The Don Juan de Onate Trail invites today’s travelers to follow in the hoof prints of the Spanish conquistador and his band of 400 colonizers in 1598 as they journeyed from New Spain (Mexico) north to find the fabled Cities of Gold in what is now northern New Mexico.
Onate and his men, traveling El Camino Real (The Royal Road) that stretched from Mexico City to northern New Mexico reached Paso del Norte (El Paso) on April 30. He claimed the land in the name of the King of Spain and continued days later along the Rio Grande to eventually establish the first Spanish capital at Okkay Owingeh Pueblo. The drive along the trail (Highway 28) is one of the Las Cruces area’s most scenic routes crossing and flanking the Rio Grande from El Paso to historic Old Mesilla.
The Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark, represents an excellent spot to understand the area’s bicultural roots and begin an afternoon trek along the Don Juan de Onate Trail. The 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and established the village as part of Mexico. Mesilla became part of the United States in 1854 with the signing of the Gadsen Purchase on the plaza.
A number of historic 19th century stucco-clad adobe structures clustered around the plaza impart the look and feel of Old Mexico. Wander the plaza to learn about the colorful past of what in the 1880s was the largest town between San Diego and San Antonio. Mesilla’s dirt streets saw the passing of the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and other Wild West legends. The sprawling La Posta Restaurant just off the plaza preserves the only station still standing on the Old Butterfield Trail (1850-1861).
Today’s thirsty traveler might want to make a quick stop less than a mile from the plaza on Highway 28 at The Spotted Dog Brewery to try one of more than a dozen handcrafted beers. Continuing south through the fertile Mesilla Valley, the rural two-lane road passes fields of corn and cotton on its way through several small villages including San Miguel whose picturesque church and cemetery beckons to passing shutterbugs.
Further south, we slip beneath a verdant canopy of pecan trees that mark the world’s largest, family-owned pecan orchard, Stahmann Farms. Signs warn against the temptation to stop along the highway and pick up a few of the tasty nuggets from more than 180,000 trees that represent southern New Mexico’s largest crop.
Further down the trail sits the community of La Mesa, home to a National Register of Historic Places property—Chope’s Café and Bar. The rustic complex of three adobe buildings erected by the Benavides family, the oldest dating to circa 1880, is another must-see for any out-of-town guest. Here you can rub elbows with local Harley Davidson club riders and La Mesa farmers while watching sports on several big screen TVs and listening to country and rock classics on the digital jukebox.
A little further along El Camino Real are several stops on the Mesilla Valley Wine Trail in what is known as the oldest wine producing region in the United States: La Vina (the state’s oldest), Mesa Vista (one of the newest), and Sombra Antigua which operates amid the state’s oldest commercial vineyard.
On the return trip we make a stop at the Rio Grande Winery just a few miles south of Mesilla only to learn that it’s closed for tasting Monday through Thursday. What sets Rio Grande Vineyards & Winery apart from similar establishments in southern New Mexico is the incomparable view of the Organ Mountains. In their tasting Room, visitors may view a number of old photographs of their family, talk with the winemaker, or just relax and enjoy the grand view of the Majestic Organ Mountains and of course enjoy a Taste of New Mexico.
After the afternoon, I realize that like the Spanish explorer of more than 400 years ago, I may not have found the Cities of Gold, but I struck it rich in experiencing the history, wines, and culinary delights of the Southwest along a legendary trail that connects the centuries.
If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.