The Old Spanish Trail … Following the Tracks of the Past
I didn’t start the day knowing I would be riding along an old Spanish trail. But that would be the path I would end up following.
I woke up at eight, got all my gear ready, and rode from our campground to the Abiquiu Visitors Center above the dam. I was hoping to get some information on trails to ride in the Abiquiu (ab-a-coo) Lake area of Northern New Mexico. George, Cindy (George’s wife), and Cindy (my wife) had gotten an early start to catch a ride on the Cumbres to Toltec train, a historic coal powered choo-choo in the town of Chama near the Colorado border. I had hitched a ride on that train a few years ago so I chose to stay near camp and ride my bike.
The ranger was eager to tell me about the trails circling around the campground. I told him I was somewhat interested in those trails, but asked if he had any idea of any other rides in the area. He handed me a sheaf of papers telling of the best ten hikes in the area. I then asked him about riding down by the Chama River. He went on to tell me about the Old Spanish Trail below the dam. I asked him a few more questions and decided I would check out the Old Spanish Trail. I liked the idea of riding on a path people actually used for commerce back in the 1800’s.
So, I started my GPS, jumped on my Specialized Camber Expert Evo and headed out from the Visitor Center.
I crossed the highway, stopped to take a photo of the river gorge (and the Old Spanish Trail) and started down the back of the earthen dam. My brakes began to howl as I dropped nearly 400 feet in less than half a mile.
At the end of the next to last switchback I passed by a door that opened into the side of the mountain. Some workers had trucks parked near the entrance. When I slowed to look into the door I saw a lighted, cement tunnel leading back into the mountain. The shaft reminded me of some scene in a James Bond movie.
I stopped to take a few photos of the water coming out of the bottom, once again forming the river that flows into Abiquiu Lake, the Chama River. The water was a milky brown.
I was amused by a sign posted next to the outlet stating, “WARNING,” and below, “WATER MAY BE DISCHARGED IN THIS AREA AT ANY INSTANT … IT IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.” The bottom of the sign said, “KEEP AWAY.” Close by another sign said something like, “WHEN SIREN SOUNDS BEWARE OF RAPID RISE IN WATER LEVEL.” I had to laugh. Abiquiu Lake was so low the water didn’t even reach the bottom of the dam, and the volume being released at that moment would hardly float my kayak!
I cruised down the road (Old Spanish Trail) which directly parallels the river, keeping my ears tuned for the siren!
Just after two tenths of a mile farther I came to a split in the road. The left side dropped to some picnic spots right on the banks of the river. A pit toilet was provided along with picnic tables. A couple of fellows were fishing from the shore. I had to wonder how the fish would taste coming out of the murky water.
After taking a few snapshots I rode back up and followed the main road. Just above the picnic area I found the sign which explained why the road was called the Old Spanish Trail. Here is what the sign said.
The Old Spanish Tail
The Old Spanish Tail followed trails long used by Native American traders and hunters. In 1829 New Mexico trader Antonio Armijo and sixty men used this trail to travel from Abiquiu to (the) San Gabriel Mission in California.
Armijo became the first Hispanic tracer to take mules laden with woolen goods from Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico) to Alta California. Armijo returned to Santa Fe in 1830 with 400 highly prized mules and horses demonstrating that a trade route to California could be a profitable venture.
The present day version of the Old Spanish Trail was a finely groomed dirt road for the most part. The Old Spanish Trail (now called County Road #162) stayed next to the river for 2.2 miles (from the bottom of the dam) then turned away from the river and up a steep incline. I had a strange feeling knowing ancient New Mexicans had walked and ridden their horses down the same path hundreds of years ago.
Instead of climbing the hill I chose to take a singletrack squeezed between the Chama River and a cliff face. I am not sure if the Old Spanish Trail followed the river, as I was doing, or the road heading up the hill. I know I was anxious to ride a little singletrack instead of a freshly graded dirt road.
Before I could get very far I had to pass through a hiker/biker gate with two interesting signs posted on the adjacent fence.
