There are many people who are proponents of taking the direct route between point A and B. I’m not one of them. Friends and family can attest to my propensity to find the most circuitous, indirect, Dukes of Hazzard back route available. This is one of many reasons I prefer to travel alone. For me, the journey is a big part of the experience. Even if I have appointments at point B, I try to allow time to meander on the way.

Make Time to Meander

When heading west out of Albuquerque, I invariably choose Old Route 66 or Highway 53 over I-40. That said, there is a stretch of “road” between the Route 66 casino and the Mesita exit that is a pothole strewn mess. Seriously. There are more holes than road.

Once I get to Grants, there are lots of options. It is like a “choose your own adventure story.” The decision varies based on interest, ultimate destination, and how much time is available. Between Grants and Gallup, I vastly prefer Highway 53 or Old Route 66 to I-40.

Old Route 66 is scenic, without the onslaught of semis barreling down the highway at 85 mph. However, on Highway 53 there are two national monuments, an ancient cinder cone volcano, ice caves insulated in lava tubes, the Continental Divide (and trail), Bluewater State Park, and Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico’s westernmost pueblo.

Is my favorite route obvious?

Highway 53 | The Scenic Route West

Highway 53 is the scenic route between Grants and Zuni (or Gallup if you have time). It is part of the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. The 76-mile sojourn skirts lava flows, rises out of the Rio Grande rift and crosses the Continental Divide, passing an ancient oasis that has attracted travelers for at least a thousand years. Eventually highway 53 cuts through Zuni Pueblo before crossing the border and becoming Arizona Highway 61.

Grants | Railroad Town and Crossroads

With Grants as the starting point for adventures on Highway 53, there are a variety of activities and distractions in the immediate area. Grants is a gateway to several national parks, national monuments, state parks, Native American pueblos, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Additionally, there are an abundance of outdoor recreation options in the vicinity, whether hiking, biking, camping, and/or fishing (Bluewater or Ramah Lakes).

In terms of hiking, there are a lot of choices, from hiking across lava flows or inside lava tubes or, alternately, seeking cooler temperatures and spectacular views on one of Mount Taylor’s trails. For visitors looking for a challenge and variety, the Continental Divide Trail cuts across both.

Grants banner for Hwy 53

Grants has been a hub for human traffic for over a thousand years. Chaco Canyon is about 70 miles north, with Chacoan outlier communities and trade routes radiating in all directions, including outlier more or less where Grants is today.

The first non-native settler was Don Jesus Maria Blea. He started ranching in the area with a few other families in 1864, establishing Los Alamitos (“Little Cottonwoods”). Less than twenty years later, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad contracted three Canadian brothers, Angus, Lewis, and John Grant, to build track through the area. When they reached Los Alamitos in 1881, they set up a coaling station. A tent camp for thousands of workers sprang up on the west side of the settlement. Grant’s Camp was named after the brothers. Though a post office was established with the name of Grants in 1882, locals continued to refer to it as Grant’s Camp. When the railroad arrived, they called it Grant’s Station.

Grants by the mining museum and visitor centerFrom Railroad to Route 66

Simon Bibo, an entrepreneur, purchased acreage from Don Jesus Maria Blea in the early 1880s. He opened a store and a hotel and sold the remaining property to other local businessmen. Within a couple of years, a commercial district sprang up along the tracks. The railroad was the economic anchor for the local economy throughout the late 1800s; however, it wasn’t the only industry. The water resources attracted ranchers and homesteaders and the timber in the Zuni Mountains attracted logging companies.

When Route 66 passed through town in the 1930s, motor inns and hotels opened, catering to thousands of tourists streaming west. During this same period of time, the agricultural industry was booming. The volcanic soil was ideal for carrots, temporarily making Grants the “Carrot Capital of the World.” However, a discovery in 1950 displaced the nutritious root vegetable with a far more hazardous local commodity.

