Wandering the West | ParkRecord.com

Wandering the West

by Larry Warren, Park Record columnist

A couple of our neighbors have just celebrated landmark birthdays, and since they’re so close by, the moment shouldn’t go unnoticed.

In southeast Utah, at the Four Corners Monument, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico touch. You can go there, put a hand each in Utah and Colorado and a foot each in Arizona and New Mexico. After you’ve gotten your picture, quickly get out of the way so the next person can make a fool of himself too.

Utah didn’t get into the Union until 1896 because Congress was leery of a state where men could marry as many wives as would have them. When the Mormon Church abandoned that practice, Utah got in as number 45.

Yesterday, Arizona celebrated one hundred years of statehood. How romantic of Congress to admit its 48th state on Valentine’s Day! Only Alaska and Hawaii came later, in 1959. And last month, New Mexico celebrated its first century as the 47th state.

Although we share only about a centimeter of common border, Utah and New Mexico share a history as old land holdings of Mexico, and Spain before that. And of the old Spanish possessions, no state reflects that heritage more than New Mexico. You can’t escape the history of the place, nor would you want to.

Any trip to the Land of Enchantment needs to include a long stop in Santa Fe. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in America, tracing back to a first settlement of 1608. The 1610 San Miguel Chapel still stands there more than four hundred years after it was built, making it the oldest church in the United States.

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Santa Fe today is rich with art galleries and fancy lodging, but venture beyond. It works as a good jumping-off point to visit other truly amazing historic places, like still-occupied pueblos such as Taos Pueblo and Santa Clara. Eight of the continuously occupied pueblos lie short drives north of Santa Fe, which the Los Angeles Times declares the "top place to visit in the U.S. in 2012." (I never like these lists they bring out the crowds.)

Pueblo Indians still live in the pueblos, which are like multi-story apartment buildings made of adobe and cedar logs. Some pueblos date back to the 1300s. The Santa Clara Pueblo dates to 1550, but the leaders there know how to change with the times they have a 27-hole golf course and a casino. Not all pueblos welcome visitors, but most have annual celebrations generally in the summer where the public is welcome to take a glimpse into a way of living relatively unchanged except for the satellite dishes rising from the adobe.

Albuquerque is home to one of the newest and more unusual national monuments around. A rim of volcanic rock dominates the city’s western horizon. Look closely and you’ll see some of more than 24,000 petroglyphs scratched in by early Spanish settlers and ancient natives. The rim rock runs 17 miles and all of it is protected as Petroglyph National Monument.

Go in early October, get up early, and watch some 600 hot air balloons fill the sky over New Mexico’s largest city. The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival is the largest concentration of aerial balloonists anywhere.

The Sangre de Cristo mountain range and many others offer the usual mountain recreation. And make sure you spend the better part of a day hiking Chaco Canyon, home of the densest and most exceptional collection of abandoned pueblos in the Southwest.

Chaco is a wonder, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site sacred to the Pueblo and Hopi people. It appears to have been a hub in a network of villages that comprised a trade route clear down to the tropics of Mexico thousands of miles south. It may also have been laid out to predict the phases of the sun and the moon, like Stonehenge. Chaco is a National Historical Park and an amazing collection of ruins.

Altogether there are 16 national parks, monuments and trails in New Mexico, along with 34 state parks. Don’t forget White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns.

New Mexico also has the most diversified population in the U.S. Here the population is 45 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Native American, with a substantial, but minority, population of Anglos.

Like all great places we visit in our wanderings, there’s too much to see in too little time. Happy birthday, New Mexico!

The vitals:

Park City to Santa Fe: 630 miles

Websites: http://www.nmcentennial.org ; http://www.newmexico.org

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.