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Northwestern NM the historical, cultural center of Indian Country

There is no one defining summation that can best describe New Mexico’s Northwest corner.

Sparsely populated, it’s wild and scenic and ancient and awe-inspiring.

With Chaco Canyon (nps.gov/chcu/index.htm), a national historical park sitting roughly in the middle of the vast expanse, it makes for a must-see stop on any adventure into Indian Country.

Communing with the ancients who once lived in the remote area is an experience beyond compare, says Nathan Hatfield, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service.

“From a historical standpoint, it is the center of the Puebloan culture,” he says. “What was happening there in (AD) 1100 and 1200 would go on to include architecture in Aztec, in Colorado at Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock and Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield.”

During the day, there are plenty of sights to inspire wonder and awe, he says.

“I would certainly focus on the nine-mile driving loop,” Hatfield says. “Along that loop lies Pueblo Bonito and most of the Great Houses of the canyon. Folks can do a self-guided tour or take one of the ranger-guided tours. We have at least one or two guided tours or as many as three depending on staffing levels.”

Along the loop, short, self-guided hikes meander through the five Great Houses, giving visitors a sense of the immense scale that the builders created.

The loop also is bicycle friendly, and several Great Houses can be reached by following hiking trails off road.

Among those, the short jaunt to Kin Kletso serves as the trailhead for the wonderfully diverse Pueblo Alto Trail, which is not accessible to bicycles.

Historic sites

Farther up in the Farmington metro area that also includes Aztec and Bloomfield, the Salmon Ruins and Aztec Ruins National Monument add to the sense of wonder one gets when gazing back into more than 1,000 years of history.

Both are Chaco outliers and the Salmon Ruins (salmonruins.com), a 22-acre site that has been extensively excavated, dates back to the 11th century and includes a Chacoan great house, a heritage park and a 19th-century homestead, as well as an extensive research library that allows scholars to explore the archaeology and history of the American Southwest.

The Aztec Ruins National Monument (nps.gov/azru/index.htm) is located right in the city.

The Chaco-era ruins date back about 900 years and were considered a part of the Pueblo people’s migration journey.

The World Heritage site – one of only 22 in the U.S. – has more than 400 masonry rooms, but what truly sets it apart is that there is a reconstructed great kiva that visitors can enter.

Hit the beach

For those looking for outdoor adventure sans the history lesson, Farmington still remains a great place of activity.

The beach – yes, sand and all – at Farmington Lake is quickly becoming the spot for families to relax and enjoy some down time.

“We created something for the citizens,” says Cory Styron, Farmington director of parks, recreation and cultural affairs. “Water like this on an open lake is at a premium. We have a lot of lakes north of here that stay so cold for so long, but here we have a lifeguarded outdoor swimming area and you don’t have to fight jet skis and boats and everything else.”

To further tap into the water-themed recreation, a new business is opening in the area, Animas Outdoors, to rent inner tubes “assuming the river ever comes up,” says owner Cameron Garrett, and bicycles to cruise along the riverside trails in Berg Park and Main Street.

“They’re like life preservers and people can just enjoy the river,” he says. “It’s a pretty mellow float. You put in around Animas Park and it takes about 1½ to two hours depending on the flow.”

The bicycles are designed to meander along the 8½ miles of trails or ride the roads to restaurants and brew pubs, he says.

The area also is home to a large Fourth of July celebration with three nights of fireworks – Farmington traditionally sets them off July 3, a private citizen has an extensive display July 4 and Bloomfield has its party July 5 – capping three days of festivities including a parade and 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

A trip to the area is not complete without a quick excursion to the Four Corners – the only place in the U.S. where four states meet – as well as driving past Shiprock, the iconic megalith soaring from the high desert floor.

Visit Gallup

South in Gallup, many activities also await the intrepid traveler.

Through September, nightly Indian dances enliven the city’s evening scene, says Jennifer Lazarz, Gallup tourism director.

“It’s in the heart of downtown Gallup, in Courthouse Square,” she says. “It’s a free event that takes place at 7 p.m. They explain the dances and all storytelling. People can take photos, which you can’t do on feast days.”

It makes for a great capper to a fun-filled day, Lazarz says.

One of the big events for the town is the 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest on June 23-24 (ziarides.com/event-register/24-hours-in-the-enchanted-forest). In this monster mountain bike event, teams of riders wind through meadows, pines and aspens within the Zuni Mountains outside Gallup.

More activities

July 27-29 marks a big weekend with the fifth annual Route 66 Freedom Ride, Flight and Cruise (gogallup.com/route-66-ride-flight-cruise) coupled with the Gallup Adventure Mud Run (eventbrite.com/e/gallup-adventure-mud-run-tickets-44528659419?aff=es2) on July 28.

The Freedom Ride, Flight and Cruise, entering its fifth year, combines hot rods, hot air balloons and Harleys in a whirlwind of activity.

“What’s really cool is the hot rods do a cruise and seeing all of these classic cars doing a loop around Downtown Gallup is something,” Lazarz says.

On Saturday (July 28), street performers, a circus and bands set the stage for the rumble of numerous Harley Davidsons riding through a tunnel of fire created by a lineup of balloons firing their propane tanks without their canopies.

“It’s a really joyful family event with hot rod, Harleys and hot air,” she says.

It’s a good time for families to wind down and recover from the Mud Run. The local motocross course is filled with gallons upon gallons of water turning it into a quagmire and obstacles are installed to create a wild fundraising event for the Western Health Foundation.

“It’s an absurdly insane, fun course,” Lazarz says. “You get muddy and it’s in Red Rocks so it’s really beautiful out there.”

Ceremonial

August brings the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial (gallupceremonial.com), at 97 years, the oldest continuous native event in New Mexico.

“It’s everything and the kitchen sink when it comes to native culture,” Lazarz says of the Aug. 3-12 event. “Powwows, song and dance, a parade that we have 20,0000 watch. It take about two hours because every single intersection and half block they’re doing tribal dances so it’s amazing.”

One of the highlights of powwow at Red Rocks is the Mexican tribe Voladores.

“They climb an 88-foot pole and jump off of it and spin around,” Lazarz says. “I’m not joking. It’s crazy.”

Touring Zuni

The Pueblo of Zuni (www.zunitourism.com/tours.htm) also has a rich historical background and there are several tours available to help bring that information to light, says Pueblo tourism director Tom Kennedy.

“We have a superior guide who really does a great job,” he says. “He really provides an informative experience.”

One of the highlights is the archaeology tour, which features a trip to Hawikku, the site of the first contact between the Spanish and the Puebloans.

The 32-mile round-trip tour, which takes about 2½ hours, is a cruise back in time to where Coronado encountered the first of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

“What I tell people is that it’s an experience of being where it was,” Kennedy says. “Hearing the story. It has a very deep and compelling story. The real fame of these ancestral villages is as jumping off places for trade. Long-distance trade went throughout these regions, turquoises and buffalo hides were traded into Mexico and things coming north like corals from the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, shells of various kinds, parrot feathers, which have a religious significance.”

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