One of the signs stated, “WASH YOUR GEAR” and below continued, “STOP THE SPREAD OF WHIRLING DISEASE.” Cindy looked this up and found the disease is caused by a parasite and causes a deformation and neurological damage which actually does make the fish swim in circles!
The other sign asked people not to drive across the river. I am not sure how anyone could since a fence separated the road and the river.
I continued to follow the river 1.6 miles … sometimes on singletrack, sometimes along old sandy tire tracks, but eventually merging back onto County Road #162 when it came down from the hills above.
I don’t know how many times I was stopped in my tracks by the overwhelming beauty of the cottonwood trees. The contrast of their dark branches to their golden leaves took my breath away.
As I maneuvered along by the river I came across some of the largest ant hills I have seen (I know they are bigger in Africa).
After traveling a total of 6 miles down the river the Old Spanish Trial became paved. At times the road passed along the shore of the Chama River. At other times it went around farms and up onto hillsides.
About 10 miles into the ride I came to Highway 84, and the end of County Road #162. I took a right turn, wanting to check out the Pueblo Abiquiu.
Just a couple hundred feet up Highway 84 I noticed the sign for the pueblo and turned onto County Road #189.
I learned quite a bit about the Abiquiu Pueblo just by riding up the main street for a mile.
First of all, the pueblo was situated in a small canyon with a beautiful creek splitting a dense grove of trees and bushes. Housed crowded the stream yet many were set on the less plush mountain sides.
Although the houses and yards seemed to be in decent shape I was disturbed by the number of beer cans, coke cans, beer bottles, whiskey bottles, and other containers on the side of the road. I kind of wish I had brought a plastic bag to collect the recyclables.
Several cars passed me. Most drivers waved to me, although a little hesitantly. I am pretty sure they do not have too many strange mountain bikers coming into their neighborhood. I think they waved due to their general friendly dispositions.
Beware of Dogs
As I passed a couple of houses I noticed BEWARE OF DOG signs on the fences surrounding their front yards. Usually I would take that to mean if I enter the yard I must deal with a dog. However, these dogs did not stay in their yards. They quickly found the holes in the fences and charged out. Twice I had to dismount and hold my bike between me and a dog as I crept past!
At almost exactly a mile I came to an open gate and another sign announcing the beginning of another pueblo. I decided I had seen enough and turned around to head down the hill. I made sure I was at high speed when I passed the two houses with the aggressive dogs. Both looked at me but I was past them before they could even get out of their fence.
Directions to Plaza Blanca
When I got back to Highway 84 I stopped and pulled out my list of the Ten Best Hikes the ranger had given me. I had notice a couple of the hikes were just off of Highway 84 on the opposite side of the Chama River. I was supposed to cross the bridge over the river and look for County Road #155. That was the easy part. From then on I could not make sense out of the instructions. Here is how they read … see if they make sense to you!
“A spectacular assembly of mysterious white sandstone formations. A mile north-west of Bode’s Store, take County Road #155 east. Go past the all-weather road to the Dar al Islam mosque. The next dirt road left (the Hunt Ranch, on your right) is the main entrance to the mosque and to Plaza Blanca. After a mile, take a right at the fork. Park near the gate.”
“All-weather road?” I just saw a dirt road. I don’t know what an all-weather road is.
“Hunt Ranch?” Never saw anything resembling a ranch.
“After a mile, …” A mile on what road? County Road #155?
Searching for Plaza Blanca?
So I fought a wind as I pedaled up (a dirt) County Road #155 for a mile. At that point I came across a house, clearly not a mosque. However, next to the driveway to the house was an elaborate, but severely weathered gate protecting nothing but acres and acres of weeds. A small plaque was mounted on one of the side walls reading, “Dar al Islam Cemetery.”
When I looked behind the house and farther down the road to the east I could see no rock formations with any signs of white rock. So I turned around and (aided by the wind) headed back toward the highway.
Just before reaching the highway I took the road to the north, the one with the blank wooden sign. As I was slowly pedaling (and looking for the mosque) I noticed one of the most incredible creations by Mother Nature. A slender mud tower holding up a huge hunk of rock more than 20 feet up in the air. I took out my camera and quickly took a couple of photos just in case the thing was to fall before I could get closer.