Haystack Mountains

There’s Uranium in Them Thar’ Hills

A Navajo sheepherder, Paddy Martinez, found a peculiar, yellow rock in the Todilto Limestone at the foot of Haystack Butte in 1950. The butte is about 10 miles west of Grants. The rock was uranium. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began to mine in the area, creating a booming, albeit lethal, economic boom, as well as a surge of mineral right’s litigation between property owners. Locals were wandering around with Geiger counters looking for uranium deposits. Seems like direct exposure to uranium would be less than ideal.

Grants’ uranium reserves turned out to be one of the largest in the world. In fact, New Mexico has the second highest Uranium reserves in the United States, after Wyoming. The majority of the uranium deposits are dispersed along a rich mineral belt that stretches across Cibola and McKinley counties. Overall, Uranium mining between Grants and Gallup accounted for 63% of the uranium mined in the U.S. The uranium boom created about 6,000 jobs, and generated a lot of money for Grants and neighboring communities. The population boomed from 1200 to almost 12,000 between 1950 and 1980. The uranium mines were the main gig in Grants until the 1982-83 recession shuttered the mines. While uranium mining has ceased in the state, interest in reopening continues to ebb and flow. In the interim, the New Mexico Mining Museum preserves the history.

New Mexico Museum of Mining

Open 9:00 AM – 4 PM on Monday-Saturday, the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants highlights the role uranium has played in the community’s history.

Underground Tour – Take an elevator below the New Mexico Mining Museum for a walking tour through the a uranium mine display. Visitors can walk through examples of uranium mine workings complete with ore carts, dynamite drilling, mucking tools, and a lunchroom.

Additional Sights Nearby

Bluewater State Park | Bluewater is a serene lake at 7,554 feet above sea level. Located 25 miles west of Grants, the lake is surrounded by pinon-juniper forests, with views towards the Zuni Mountains. The park offers camping, hiking, birding, horseback riding and fishing, with some of the best tiger muskie fishing in the state of New Mexico.

Zuni Mountain Stupa is a Tibetan Buddhist temple of the Nyingma school in the Zuni Mountains in Grants, New Mexico, consecrated in 2009. A library of Buddhist texts from the Tengyur and the Kangyur is stored in the dome.

Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum | Commemorates the Los Angeles to Amarillo segment of the Transcontinental Air Transport, an early air mail provider. It consists of a lighted tower, a small building with a generator, and a concrete arrow which helped aviators find the correct direction.

Zuni Mt. Historic Auto Tour Interpretive Site

The American Lumber Co. began large-scale timber cutting in 1901, shipping 35-50 million board feet of lumber per year from the Zuni Mountains to markets in the east. During the logging heyday, 500 men worked to fill 160 logging cars pulled by six locomotives. The tattered remains of trestles, and overgrown stretches of rail, are what remains of the 55-mile railroad spur laid by the Atlantic and Pacific Line.

This self guided tour includes 18 interpretive sites along Forest System roads in the Zuni Mountains. 4WD is recommended. Begins at the Museum of Mining in Grants on Santa Fe Avenue (Route 66). Follow Santa Fe Avenue west to Highway 53, cross over Interstate-40, and turn right onto Zuni Canyon Road. Follow Zuni Canyon Road to the Forest boundary to begin the self-guided interpretive tour. A brochure is available at the Mt. Taylor Ranger District or the Mining Museum.

Route 66 in GrantsGrants Dining

  • Blake’s Lotaburger1021 E Santa Fe Ave, Grants, NM 87020, (505) 287-8438. Mon-Sun: 7AM-8PM
  • Route 66 Junkyard Brewery1634 E. Highway 66, Grants, New Mexico, (505) 285-5000. Tues-Thurs: 11AM-9PM, Fri-Sat: 11AM-11PM
  • Tasty Kitchen907 N 1st St, Grants, New Mexico, Grants, New Mexico, (505) 287-9012. Mon-Fri: 11AM-8PM, Sat: 3PM-8PM, Sun: Closed.
  • Wow Diner1300 Motel Dr, Milan, NM 87021, (505) 287-3801. Tues-Sun: 11AM-7PM, Mon: Closed.

