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Point of Rocks rises hundreds of feet above the plains of the Jornada del Muerto, a waterless stretch of desert and a shortcut on El Camino Real.
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El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail



Point of Rocks

Jornada del Muerto, Sierra County, New Mexico

The large basalt outcropping known as Point of Rocks was a welcome natural landmark for El Camino Real travelers making their way through the dry and dangerous Jornada del Muerto.

The large basalt outcropping known as Point of Rocks
was a welcome natural landmark for El Camino Real
travelers making their way through the dry
and dangerous Jornada del Muerto.
Photo © Jack Parsons




The rugged terrain around Point of Rocks today continues to highlight the challenges of a journey along El Camino Real.

The rugged terrain around Point of Rocks today continues to
highlight the challenges of a journey along El Camino Real.
Photo © Jack Parsons






Interpretive wayside exhibits and well-marked pathways guide visitors up the half-mile Point of Rocks trail loop to survey the landscape from above.

Interpretive wayside exhibits and well-marked pathways
guide visitors up the half-mile Point of Rocks trail loop
to survey the landscape from above.
Photo © Jack Parsons






The base of the ridge of Point of Rocks provided a sheltered camping spot for El Camino Real wayfarers.

The base of the ridge of Point of Rocks provided a sheltered
camping spot for El Camino Real wayfarers.
Photo © Jack Parsons


In 1598, when 50-year-old Juan de Oñate took on the task of colonizing New Spain’s northern frontier for the Spanish Crown, he was given a peculiar order to survey New Mexico’s harbors and coastlines. As soon as he set foot on New Mexican soil, he realized the only waterway in sight was the Rio Grande. It was plentiful but not exactly oceanic. Still he followed the river’s northerly course to extend El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro parallel to the riverbank, assuring abundant water for his fellow travelers and their livestock.

Not long into his journey, however, Oñate abandoned a particularly rough riverside passage in favor of a shorter, more direct route through a stretch of desert known as the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man). The shortcut decreased the strain of travel for the colonists’ heavy wagons and herds of livestock, but there were tradeoffs: no water, no firewood and little natural feed for the animals for 90 inhospitable miles. Surviving the desert meant that travelers must ration their water and their energy and try not to get lost in the landscape’s tangled mesquite and tarbush maze.

The large basalt outcropping known as Point of Rocks is among the landmarks that travelers depended on to keep their bearings as they made their way through the desert. Located along the western edge of the Perrillo Hills, the Point of Rocks ridge looks over a section of El Camino Real that runs between the escarpment and the eastern edge of the floodplain beyond. The site was a day away from the San Diego paraje (rest stop), where voyagers watered their animals and collected what they hoped would be enough to carry themselves through the dry days ahead. By the time northbound travelers reached Point of Rocks, often after traveling through the cool of night, they were ready for a good rest. The base of the ridge provided a sheltered camping spot. For southbound travelers, it offered a welcome sign that water was only 13 miles away.

The Point of Rocks section of El Camino Real is now distinguished by a parallel line of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad and power lines that span its northern end. But the Jornada del Muerto is as rugged and remote as when Oñate blazed through. The area highlights evidence of the countless thousands of others who chose to take Oñate’s El Camino Real shortcut over the next 300 years, from Spanish colonial to Mexican to Territorial times. The most significant natural artifact is the rocky bluff itself. Rising hundreds of feet above the desert plain, the ridge remains a prominent point of reference and a strategic lookout post with sweeping views in all directions.

A one-half mile interpretive trail leads modern-day trekkers from the county road below to the ridgetop to experience the view from above. Looking over El Camino Real, it’s hard to distinguish its exact path through the sandy plain as parts of the original course have been obscured by centuries of erosion, wind and rain. Nonetheless, a group of stone cairns atop the ridge demonstrates the importance of this portion of the trail, while a U-shaped, stacked-rock wall at its base suggests it was a well-used resting point on El Camino Real. Though Point of Rocks is not identified on maps until the Territorial period, the remains of a campsite and a coal forge to the south further attest to the area’s long history of human use.

The name Point of Rocks was probably dubbed by traders who moved goods between New Mexico and Chihuahua during the Mexican and Territorial periods, or by American soldiers who, after the U.S. occupation, used the ridgetop as a lookout while attempting to protect travelers and traders from frequent Apache attacks. The closest reference to the area in the Spanish colonial record dates to May 23, 1598, when Oñate reported that his group was running low on water while camping at a spot assumed to be in the vicinity of Point of Rocks. When a dog wandered away from camp and returned with muddy paws, the pooch’s tracks led the group to two pools of water that held moisture from recent rains. Today the place where Oñate camped is formally known as the Paraje del Perrillo, the camp of the little dog. The exact location of the pools he discovered remains unknown.      

The lesson of the little dog was neither lost on Oñate nor on centuries of travelers to come. The most opportune time to cross the Jornada del Muerto was thunderstorm season, when rain replenished area springs and other waterways and desert grasses received moisture to grow. While ever-increasing traffic on El Camino Real signaled the economic and social progress of New Mexico, only Mother Nature could aid one’s progress through the Jornada del Muerto.   

Today, the leisurely climb up the Point of Rocks trail loop is an easy and energizing way to feel the captivating force of the Jornada del Muerto without having to be in the thick of the desert. The rail lines in the distance mark El Camino Real’s final demise as the trail was abandoned with the railroad’s arrival in the 1880s. The railway puts an iron bookend on the history of the original trail, but its modern-day path via El Camino Real keeps the trail’s legacy as the heart of trade and transportation in New Mexico alive.

 


Plan your visit
The Point of Rocks trailhead is located 30 miles from Interstate-25 on Sierra County Rd. A013 in Sierra County, NM. Please click here for detailed driving directions. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Point of Rocks bilingual interpretive trail is a well-marked, self-guided pathway that is open year-round during daylight hours. For more information, visit the Sierra County Tourism website or call 575-894-1968.

Point of Rocks is highlighted on the National Park Service’s El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro website.

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