from New Mexico Magazine, February 2001

Makin' Tracks, Hiking La Bajada

Forgotten Route 66 stretch provides a pathway to recent history

Standing at the mouth of the narrow cut in the rugged black caprock of La Bajada Mesa, it was galvanizingly clear why unsuspecting motorists westbound on Route 66 during 1926-32 could vividly recall this aspect of their sojourn several decades later. This bajada, or descent, had been unexpected.

The intimidating state Highway Department sign hadn't helped:

Warning Sign

Back then, enterprising Santa Feans had parked and waited and, for a pittance, offered to ride the brakes of whatever sheepish motorists were driving down the tricky roadway that plunged among the boulders and slithered behind a bend.

Chiseled into the weathered chin of a 10,000-year-old, black basalt-crowned, clay and ash mesa that in Spanish colonial times divided the region of el rio arriba ("upper river") from el rio abajo ("lower river"), this steep talus slope had forced the state Highway Department's hand. Convicts and dynamite had reshaped the rocky ribbon of road in the winter of 1923-24. They had widened it in places, eliminated seven hairpin curves and reduced the grade by two degrees. Two years later, this segment and the older road to its north and south became part of newly designated U.S. Highway 66.

La Bajada Hill

The beginning of the 500-foot-high descent was so narrow and slippery as I hiked the old road, I had almost missed the state's oldest surviving Route 66 ad. Painted in red for northbound motorists on the long, towering wall of lava rock were the words "Santa Fe Camp." Operational before 1926 and lasting until after 1944, Edwin and Frank Andrews' camp, on the north bank of the Santa Fe River west of Guadalupe Street, was once the capital's largest tourist camp. I wondered if noted Albuquerque writer Erna Freemason had spotted it after her countless ascents in a Franklin touring car, passengers from Albuquerque's Alvarado Hotel in tow, and had let her relax a bit. One time near the top, she'd had a near accident (even though she'd traveled the route on a regular basis) when she took her foot off the brake and slid back.

Silhouetted above the turns in the roadway, two cruder cuts reminded me that this had once been part of the primo Mother Road, the famed Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or Royal Road to the Lands in the Interior. The oldest European highway in the U.S., it had linked Spain with its colonists for almost 225 years.

La Bajada
Cars carefully navigate the switchbacks in 1928. Residents of Cochiti Pueblo made a tidy business by pulling wayward motorists back on the road with horses.

Rounding the most dangerous hairpin, I was startled to find two boulders the size of steamer trunks that had tumbled to near centerline. Ten feet beyond the barren outer shoulder was sky. Some 375 feet straight below, I spotted the tops of cottonwood trees meandering toward the mouth of Santa Fe River Canyon.

The ledgelike, blind curve reminded me of La Bajada's searing legacy. During accidents, bad weather and breakdowns, negotiating the mesa's south face had sometimes taken several hours. The earliest motorized vehicles, lacking fuel pumps, had ascended in reverse. Cloth-lined brake pads had often caught fire --- drivers and passengers frantically tossed dirt on them to put the fire out. Recalling his 14-year career driving for Hunter Clarkson's Indian Detours, Santa Fe's Tony Mignardo, age 87, remembers hauling $4-a-ticket bus passengers safely down La Bajada. From Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel to Albuquerque's Alvarado Hotel, the trip took just under three hours in good weather.

The hike of this 0.7-mile stretch down old Route 66 ended at its juncture with the 1908 road halfway down. Thistle and beavertail cactus had given way to occasional juniper trees. Far below, as the grade diminished among the turns, Indian petroglyphs adorned the rocks along the roadway's upper shoulders.

Farther below, the Santa Fe River trickled past the 1925 tourist cabins of Herb Walden. From the late auto mechanic's place, dirt 66 raced south toward the abandoned Santo Domingo Trading Post. A mile downriver slept the emerald village of La Bajada. In the distance shimmered Cochiti Lake, the Rio Grande, and Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos.

The 0.8-mile return hike zig-zags along the steep, pre-World War I roadway. Its hairpins near the summit, as noticeable as a signature flourish, had once been the most difficult that those first motorists encountered. (By hiking the 0.7-mile old Route 66 road and returning on the 0.8-mile 1908 road, hikers can essentially make a loop.)

Atop the breeze-brushed mesa again, I marveled at the 360-degree panorama. A couple of miles or so to the southeast, motorists whizzing by on Interstate 25 today dismiss La Bajada as something taking three minutes' time. But for nearly a quarter century before the state Highway Department had cut and paved a second U.S. Highway 66 in 1932, which disappeared beneath that interstate, there had been a test of mettle known as La Bajada. The original still lures off-road Mother Roaders.

Santa Fe tourism consultant Michael E. Pitel is happily immersed in several Route 66 projects, having retired two years ago after 22 years with the state tourism office.

Where: 20 road miles (32.2 kilometers) southwest of Santa Fe Plaza, via Agua Fria or Cerrillos Roads to Airport Road, southwest past the State Road 559 intersection for 3.3 miles (5.3 km) via County Road 56. Turn right at Camel Tracks Training Site sign. High-clearance vehicle is required; in clement weather only. Mesa's edge via deeply rutted, unmarked, primitive dirt road is 8.8 miles (14.2 km) away. Climb hill, turning south; pass whitegated entrance (on right) to gravel pit. Continue south 7.7 miles (12.4 km); cross two cattle guards. Follow westernmost power lines (avoid left forks at first two Ys). Spot rim of Santa Fe River Canyon far to left; take left fork at third Y. Drive 3.9 miles (6.3 km) to caprock mouth of 66. Round-trip switchback hike is 2.1 miles (3.2 km) long. Allow 2.5 hours for round-trip drive, plus two hours for hike (longer for breaks). Hike is on Santa Fe National Forest land.

Why: Winding descent is a remnant of 1926-32 segment of 66, built in 1923-24. Ascent is a remnant of steeper road, built in 1908. Enjoy panoramic vistas, raptors and rabbits. Watch out for snakes.

When: Late spring and fall are best.

Difficulty: High-clearance vehicles only to cross La Bajada Mesa. Fill gas tank beforehand. Take sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirt, plenty of water, snacks and cell phone. Hike is moderately difficult.

Services: Gas at Airport Road convenience store near State Road 599; none in village of La Bajada.

More information: Public Lands Information Office, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1474 Rodeo Road, Santa Fe 87501 (505) 438-7542). Recommend purchase of $6 Santa Fe National Forest Map and $5 U.S. Geologic Survey (Tetilla Peak) Map.

Oil cans, petroglyphs and other artifacts spanning centuries can still be found along the old alignment.

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