Grants & Bluewater Lake Lodging

  • Bar S RV Park – Open all year, pets welcome with restriction, no tenting allowed, folding tent campers allowed. RV Park with 30 spaces available for overnight camping, gravel sites, 30/50 amps, WiFi at site, partial handicap access, restrooms, showers, laundry. (505)876-6002
  • Blue Spruce RV Park – Nice park with 25 space available, right off highway 40. Clean bathrooms and showers, 15/20/30/50 amps. Friendly people. Pets allowed. Free cable and wi-fi.
  • Bluewater Lake Horse and RV Lodge – Cozy rustic cabins, full hook-up RV sites. Horse motel, with corrals, stalls, and an arena. All RV sites with full water/sewer/electric hookups.
  • Grants KOA – 85-foot-long Pull-Thru RV Sites with up to 50-amp service and plenty of room for slide-outs, as well as Tent Sites and Camping Cabins.
  • Lavaland RV Park – RV Park with 19 spaces available for overnight camping, gravel sites, 30/50 amps, WiFi at site, partial handicap access, restrooms, showers, laundry, table at site, and nature trails.

Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce
100 Iron Avenue
P.O. Box 297
Grants, New Mexico, 87020
(505) 287-48902; 800-748-2142.

View of El Malpais from the sandstone cliffsLava Land

The landscape around Grants looks scorched, like the volcanic activity was recent, maybe last week. Undulating waves of lava extend to the southern horizon, bordered by Highway 53 on the west and Highway 117 on the east. Mount Taylor, a 11,000+ foot stratovolcano, dominates Grants’ eastern horizon. All of the lava fields in the area are associated with the Jemez Lineament, the same fault line responsible for volcanoes stretching from the White Mountains in Arizona to the Raton-Clayton Lava Field in eastern New Mexico, including the Jemez lava field and New Mexico’s super-volcano, the Valles Caldera.

Plate Tectonics

The Farallon Plate was an ancient oceanic plate. The plate was named after the Farallon Islands, which are located just west of San Francisco, California. It began sliding under the west coast of the larger North American Plate millions of years ago, as the super-continent Pangaea broke apart during the Jurassic period. Geologists call this process subduction.

Over millions of years, the central part of the Farallon Plate was completely subducted under the southwestern part of the North American Plate, which extended to approximately modern day Utah. The Farallon Plate pushed old island arcs and fragments of continental crustal material from other plates the North American land mass, accreting them to the North American Plate, like squishing two balls of dough together to form one. Geologists call these fragments from other plates terranes and much of western North America is composed of these accumulated, compressed crustal fragments.

Rio Grande Gorge
Rio Grande gorge, outside of Taos, is a great place to fully appreciate the geologic magnificence of the Rio Grande Rift.

Continental Uplift and Rift

The geology of New Mexico began over 1.7 billion years ago as several terranes merged. Then, as the Farallon Plate collided and subducted beneath the North American Plate, the North American Plate was pushed up (uplift), as you would expect when something very large is sliding underneath, compacting debris on the way.

A massive barrier reef developed in southern New Mexico, creating large deposits of gypsum, potash and salt. This is part of White Sand’s origin story. During the Mesozoic era, 66-250 million years ago, highlands shed sediment, creating alluvial fans, floodplains and deltas of sand and gravel, interspersed with a large dose of volcanic ash.

About 30 million years ago, the pressure associated with the uplift of the Rocky Mountains cracked the North American Plate, forming a massive fault line in central New Mexico, known as the Rio Grande Rift. The eastern and western pieces of the North Atlantic Plate started gradually pulling apart at the seam.

