The United States’ segment of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior, spans 404 miles between San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, and the present-day national border with Mexico at El Paso, Texas. It is the earliest Euro-American trade route in the United States and historically continued roughly 1,000 miles further south to Mexico City. For nearly 300 years, the trail remained the principal trade route between New Mexico and the regions of Spanish-occupied New Spain, located to the south. El Camino Real helped make possible the European exploration, conquest, colonization, settlement, religious conversion, and military occupation of a large area of the borderlands from 1598 to 1885.
Designated a National Historic Trail in 2000, El Camino Real is a symbol of the early cultural interaction between nations and multiple ethnic groups in the Southwest. The commercial and social exchanges that occurred over the centuries helped create the rich cultural mix that is still present today in the American Southwest. Visitors along the trail route can experience these influences through the traditional architecture, landscapes, place names, cultural institutions, music, folklore, foods, and language that still distinguish the region. Many historic destinations listed in the National Register of Historic Places and hiking trails welcome travelers and tourists along the historic route, and much of El Camino Real is easily accessible by car.
Pre-Contact: American Indian Trade
Long before Europeans arrived in what is now the Southwestern United States, American Indian groups had established trade routes for commerce between tribes as well as the ancient cultures in present-day Mexico. These footpaths, such as the Rio Grande Pueblo Indian Trail, were likely established around 1000 AD and branched throughout the northern Rio Grande region, spanning south through the Rio Grande Valley. When Spanish Explorers first entered the area in the early 1500s, American Indian peoples often guided them through the unfamiliar and daunting landscape.
Visitors to the El Camino Real National Historic Trail have many opportunities to learn more about these early people through the built environment and cultural remnants they left behind. Kuaua Ruin (Coronado State Monument) in Bernalillo, New Mexico, features the archeological remains of a Tiwa settlement from around 1300 AD. A Works Progress Administration excavation of the site in the 1930s revealed a square kiva with many layers of mural paintings. Today the site represents some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian mural art in the United States and is open daily for visitors. Kuaua Ruin is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is featured in the American Southwest Travel Itinerary.
Both Pecos National Historical Park near Santa Fe, NM and Keystone Heritage Park in El Paso, TX preserve remains of early American Indian cultures in the Southwest. The National Park Service manages the remains of Pecos Pueblo, an almost 500-year-old adobe ruin and offers tours and educational programming regarding the pueblo, the park’s other historic structures, and the natural landscape. For more information, the NPS has also published an online book about the early Pecos People and their interactions with the Spanish: Kiva, Cross and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540 – 1840.
Keystone Heritage Park, which is a certified partner of the National Park Service, also showcases ancient ruins. Some are over 4,000 years old and are believed to indicate the location of one of the largest and oldest villages in the present-day United States. The 52-acre park is also the site of an archaic wetland and botanical garden with walking paths where visitors can view the 193 species of birds that live there.
El Camino Real
Spanish conquistadors and colonizers created what would eventually be known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro by connecting and formalizing old indigenous footpaths and Mexican trade routes. Spanish explorer Hernán Cortéz landed in modern-day Mexico in 1518 and conquered the Aztec empire by 1521. The Spanish renamed the captured capital city of Tenochtitlan, Cuidad de Mexico (Mexico City), and soon the first leg of the Camino Real began there, going north to the Zacatecas mountains where massive deposits of silver had been discovered. The bumpy wagon trail was flooded with silver being carted back to the capital where it was smelted, stamped, and shipped to Spain.
In the mid-1500’s, explorer Juan de Oñate received permission from the king of Spain to conduct the first colonization expedition 1,500 miles north of Zacatecas into what is today the State of New Mexico. Oñate, along with settlers and herds of cattle, traveled through the arid Chihuahua Desert and crossed the Rio Grande River at modern-day El Paso in 1598. The journey continued north through Las Cruces, Socorro, Belen, Albuquerque, and Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo), which Oñate declared the capital of New Spain. The final leg brought the Oñate expedition to Santa Fe in 1603. Oñate’s trail from Zacatecas to Santa Fe completed what would be known as El Camino Real, connecting the interior of New Spain to Mexico City.