I rode my bike as far as I could and then hiked to the base of the hoodoo. What looked to be a short hike took me about five minutes of scrambling up the hillside. I was surprised again when I notice another hoodoo that looked like a dog just down the hill from the large one.
Upon returning to my bike I rode across the canyon to what looked like ancient ruined buildings of marble. As I got closer the buildings turned to formations made of white clay. Erosion has a way of creating facades which have sculptured columns closely resembling those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This idea made me wonder if those people were inspired by nature’s sculpting.
Bucket of Bones
I decided I would eat my snack when I got into the shade of the white hills. As I was climbing the hill to the facade I started to detect a most horrid scent. At the top of the hill I saw an old blue ice chest surrounded by a black cloud. Finally my intellect kicked in and I realized the cloud was a swarm of insects circling something dead. My curiosity won and I rode right by the mess and looked inside. What I saw was an ice chest full of raw bones, covered with millions of flies. I am not sure what kind of bones they were. That they might be human bones crossed my mind, and I briefly wondered if I should report the find. But, then I figured someone would have already looked out there if someone was missing.
I kept pedaling until I reached the shade and escaped the odor and then sat to eat my Salty & Sweet nutrition bars. I was glad I did not have a roast beef sandwich!
As I sat and looked around at the white cliffs I wondered I had found Plaza Blanco. The hills were definitely blanco (white) but I am not sure whether I had found the plaza (courtyard).
After eating I found a road that took me up into the mountains way to the east. I later learned the road was called “Balancing Rock Road.” How appropriate I thought. But this road kept going and going into the mountains.
Finally I found a sand wash that I knew would take me on the north side of the white hills (the side I had yet to visit) and started down. I took a photo of the white rock formations before I started down.
Descending the Wash
The wash tread alternated colors as I descended. At first I was riding on soft, brown sand … which was a struggle. Then the bottom of the wash would turn to bright white, giving me a semi solid surface to accelerate. But then hitting the soft, brown sand was like one of those runaway truck stops … my tires sinking and my momentum coming to a grinding halt. I could still manage to keep moving in the sand but looked forward to the next white stretch.
At one point the wash took me to a huge, flat, white area. I thought, “Could this be the Plaza Blanca?” After all, it fit the description. But then again, where was the mosque?
Still Searching for the Mosque
The wash took me right along the base of the white cliffs, and then all the way down to a busy Highway 84.
While coming down the wash I noticed a large building to the west. So, once I made the highway I rode northwest to see if the building was the missing mosque. About a half mile up the highway I came to the sign for the building … Abiquiu Elementary School!
The Trip Back
So I gave up on trying to find the mosque. From the elementary school I headed back toward the Old Spanish Trail. I only stopped a couple of times for photos. I took the dirt road over the hill instead of the singletrack along the river, hoping to see something different.
I cruised all the way up to the bottom of the dam, then took a few good of swigs of water. I took a few minutes to get mentally tough and started up the switchbacks. The road was so steep I had to use my granny gear the entire ascent. I kept my legs moving quickly and just tried to keep in a good rhythm.
As I passed the tunnel I saw no worker trucks and the door was closed. A sign on the door said something like, “This shaft must be ventilated for an hour prior to human entry.” I thought to myself, “What could be in that tunnel?”
When I finally reached the top I crossed the road and entered the parking lot for the Abuquiu Lake Visitor Center. I rode to the back of the parking lot, turned off my GPS, took off my pack, and enjoyed the lake overlook.
After a few minutes I felt I was ready to try the ranger’s recommended “Abiquiu Lake Trails,” which started by the fence directly in front of me.
Following the Old Spanish Trail? Not great singletrack riding but quite beautiful and educational. If you are in the area I recommend this ride.
During most visits I take many more photos than I can place on a page. To view every image I captured … 72 photos in all, please visit my Photo Gallery Site.
The following link can give you all the stats for this ride … just click on the box below.
Would you like to try this ride? You can copy my GPX file from the GARMIN Link below.