The Basin and Range Province that covers the Western United States and northwestern Mexico also formed at this time. Basin and Range areas are characterized by abrupt changes in elevation, alternating between narrow faulted mountain chains and flat arid valleys or basins. For example, the Sandia Mountains, located on the eastern edge of the Rio Grande Rift valley, are the eastern ridge bordering the Albuquerque basin.

El Malpais lava landZuni Bandera Lava Field

The Zuni-Bandera lava field encompasses Mount Taylor and Bandera crater, as well as the lava flows, cinder cones, and other volcanic features of El Malpais National Monument. The cluster of volcanoes is on the southeast margin of the Colorado Plateau, at the intersection of the Rio Grande Rift Basin and the Jemez Lineament. The area is considered a “transition zone,” where the thickness of the earth’s crust varies dramatically.

jagged, stark, basalt strewn terrain around Grants is a volcanologist’s playground, with millions of years of ongoing activity on display. Numerous volcanoes and lava flows generated a massive field of lava, extending for miles. The swath of volcanoes in this region form the second largest volcanic field in the Basin and Range Province. Though volcanic activity began millions of years ago, the field is still fairly active geologically. In fact, the most recent volcanic activity was a mere 800 years ago.

Mount Taylor Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor dominates the horizon east of Grants. It is the high point of the San Mateo Mountains and the highest point in the Cibola National Forest at 11,301 feet. Unlike the roiling lava fields below, Mount Taylor is heavily forested. The forests are a haven for wildlife and a resource for humans. The local population has harvested timber from Mount Taylor’s slopes since the Ancestral Puebloans started constructing their impressive villages in Chaco Canyon. More importantly, the wildflower covered, open meadows are a cool, summer oasis compared to the heat below. Mount Taylor was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s Most Endangered Places in April, 2009.

The beautiful peak is a dormant stratovolcano. Stratovolcanoes are built from layers, or strata, of viscous pyroclastic material, like lava, pumice, volcanic ash, etc. The layers stack on each other with each eruption, eventually forming a steep cone. Mount Taylor was repeatedly active from 3.3 to 1.5 million years ago. Repeated eruptions created lava domes and produced lava flows, ash plumes, and mudflows. Mount Taylor is part of a larger volcanic field. More on the geology of Mount Taylor.

The mountain sits on top of one of the richest known uranium deposits in the country. In fact, the uranium mining between Mount Taylor and Church Rock is one of the largest reserves in the world. Mining in the area between 1945 and the mid 1980s produced over 13 million tons of uranium.

Most of the area is governed by a 1872 mining law that allows mining regardless of impact on cultural or natural resources. Church Rock, east of Gallup, was the site of one of the worst uranium spills in U.S. history, in July, 1979.

The uranium deposits have been found in the Todilto layer.


The Navajo call Mount Taylor Tsoodził. In Navajo mythology, First Man created the sacred mountains with soil from the Fourth World, together with sacred matter, as replicas of mountains from that world. He fastened Mount Taylor to the earth with a stone knife. The supernatural beings Black God, Turquoise Boy, and Turquoise Girl are said to reside on the mountain.

The prominent peak is associated with the the color blue. In fact, the name translates to “blue bead mountain” or “Turquoise Mountain.” She is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo, defining the southern boundary of the traditional Navajo homeland. However, Mount Taylor is also sacred to the Acoma, Hopi, Laguna and Zuni people.

Hiking Mount Taylor

Compared to other mountain trails in New Mexico, Mount Taylor is not technically challenging, though the elevation may slow down people unaccustomed to high elevation. During the winter months, after a good snowfall, the mountain is popular with back-country skiers. In the absence of snow, hiking is an option on Mount Taylor all year. However, the best time is May-October. Early or late snowfalls are possible so check the weather forecast prior to heading to the mountain. Be prepared in terms of layering clothes and watching the weather.

