This was our third vacation trip to New Mexico. Nearly two decades ago, we traveled in northern New Mexico, visiting Albuquerque; Santa Fe; Taos; Los Alamos; Las Vegas, NM; and Durango, Colorado (as a base for Mesa Verde National Park). During the course of that trip, we rafted down the Rio Grande, took a llama pack trip in Bandalier National Monument, and a horse pack trip in the Pecos Wilderness (where bighorn sheep ate horse rations out of our hands).
On our second trip three years ago, we concentrated our visit in the southeastern part of the state, flying to El Paso, TX and driving to Albuquerque by way of Guadalupe Mountains National Park (TX), Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Ruidoso (where we watched Brokeback Mountain and Heath Ledger get shot down at the Academy Awards on a gastopub television), White Sands National Monument, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Acoma Sky City, and Old Town in Albuquerque.
For this trip, we wanted to see the western and southwestern parts of the state. So, we flew to Albuquerque, rented an SUV and set off on I-40 west to Thoreau, New Mexico, where our adventure (and this account) begin.
Zuni Mountain Lodge
Lodging options between Grants, NM and Gallup, NM are completely non-existent--except for the Zuni Mountain Lodge, located 13 miles south of I-40 in the tiny hamlet of Thoreau, NM (pronounced Thoo-ROO). Most people stay at the Zuni Mountain Lodge because they want to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park via the southern route, and this is the closest lodging (56 miles away).
We stayed for five nights, visiting Chaco, Gallup and Zuni (for shopping), El Malpais National Monument, and El Morro National Monument, all on separate days. This was just the right amount of time to stay in the area. Zuni Mountain Lodge is, by far, the closest lodging to all these attractions and made a convenient staging location for our exploration of the area.
Zuni Mountain Lodge is a compound consisting of four rental houses (not available to travelers) plus the lodge building. All of the buildings in the complex are brightly painted wood and are of relatively modern construction (1970's?). If you're looking for a romantic getaway to a traditional stone-and-timber Western lodge set among pines you may be disappointed. But, if you're looking for very good accommodations, centrally located, in a quiet location, and have a bit of a sense of adventure, then this is the place.
The lodge is approached via a 13-mile (15-minute) drive south of I-40. The road (NM 612) first enters a scenic canyon, then opens onto an expansive vista of low forested mountains and ranch land. We found the drive calming and very pleasant--not at all a nuisance. The road travels through several small settlements and finally ends near the inn. Lodgers turn up a gravel road and park across from the inn at the end of the road.
We were greeted by Bob, the slightly eccentric owner and manager, and by one of the numerous friendly dogs that live at the inn. Bob escorted us to our room and gave you a tour of the facility. There's a pleasant gazebo in the yard with an obstructed view of Bluewater Lake (a sad little reservoir) off to the east.
Bob served breakfast and dinner (included in the tariff) in a sunny dining room. The meals were good, solid fare--not great cuisine--and Bob did his best to please his guests, especially at breakfast, where eggs are cooked to order.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the lodge is that Bob has several long-time boarders living in the lodge. These folks work at the hospital in Crownpoint, NM. Rental housing is very hard to come by in the area, so they stay at the lodge with their dogs. They joined us for breakfast and dinner, and then we joined them to watch television in the common room. The lodge sometimes felt more like a boarding house or a "movable feast" than a lodge, but we became very friendly with these long-term guests and their pets.
This lodging experience may not be for everyone. One overnight guest with whom we spoke at breakfast was a little disappointed that the lodge was not more like the traditional Western "national park" lodge. But, we were flexible and willing to enjoy the company of a rambunctious and lovable group of puppies and dogs. We were very glad we spent five nights here.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
As our first excursion, we decided to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Wednesday, May 13; visiting Chaco was one of the main reasons we decided to vacation in western New Mexico. The park is 56 miles north of Thoreau, but the last 20 miles are on a Navajo nation dirt road whose condition restricts driving speed to 25 mph or less; the whole journey took 1:50.
We got oriented at the Visitors’ Center, and then headed out on the one-way loop road. We stopped and walked around at the first ruin, Hungo Pavi, but it is only partially excavated and in relatively poor condition. While at Hungo Pavi, we saw another visitor who told us that his relatives recommended spending nearly all the time at Pueblo Bonito and not bothering with the other ruins, so off we went.
Pueblo Bonito is the most famous of the Chacoan ruins. The largest ruin in the canyon, Pueblo Bonito was the center of the Chacoan world. Planned and then built in stages, Pueblo Bonito was inhabited from the mid-800s to 1200s. It eventually grew to four floors with over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Pueblo Bonito is one of the most extensively excavated, studied, and preserved sites in North America. We walked throughout the structure for about an hour, trying to imagine living here and marveling at the wonderful and distinctive stonework in the walls.
After completing our tour of Pueblo Bonito, we had lunch (with beggar ground squirrels) under a picnic shelter, and then it was off to hike the Pueblo Alto Trail, which afforded overlooks of Kin Kletso (another ruin that was built in two stages, the first from about 1125, and the second from 1130; it is a great house with 100 rooms and five enclosed kivas) and Pueblo Bonito from above, and of the Pueblo Alto complex on the mesa high above.
The Pueblo Alto Trail begins at the base of the cliff behind Kin Kletso. The trail ascends to the top of the mesa via a narrow crack in the sandstone cliff; a huge slab of sandstone has partially separated from the cliff face, and rocky debris has collected in the crack, making it possible to walk atop the rocks 200 feet to the top of the mesa.
Once on top, we walked over to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook, and then further up onto the mesa to the Pueblo Alto complex of ruins. After circling the ruins, we headed back to Kin Kletso.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Finally, before leaving the park, we stopped at Pueblo del Arroyo sitting alongside Chaco Wash, a deeply eroded arroyo. Early white settlers reported that the wash was broad and shallow, but now it is highly eroded, deeply incised, and dry. Overgrazing by white ranchers and conversion of the native grasslands to non-native species have increased runoff, which has, in turn, led to significant erosion of the wash.
I think that I may have enjoyed Pueblo del Arroyo the most of any of the ruins. It is modest and accessible in scale, and it is very well preserved. It also features a few interesting architectural elements not found in the other ruins.