Route 66 may have its kicks, but a dusty, mostly hidden and sporadic trail winding its way from Mexico City to Santa Fe, N.M. is still king, as the oldest of the Southwest highway systems.
For 400 years, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the nation’s oldest and longest “highway,” was the only road into New Mexico and the Southwest, bringing thousands of settlers from Mexico and Spain into the region. Its name translates as, “Royal Road to the Interior.”
Even the famed Santa Fe Trail did not come along until 1821, connecting New Mexico to the United States frontier for the first time.
Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, a hard-to-see remnant of this important artery of Southwest colonization crosses the Corps’ Galisteo Dam project and nearby Kewa Pueblo lands.
Elsewhere in the state, El Camino Real is a visible road, celebrated with tour stops and its own visitor center near Socorro. Other trail segments hop and skip across the New Mexico landscape.
Don Juan de Oñate received permission from the King of Spain to conduct the first colonization expedition far into the interior of what is today New Mexico, 1,500 miles north of Mexico City.
Oñate’s trail from Zacatecas to Santa Fe became the third leg of the Royal Road. By the early 1600s, El Camino Real was in regular use bringing colonists, missionaries and supplies to the growing Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande.
The railroad’s arrival in the 1880s made both the El Camino Real and the Santa Fe trails obsolete.
Interstate Highways I-10 and I-25, from El Paso to Santa Fe, are today’s Camino Real, closely following the route of the historic trail, except between Las Cruces and Socorro. There, 1-25 follows the Rio Grande, rather than the 90-mile waterless shortcut through the desert.