Additionally, June-August is monsoon season, with regular, torrential afternoon thunderstorms. Getting caught on the bare slopes of Mt. Taylor in a lightning storm is bad news. During the summer months, it is best to hit the trail early and head back towards the treeline by 1 or 2 in the afternoon if the clouds start building into thunderheads.

Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) stretches 3,100 miles, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, crossing some of the most challenging, magnificent terrain in the country. It is the most challenging of the United States’ long-distance trails, one of the Triple Crown for thru-hikers. The other two are the Pacific Coast Trail (2,654 miles), and the Appalachian Trail (2,184 miles). New Mexico’s stretch of the CDT draws on numerous existing trails in the region, creating a patchwork trail system from the border of Mexico to the border of Colorado (and onward to Canada).

The CDT initially follows a path of the western side of the state, veering east from Zuni. In total, 30 miles of the CDT are within the El Malpais, winding through the Chain of Craters, a 25-mile string of cinder cones, intersecting the Acoma-Zuni Trail. From El Malpais, the CDT exploits the network of trails crossing Mount Taylor, heading northeast towards Cuba and the Chama River Wilderness Area on the way to Colorado.

There are numerous places to hike part of the CDT trail around Grants, as well as on the Highway 53 route. I have listed the trails based on location (El Malpais, Mount Taylor, etc.), with (CDT) notation as needed.

Gooseberry trailhead on Mount TaylorMount Taylor Trails

Gooseberry Springs Trail (CDT) is the most popular trail. It is a pleasant, scenic, 6.2-mile round trip hike to the summit, with just over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Though the summit of Mount Taylor isn’t above the treeline, most of the hike is on open slopes. There are no other comparable mountains nearby, which means the view is spectacular from any angle.

There is a metal elevation sign and hikers’ log on the peak for the obligatory photo op on the summit. It is also a great spot for a lunch break or to rehydrate, though the wind is not always cooperative. However, if you get caught in a “howler”, there is a copse of trees on the north side to buffer the wind.

FR 239 (CDT) is the trail leading north from Mount Taylor towards Cuba.

Mount Taylor Trailhead (CDT) is a loop add-on to Gooseberry Trail. Overall, this loop adds 1.6 miles to the 6.2 miles associated with Gooseberry Trail.

Water Canyon Trailhead is the short trail to La Mosca Lookout. This trail descends from the trailhead at the La Mosca saddle and continues 2.5 miles to the end of the trail. Water Canyon is part of an interior valley that formed on the eastern side of Mount Taylor.

La Ventana natural arch next to El MalpaisEl Malpais National Monument

The main visitor center for El Malpais is in Grants, right after you turn on Highway 53 from Old Route 66 and cross I-40. There are multiple areas to explore and two routes, with two routes to most of them, Highway 117 and Highway 53.

The best overlook is right off of Highway 117, on the east side of Grants. Spectacular sandstone cliffs on the east side of the lava flows provide an outstanding view and the opportunity to hike on the edge. Joe Skeen campground is in this area (more info below). Additionally, La Ventana, the natural sandstone arch, is a couple miles further south on the east side of the road if you are heading south.

Overall, there are five different areas to explore, including camping, caving, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. For more information on each area, outdoor recreation opportunities, and the geology of the area, check out the article about El Malpais National Monument.

Smorgasbord of Volcanoes

The lava flows around Grants are part of the Bandera-Zuni volcanic field, which include Mount Taylor and Bandera crater. Neither volcano was included in the Conservation Area.

El Malpais is considered the core of the Mount Taylor volcanic region, one of the most significant volcanic areas in the United States. The Federal Government protected the area  in 1987 to “preserve the geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the lava flows.” The National Conservation Area extends beyond the National Monument on all sides other than the north, where I-40 serves as the northern boundary. The National Park Service and BLM share responsibility for the area. Neither allow development.

