From where I stand, the high desert of New Mexico spreads out before me, unfurling like a rugged blanket beneath low-hanging clouds. In one direction, a ruin looms on the landscape; behind it, the Sangre de Cristo mountains are shrouded by lingering fog. In the other direction, brown grass flutters in the wind, and a nearby cactus proffers its yellow fruit toward the sunlight. At an altitude of 6,940 feet, it’s chilly and a bit blustery, but the vista is beautiful and the land hums with an undeniable energy.
It is early March and I have made an impromptu visit to Pecos National Historical Park, located 30 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. From the moment I arrive at Pecos, I can tell there is something different about this place. For one thing, it’s practically empty, especially when compared to other national park sites.
“We are one of the least visited parks in New Mexico,” says Becky Latanich, chief of interpretation and education at Pecos National Historical Park. “And that’s kind of a lovely thing to be.” I can’t help but agree. When I embark on the 1.25-mile Ancestral Sites Loop Trail on a late Sunday morning, there’s not a single soul in sight.
A historical goldmine
In addition to being free of crowds, the park’s history is remarkable. Representing an incredible intersection of cultures and historical events, it offers much more than initially meets the eye. “The thing that makes Pecos the most unique from other sites in the Southwest is that there is so much history that happens in a relatively small area,” Latanich says.
The list of historical events is, indeed, long. As an archeological site, the park practically offers a physical timeline of Southwestern civilization. It depicts the lives of the early Pecos, a community of Native people of the pueblo tradition who lived on the mesa. It also contains the story of Spanish missionaries, relaying the oft-repeated tale of European colonization—but with a unique twist. Situated along the historic Santa Fe Trail, it’s the site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, a Civil War skirmish that stopped Confederate troops from gaining control of New Mexico. Lastly, it serves as an example of dude ranching during the 20th century.
The story of the Pecos
As I walk along the designated path, I find myself immersed in the story of the Pecos people, who resided here for hundreds of years. This particular landscape—high on the ridge, close to water sources, and tucked beneath the low-slung mountains—served as the perfect backdrop for the Pecos to prosper, and to ultimately become one of the biggest pueblos in the region.
Out of everything I see in the park, I am most fascinated by the kivas. The below-ground, rounded rooms, made out of dirt, water, and straw, were typically used for political meetings or religious ceremonies. And while remnants of these subterranean rooms are found throughout the southwest, Pecos has two reconstructed kivas that can be accessed via rough-hewn ladders.
To enter the kiva, I climb down the ladder into a circular, earthen room. Shafts of light stream from the entryway above, but otherwise the kiva is dark and warm—a welcome respite from the wind. In addition to being a ceremonial space, Latanich explains that the kiva had different functions within the Pecos community. “Men who were weavers in society would go down there on a hot day and would weave their turkey feather blankets or their rugs,” Latanich says. “They’d talk, solve problems, and do what people do when they come together as a group.”
Two cultures combined
Back above ground, I continue along the Ancestral Sites Loop Trail. When I reach the remnants of the convento—or the church convent—the story of Spanish influence unfolds. When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado first arrived in this region in 1541, he was seeking two things: gold and to establish a new colony for Spain. And while the Pecos people were able to redirect Coronado and his men, and avoid being overtaken, their cunningness was short-lived. Just 50 years after Coronado, the Spanish Missionaries arrived and it became clear that the Europeans were here to stay.
The arrival of the Spanish missionaries left an indelible print on the pueblo. Over time, some of the Pecos actually began to align with the missionaries, resulting in an ideological divide between the Northern and Southern Pueblos. Historians speculate that the South was more allied with the new arrivals.
In 1680, Po’pay, an inspiring leader from the Northern San Juan Pueblo, united many of the region’s pueblos and successfully revolted against the Spanish. This particular incident is the first example in U.S. history of an Indigenous people finding victory in the expulsion of European influence.
During Po’pay’s revolt, the original Spanish Mission Church at Pecos was torched to the ground. Latanich likens the building to a “mega church”—at 5,000 square feet, the whitewashed building had six bell towers and 20-foot-high walls.
Today, the remnants of a different church stand at Pecos, one that was built 12 years after the revolt when the Spanish returned to the mesa. While time may have eroded the church down from its original 3,000 square feet, its remaining footprint still feels massive. Everything from the adobe bricks to the intricate floor tiles all seem to fit together like a mosaic.
Leaving and returning
By the time I finish walking the trail loop, I’ve learned that the Pecos left their pueblo in 1838. After suffering a dramatic decline in population at the hand of Comanche raids, drought, and disease, the remaining survivors moved on to other pueblos across New Mexico.
To recognize the Pecos descendants and their rich history, the park now hosts an annual event called Feast Day. Every August, community members from both the Pueblo of Pecos and the neighboring Pueblo of Jemez are invited to honor the patron saint of the Pecos Mission. In addition to a church service, the day culminates with traditional dances from the Jemez and lots of freshly baked biscochitos, the official cookie of New Mexico.
Pecos is also making some exciting new structural updates, including a revamped museum and a second visitor center that will showcase more in-depth stories about the Civil War, Santa Fe Trail, and dude ranching. I long to return and walk my dog on one of the longer park trails, obtain a permit to fly fish on the Pecos River, or partake in a full moon pueblo tour on a warm summer evening. “It’s a magical discovery,” Latanich says to me as I leave.
If you go
Due to the spread of COVID-19, many points of interest are currently closed and travel is not recommended. Please check with businesses and parks directly for the latest information on hours, and follow your state and local guidelines. Stay safe!