For the next 300 years, El Camino Real was the only wagon road into New Mexico and the Southwest, bringing thousands of colonists, missionaries and supply caravans from Southern New Spain into newly established Spanish towns that dotted the Rio Grande. The trail facilitated the introduction of horses, cattle, European agriculture and irrigation systems, exotic flora, and many cultural practices that still flourish in the region today.
Visitors might enjoy a trip to El Rancho de las Golondrinas (The Ranch of the Swallows). The site is a living history museum that was once a paraje (rest-stop) along El Camino Real only 15 miles south of Santa Fe, NM, the trail’s terminus. Spanish colonists established the ranch by c. 1710, and it is one of the oldest, continually operating ranches in the Southwest. El Rancho is a certified partner with the National Park Service and offers educational programming surrounding its 18th century placita house, molasses mill, threshing ground, water mill, blacksmith, and wheelwright shop.
Santa Fe itself was a thriving center of commerce at the time, especially after the Santa Fe Trail connected New Mexico to the eastern United States for the first time in 1821, and the Old Spanish Trail similarly connected Santa Fe to the west coast at Los Angeles in 1829. This itinerary features the Santa Fe Trail here and the Old Spanish Trail here. With the three trails feeding the market from the south, west and east, the Santa Fe Plaza at the center of town became a teeming hotspot for trade and social interaction. The plaza is a National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register. It features buildings constructed in the Pueblo, Spanish, and Territorial styles that reflect the diverse cultural history of Santa Fe. The Palace of the Governors on the north side of the Plaza is well worth a visit. Built in 1610, it is the oldest continuously occupied governmental building in the United States. The palace is a National Historic Landmark and a museum.
Like Santa Fe, many towns along the trail greatly benefited from the commerce and cultural exchange. One of the most intact is Mesilla, NM (est. 1848), which helps take visitors back in time through extant colonial architecture, museums, and cultural programming. The town’s central plaza is listed in the National Register and is a National Historic Landmark. It is home to quaint gift shops, galleries and dining establishments, and hosts cultural events such as the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.
The early days of El Camino Real brought waves of friars and priests into New Mexico who built missions among the native pueblo people, converting them to Christianity. Dozens of missions were built at the larger pueblos and many still exist and are in use today. Both the Ysleta and Franciscan Socorro Missions in El Paso, TX were constructed to help displaced American Indians who fled the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places and are featured in the South and West Texas travel itinerary.
El Camino Real also boasts a strong connection to Civil War History as the trail continued to be heavily used throughout the 1860’s. The Register-listed Presidio Chapel of San Elizario in El Paso, for example, housed volunteer fighters from California, stationed there to prevent a reoccupation of the area by Confederate forces. Visitors may also enjoy a trip to Fort Selden State Monument in Radium Springs, NM. Established in 1865, the adobe structure housed units of the US Infantry and Cavalry meant to protect new settlers from hostile American Indian groups. African American units, referred to as Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed at the fort. The site features a visitors’ center, exhibit space and guided tours.
After the Civil War, El Camino Real began to wane, especially in the mid-1880s when the railroad made it possible to transport people and goods along the Rio Grande in hours instead of weeks. Historians cite the last historic use of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to be c. 1885. The trail’s economic, political and cultural impact cannot be denied and visitors along its path today can readily see the incredible influence of both the American Indian and Spanish heritage linked to its past.
In addition to those listed above, many other historic places of interest to visit are on the El Camino Real and participate in the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. See Places to Go in Texas and Places to Go in New Mexico for information on historic sites, museums, and interpretive centers, along the way.
Cultural institutions help further interpret heritage resources for visitors. Be sure to check out The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, The El Paso Museum of History, The El Camino Real Trail Association and The Camino Real International Heritage Center.
Last updated: August 11, 2017