There are five layers of lava from McCartys Crater, Bandera Crater, Cerro Hoya, El Calderon, and Twin Craters, with a variety of smaller volcanoes and volcanic features represented within the flows. In fact, one of the youngest volcanic features in the continental United States is McCartys crater, a shield volcano visible from Highway 117. McCartys erupted 500-1000 years ago, an event referenced in both Acoma and Zuni oral history.

El Malpais lava tube caveHiking

Many trails are marked with cairns in El Malpais, because there are no well-defined paths visible on the landscape. The only well-maintained trail is the 15-mile (roundtrip) Zuni-Acoma Trail (CDT), an ancient trading route that crosses four of the major lava flows between Highway 117 and Highway 53. NOTE: Follow the rock cairns. Walking off trail can be hazardous, because the lava has fissures that are several feet deep and can be unstable and brittle.

Approximately 30 miles of the Continental Divide Trail are within the El Malpais. The CDT winds through the Chain of Craters, a 20-mile string of cinder cones formed when an underground lava flow found a fissure. The largest cone, Cerro Alto, is 8,460 feet.

Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center
1900 East Santa Fe Avenue
Grants, New Mexico 87020
(505) 876-2783
(505) 761-8771

Park Map PDF

El Malpais offers free, primitive camping at the Joe Skeen Campground (11 miles south on 117, from exit 89 on I-40 and 2 miles south of the BLM Ranger Station). 10 campsites with picnic tables and a vault toilet. The National Park Service also allows primitive camping within El Malpais; however, a free permit is required. You can pick one up at El Malpais Information Center on Highway 53.

Bandera Crater and The Ice Caves

Bandera Crater and the Ice Caves are privately owned by the Candelaria family. The turnoff is on Highway 53, just west of El Malpais, before you cross the Continental Divide. The site is a study in contrast, with a short trail to look into Bandera’s crater or a short trail to the ice caves, where the lava tubes insulate so effectively that water pooled in the floor of the tube remains frozen, even during the heat of the summer. Both Acoma and Zuni knew about the ice caves and used them as an ancient form of air conditioning.

El Morro banner for Hwy 53

El Morro National Monument

El Morro is an oasis on the arid plains of western New Mexico. The entrance is on Highway 53, several miles before Ramah. A natural water cache at the base of the mesa formed a deep pool over the centuries, replenished by run off from rain and melting snow on the mesa top. The pool provides a year-round, reliable source of fresh water in an otherwise parched environment. As a result, the cliffs around the pool have served as a guest log for travelers passing through for at least 1000 years.

In total, there are more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs. Given the impact of erosion on sandstone, there’s no way of knowing when this tradition started; however, cumulatively, El Morro serves as a monolithic stone tablet, documenting three distinct periods: Ancestral Puebloans from up to 1,000 years ago, Spanish conquistadors from 1605 to around 1800, and American settlers and soldiers after 1800. For more detailed information, please check out the article dedicated to El Morro.

Encompassing 2 square miles, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smallest, and most peculiar, national monuments. Congress established the monument in 1906, shortly after passage of the Antiquities Act, to preserve the inscriptions and petroglyphs lining the base of the cliff, as well as the partially excavated pueblo village of A’ts’ina on top of the mesa. Archaeologists believe the Zuni constructed A’ts’ina between 1275-1350; however, the village was abandoned within 40 years.

El Morro trailsTrails

There are two self-guided hiking trails available to visitors. The lower trail leads visitors to the oasis, a year-round pool fed by rain and melting snow draining from the mesa’s summit. This ½ mile loop is handicap accessible, passing many of the notable inscriptions. It intersects the secondary trail loop at the base of the mesa. The second trail is approximately 2 miles, with the loop ascending the mesa and traversing the partially-excavated ruins of A’ts’ina. The second trail is a bit more strenuous due to the 250-foot ascent, but it provides a spectacular view of the surrounding mesas, forests and plains. Allow an hour for the low road, 1.5 hours for the high road.

