The three sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument southeast of Albuquerque are among the most accessible in the state.
Yet they are also among the least visited.
Just east of the Manzano Mountains, the sites that together cover about 1,100 acres offer a glimpse at some of the earliest contact between Spanish colonists and Pueblo Indians.
“One of the main themes of Salinas Pueblo Missions is the Spanish-Native Indian cultural contact and change,” said Norma Pineda, the chief ranger of the monument for the National Park Service, which oversees the sites. “The impact of Spanish missionization on the Pueblos; also the lasting cross-cultural influences; the Indian influences on the Spanish culture and the Spanish influences on the Indian culture.”
The sites are set in a way that a little circle drive from Albuquerque will allow travelers to have a nice outing in the country with virtually no backtrack except to catch one of the sites, Gran Quivira.
“What’s nice about the sites is they are all connected yet unique,” she said. “So you’re going to get a different interpretive theme at each of the sites so visitors can get different parts of the story.”
Although each of the field sites offers a little something different, a good place to start is at the centrally located visitor center in Mountainair, Pineda said.
“We have an orientation film, a 14-minute video called ‘Breath of Life,’ that orients people to the park’s story,” she said.
It tells the tale of how the American Indian trade communities of Tiwa- and Tompiro-speaking Puebloans were discovered in the early 1600s by Spanish Franciscans, who engaged in their missionary efforts. It continues right up through the formation of the park.
At Abo, nine miles west of Mountainair on U.S. 60, a mission built in 1622 sits within a within a large, unexcavated pueblo. Built from red sandstone quarried from the area, the mission reflects “some of the most sophisticated architecture for that period of time,” Pineda said. “The walls are relatively thin and had large buttresses supporting the walls. When you walk into that mission, it’s the most complete interior of a mission. You can still see the main altar and some of the side altars. There are even the steps leading up to the choir loft.”
“Abo,” she said, means “bowl of water” in Spanish. The site is includes an arroyo that runs when it is wet enough, which makes for some spectacular scenery.
“So there are waterfalls around the mission and pueblo,” Pineda said. “It’s just beautiful.”
At Quarai, which is several miles north of Mountainair, the mission was built in 1626, also from red sandstone.
“It has the most complete mission of the three,” Pineda said. “When you walk into that church, the walls still stand 40 feet high. And it’s built in the shape of a cross.”
It remains a place of wonder, she said.
“The acoustics in these places are just incredible,” Pineda said. “In September, we have a concert by De Profundis, a men’s a cappella group. And we have great horned owls that nest inside the sockets of the beams. They’ve nested in there for years.”
The largest of the sites, Gran Quivira, 25 miles south of Mountainair, is also the most extensive in terms of excavated ruins.
“It’s the only one of the three that has a portion of Indian Pueblo excavated,” Pineda said. “And the mission was built from blue-gray limestone. It’s up on a mesa, so when visitors get up there, they can see for miles.”
The pueblo contains 22 mounds, 1½ of which has been excavated, she said.
“One of the rooms that were left exposed is 300 years older than the other, and you can look down into that room,” Pineda said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
What’s also incredible is visiting at night when the rangers have star parties. The site was recently designated a Dark Sky Park.
“We’ll be doing four to six programs throughout the year,” Pineda said. “We’ll have educational activities in addition to looking through the telescopes.”