spanish conquistadors under the command of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado passed through on their fruitless search for the treasures of the supposed Seven Cities of Cibola. By the early 1600s, as Spanish priests tried to Christianize the Indians, the Mision de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula had been built on the site.

Even in its present dilapidated state, the church is impressive. Its adobe walls are seven feet thick, and the roof timbers weigh several tons. Fortresslike, it must have been a symbol to the Indians of the invincibility of the Catholic Church. The mission walls later served as a landmark for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

Attached to the church is theá convento, a rambling communal dwelling where priests carried on the mission's daily life. Within the convento walls is a kiva built after the Pueblo Revold of 1680, when the Indians drove out the Spanish and tried to reclaim their traditional way of life.

From 1915 to 1927 the Pecos ruins were excavated by archaeologists. It was one of the first Southwestern ruins to be so studied, and it led to a classification system still in use. The visitor center houses a museum with a fine pottery collection, a theater with an informative and imaginative film about the ruins, and a bookstore.

Admission to the ruins is minimal, and the 1.5-mile walk through them gives visitors the real flavor of the life of the ancient residents. Try to stretch your schedule to include this.

Taking your leave of Pecos National Monument, return to Highway 63, take a right and continue 6 miles south until you once again reach I-25, which is also U.S. Highway 84. The frontage road to the right of northbound I-25 will take you the remaining 38 miles to Las Vegas (New Mexico's own Las Vegas, not the gambling mecca in Nevada).

Whether to use the frontage road or the Interstate is a personal choice. The advantage of frontage roads is that they are less heavily trafficked and pass through interesting roadside scenery; the disadvantage is that they are usually rougher and more flat-tire-producing than the Interstates paralleling them. On this pastoral stretch you pass through the small towns of Rowe, San Jose, Bernal and Romeroville.

When you reach Las Vegas, exit Highway 84 at New Mexico Avenue and take that road to National Avenue. Turn right there, and take National to the Old Town Plaza. The marvelously refurbished Plaza Hotel (505-425-3591) is a good place to stay, and is certainly worth a visit even if you don't take a room. A less expensive alternative is New Mexico Highlands University (505-454-3590), which offers camping and dorm rooms.

It was to Las Vegas that U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny came on Aug. 15, 1846, to claim the Nuevo Mexico territory from the Mexican government. The town's character quickly changed from sleepy to bustling, as traffic on the Santa Fe Trail increased. In 1866 alone, approximately 5,000 wagons passed through Las Vegas.

With the arrival of the Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1879, the town grew even busier, and became New Mexico's major rail center. Outlaws and desperadoes such as Doc Holliday, Hoodoo Brown, Dave Rudabaugh and Billy the Kid also did their part to keep things lively in Las Vegas.

If you are not too weary at the end of the day's 72-mile journey, a biking tour of Las Vegas itself is highly recommended. Or you can do it the next morning, when you are fresh. Begin in the town's Carnegie Park Historic District, directly east of the Plaza.

Architecture in this section varies from Queen Anne to Italianate to Victorian eclectic, contrasting sharply with the Southwestern style around the Plaza. The Carnegie District grew quite rapidly after the arrival of the railway, and building materials were easily shipped in by rail. Thus while much of Las Vegas is built of typical New Mexico adobe, this area, with its orderly grid streets and brick and wood houses, seems Midwestern.

Pedaling east through Las Vegas, watch for the stately Carnegie Library, modeled after Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello; the English-style Stephen B. Davis House, with its yellow stuccoed walls, at the corner of Fifth and Columbia streets; and the cottage at 512 Columbia Ave., with its graceful front bay window and folk spindlework. At least 10 other historic homes and commercial buildings are in this area. See as many as you can.

The Railroad Avenue area also merits a sightseeing tour. With its hotels, busy mercantile houses, saloons and dance halls, Railroad Avenue in its heyday was prosperous, lively thoroughfare. Its Victorian stores and shops, the Renaissance Revivalist Gross-Kelly Building, La Castenada (an early Harvey House hotel) and the metal-fronted Rawlins Buildingá are all noteworthy.

The Gross-Kelly Building, built in 1898-99, housed one of New Mexico's leading mercantile companies. After acquiring the structure in 1982, the public Service Company of New Mexico restored the exterior masonry and interior woodwork so expertly that the building has won numerous awards.

La Castenada Hotel, another landmark of the post-Santa Fe Trail era, has an enchanting air of bygone elegance. The graceful fašade with its arched walkway faces the railroad tracks. Park and lock your bike, and take a walk through the grand lobby and dining room, both relatively intact.

Across the street from La Castenada looms the formerly splendid Rawlins Building, residence for the Harvey Girls who staffed the hotel dining room. Note the recessed storefronts on the first floor, and the Ionic columns and swag panels of the upper story.

And now, unless you've arranged a motorized return to Santa Fe for you and your bike, it's time to start pedaling back-another good, vigorous day on two wheels.

To order "The Santa Fe Trail by Bicycle" or other books by Elaine Pinkerton, visit Amazon.com . Elaine Pinkerton is also the author of "Santa Fe On Foot," available at Amazon.com .


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