El Morro National Monument
HC 61 Box 43
Ramah, NM 87321
(505) 783-4226

Desert Safety (pdf)

Zuni cliff dwellings near Ramah
Zuni cliff dwellings outside of Ramah


Established in 1876, Ramah was one of fifty locations in the New Mexico Territory settled by Mormon pioneers under the direction of Brigham Young. Located on Highway 53, west of El Morro, it is one of three settlements that remain today. Ramah was originally settled for the purpose of missionary work within the Zuni and Navajo communities. Many of the original stone houses are still standing, a testament to the hard work and skill of Ramah’s early founders. One of the historic buildings has been restored and preserved as a museum, displaying the heritage of the valley’s past.

Random Stop: There are Zuni Cliff Dwellings about a mile down County Road 157.

Ramah Mormon Trail

The Ramah Mormon Pioneer Trail is part of the National Trail System. The trailhead parking area is on the road to the Ramah Lake dam. The trail starts to the left of the restroom area and goes up to the top of the ridge. The trail continues north, eventually dropping down into the old rodeo grounds (Pasture Hollow), thru a deep arroyo, and then back up on the right-hand side. Trail Map

Zuni Pueblo banner for Highway 53Zuni Pueblo

The current day Zuni are a Federally recognized tribe, one of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. Most of the community lives in the Pueblo of Zuni on the Zuni River, a tributary of the Little Colorado River. The Zuni reservation encompasses about 450,000 acres in western New Mexico and Highway 53 rolls through the middle of the village.

The Zuni call their homeland Halona Idiwan’a or the Middle Place. Their tribal name is A’shiwi (Shi’wi), meaning “the flesh.” The name “Zuni” was a Spanish adaptation of a word of unknown meaning. The Zuni still speak their traditional language, a linguistic isolate with no relationship to any other Native American language. Linguists believe that the Zuni have maintained the integrity of their language for at least 7,000 years. Additionally, they continue to practice their traditional religion, with its regular ceremonies and dances, and an independent and unique belief system.

Depiction of Hawikuh
Depiction of the Zuni village of Hawikuh, one of the seven cities of Cibola.

Zuni History

Archaeologists believe the Zuni have been farming the Zuni River valley for 3000-4000 years. If the Ancestral Puebloans are not related to the Zuni, they were, at a minimum, trading partners based on proximity. You can see their influence at several Zuni historical sites.

Esteban Returns

Esteban was a Moorish slave. He led an advance scouting party for Fray Marcos de Niza’s Spanish expedition in 1539. He had visited the Zuni villages while trying to get to Mexico City with three other survivors of the failed Florida expedition. The Zuni told him not to come back. Unfortunately, the Spanish sent him back. As a result, the Zuni clan leaders killed him. however, they released the other two scouts who were with him. They told Marcos de Niza what had happened when he arrived with the rest of the scouting party. The priest promptly returned to Mexico City. He never entered a Zuni village.

Upon his return to Mexico City, the priest embellished his exploits dramatically, weaving an enticing tale of cities built with gold. His narrative caught the attention of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. He led an army of 2000 men north to Zuni Pueblo the following spring, arriving in July. Coronado’s troops attacked the community of Hawikuh prior to formally introducing himself. After a few months pillaging Zuni’s food and water supplies, Coronado and his troops moved on to Kuaua Pueblo on the banks of the Rio Grande. He started a war there within a few months, but that’s another story.

More about Esteban

More about Hawikuh

Spanish Province

Before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Zuni lived in six different villages. After the revolt, until the Spanish returned in 1692, they took refuge on top of Dowa Yalanne, a steep mesa 3 miles southeast of the village.

Dowa Yalanne from right off Highway 53
Dowa means “corn” and yalanne means “mountain.” The mesa has served as a sanctuary for the Zuni people repeatedly throughout their history.

Zuni Tours

Kenny Bowekay Zuni Pueblo
Kenny Bowekay, Zuni Archaeologist and Tour Guide

Kenny Bowekaty is a member of Zuni Pueblo and an archaeologist. Additionally, he proudly follows the traditional path forged by his ancestors. As a result, he is both a member and a spokesperson for the Zuni clans. Drawing on his unique background and experience, he creates tours that draw from the cultural heritage, unique history, arts and crafts, and scenic beauty of Zuni Pueblo. Whether you are interested in a cooking lesson, a quick tour of the Middle Village and Mission, or a full day of archaeological exploration, Zuni welcomes visitors into the community with unrivaled hospitality and warmth.

Zuni Visitor Center
PO Box 339
Zuni, NM 87327
(505) 782-7000


Lodging on Highway 53

Point of interest on Highway 53Camping on Highway 53

Mt. Taylor Ranger District
1800 Lobo Canyon Road
Grants, New Mexico USA 87010
(505) 287-8833

Ojo Redondo Campground

This campground is located southwest of Mt. Sedgwick, the highest peak in the Zuni Mountains. The campground is surrounded by ponderosa pine, douglas fir, and aspen trees, with a scenic meadow adjacent to the campground. In total, there are 15 primitive campsites. They allow tent camping and camping trailers, with picnic tables, and vault toilets. This is a FREE campground.

Coal Mine Campground

This campground is located about 10 miles northeast of Grants, in a grove of pinon, juniper, gambel oak, and mature ponderosa pine trees. There are 15 campsites. $5.00/site for overnight camping; $5.00/vehicle for day use (picnic/parking). Additionally, there is a historic bridge built by the Job Corps in 1967-1968 and a 1/4 mile nature trail.

El Morro Campground

El Morro National Monument operates a 9-site campground year-round. Each site has a graveled tent pad, picnic table and ground grill for fires. During the warmer months, water is available in spigots. Once the overnight low’s begin to reach freezing temperatures, water is turned off for the season. Overall, the length limit on all motor homes is 27 feet. There are no hookups for RVs. Also, one site, #5, is handicap accessible. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Joe McSween Campground (El Malpais)

This high desert, FREE campground is just off Highway 117. In total, there are 10 campsites, with no reservation system. Each site has a covered picnic table, fire grill, and tent space. Additionally, there are two vault toilets in the campground. A few sites have pull through parking, allowing lengths up to 50 feet.

NOTE: There is a steep arroyo at the entrance. Though the road is graveled and passable in most conditions, wait for water in the arroyo to dissipate before attempting to cross. Inspect the road before entering.

Highway 53 west of El MorroMcGaffey Campground

This campground is in the historic railroad logging and sawmill town of McGaffey, west of the Continental Divide in the Zuni Mountains at approximately 8,000 feet above sea level. Mature groves of ponderosa pine trees provide scenic settings and shade, while small hills provide some privacy. The CCC built the campground in 1937. In total, there are 29 campsites, 21 picnic sites, and 3 group sites available.

FEES: Day use picnic – $5.00/vehicle; Camping – $10.00/vehicle; Group sites: Wingate $100.00, Torreon $75.00, Tampico $50.00.

Quaking Aspen Campground

The campground provides a respite from the summer heat in a setting of aspen and mature ponderosa pine trees. The area has a rich history of railroad logging. The original town of McGaffey was built in the vicinity of McGaffey Lake a few miles down the road. The campground is approximately 6 miles south of Fort Wingate. There are 20 campsites available.

FEES: Day Use – $5/vehicle for the group site (maximum 7 vehicles); Overnight camping – $5/vehicle.

Lobo Canyon Picnic Area

The FREE day-use picnic area is located 10 miles northeast of Grants at approximately 7,437 feet. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the group picnic area in the 1930’s. Ponderosa pine, pinon, and juniper trees provide shade and some privacy. In total, there are 6 sites, with 1 group site available. Each site has a grill.

Highway 53 before Zuni Pueblo


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