Visiting Pecos NHP and Fort Union NM

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Located in northern New Mexico, Pecos National Historical Park stands at the intersection of travel and culture. Covering Glorieta Pass, this area has been a crossroads for human beings for millennia. Long before even the Ancestral Puebloans, this area was home to hunter-gatherers going back to 11,500 BCE. 

To the east is Fort Union National Monument, a frontier bastion along the Santa Fe Trail which, for decades, provided a headquarters and supply depot for both the Army and the settlers moving along the trail. 

The remains of a mission church at Pecos National Historical Park
The remains of a mission church at Pecos National Historical Park

These two sites provide an in-depth look at the history of this area and offer a window to the people who made this part of the Southwest home. 

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Exploring Pecos National Historical Park

There are three units at Pecos National Historical Park: the main unit, the Glorieta Unit (Pigeon’s Ranch) and the Glorieta Unit (Canoncito). The Pigeon’s Ranch area has limited public access and the Canoncito area has no public access. 

The main unit preserves Ancestral Puebloan sites and the remains of a Spanish missionary church. The two Glorieta units preserve the remains of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, a pivotal Civil War battle that secured control of the western territories for the Union Army.

The visitor center at Pecos NHP
The visitor center at Pecos National Historical Park

We started our visit to the main unit at the visitor center (of course!) to learn more about the park. We watched the park film, which was shown in a theatre that mimicked an Ancestral Puebloan kiva. The film did a great job explaining the history of this site, at least in terms of the Native Americans and the Spanish. The film said nothing about the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which was a disappointment from my perspective.

Perhaps the museum at the visitor center would have done a better job explaining the importance of the battle but, alas, it was closed for renovation when we visited. 

Pueblo and Mission Ruins

Remains of the old mission church at Pecos National Historical Park
Remains of the old mission church at Pecos National Historical Park

A short walk (or drive) from the visitor center is the Pueblo and Mission Ruins Trail, a relatively flat 1.5-mile walk that winds through the ruins of the mission church and among the low ruins of some of the pueblos. You can see from the commanding view of the pass why this particular site was popular for both Native Americans and the Spanish. 

Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Pecos National Historical Park overlooking the pass in the distance
Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Pecos National Historical Park overlooking the pass in the distance

As you pass through the ruins, be sure to take the ladder down into the kiva. Kivas were round rooms used as religious and social gathering sites by the Ancestral Puebloans and it is rare to find one you can climb into.

The ruins of the church are impressive but not as robust as you will find further south at Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument. Still, it is really cool to see and worth your time.

Inside a restored kiva at Pecos National Historical Park
Inside a restored kiva at Pecos National Historical Park

Read more about visiting Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument here.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass

Pecos National Historical Park also preserves much of the battleground of the Battle of Glorieta Pass. This battle was fought in late March of 1862 and was a relatively small battle. Indeed, in terms of the Civil War, this was not much more than a skirmish, with a grand total of around 2,400 troops fighting. This is quite small compared to many of the battles in the east, where tens of thousands of troops were on each side. 

Roadside marker for the Glorieta Pass Battlefield
Roadside marker for the Glorieta Pass Battlefield

Still, the impact of this battle was significant. While the battle was technically a draw and the Union Army retreated, the Confederate supply train was destroyed, forcing it to retreat and end the campaign. This meant the gold fields of California and Colorado were secure from Confederate capture. 

You can visit the Pigeon’s Ranch area by getting the gate code from the visitor’s center or by going on a ranger-led tour. Since the rain that had been falling on us was transitioning to snow and we still had to drive to Los Alamos, we opted to pass on the hike. 

Markers at the trailhead to see the battlefield at Glorieta Pass
Markers at the trailhead to see the battlefield at Glorieta Pass

Visiting Fort Union National Monument

Fort Union National Monument (not to be confused with Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota) was a frontier fort established after the acquisition of New Mexico following the end of the Mexican-American War. 

Read more about visiting Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site here.

Located about an hour east of Pecos National Historical Park and not far off Interstate 25, Fort Union National Monument is easy to visit in conjunction with Pecos National Historical Park. Like most parks, we started at the visitor center to learn more about the park before walking the fort. 

Bonnie Sinclair checking out the exhibits at Fort Union National Monument.
Bonnie checking out the exhibits at Fort Union NM.

The visitor center, which had been recently renovated, was outstanding in terms of explaining the importance of this fort, not only to the Army but also to the Santa Fe Trail. 

Walking the Grounds of Fort Union National Monument

We spent a good 45 minutes walking among the ruins of this sprawling fort. We have visited several frontier forts, including Fort Laramie in Wyoming and Bent’s Old Fort in eastern Colorado. This fort, however, struck us with its size. It was immediately apparent this was a major military installation. 

One of the things that made this fort so interesting is the adobe construction. Most frontier forts we have visited over the years use wooden buildings, etc., with the notable exception of Bent’s Old Fort (not surprising since that was a trading post, not a military fort). 

Grant Sinclair walking through Fort Union National Monument.
Grant walking through Fort Union NM.

As we walked among the walls of the fort, the interpretive signs guided us from building to building, giving us a clear idea of what each of these buildings was used for. We also crossed the roadbed of the Santa Fe Trail, which passed right by the fort. 

While the fort had a lot of the normal things you would find at any frontier outpost, what solidified this as a major outpost was the size of the horse and wagon corral. It was simply massive! It was obvious this was a transportation hub of the region.

Read more about visiting Bent’s Old Fort here. 

The remains of the hospital at Fort Union National Monument
The remains of the hospital at Fort Union NM

Connecting Fort Union National Monument with Pecos National Historical Park

While Fort Union was mostly a supply and transportation depot, there was a point where the Army felt the need to fortify this outpost. Following the firing upon Fort Sumter, the commander of Fort Union decided to build an earthen fortification capable of repelling a Confederate attack. 

By the time the earthen fortification was completed, the former commander of the fort, General Henry Sibley, was marching north with a force of about 1,000 Confederate troops headed for Fort Union and then on to Colorado. 

What's left of the star fort at Fort Union National Monument.
The remains of the star fort, an earthen fortification dug to protect the fort during the Civil War

Union troops from Fort Union moved out, meeting the Confederate Army at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, preserved by the Pecos National Historical Park. The battle protected Fort Union but the fortifications built at the fort never needed to fire a shot. 

Final Thoughts on Pecos National Historical Park and Fort Union National Monument

Both of these sites preserve the rich history of the area and do a great job of making that history relevant. Getting out and walking among the ruins, whether it was the pueblos, the missionary church or the walls of the fort, makes history come alive in a way you can’t really explain. 

Both of the sites are easily visited in one day but if you are looking to do a ranger-led tour, you need to pay close attention to the schedule to make sure you are there when they offer one.

Ruts of the Santa Fe Trail as it runs through Fort Union National Monument
Ruts of the Santa Fe Trail as it runs through Fort Union National Monument

That said, I feel like we have to go back to Pecos National Historical Park to see the museum and walk the Civil War battlefield. I feel like we missed out on that part of the history of the area. 

Fort Union, on the other hand, we felt like we really got to experience everything that park had to offer. The visitor center was quite well done and walking the grounds of the fort taught us a lot, even though we have been to several frontier forts. 

If you are traveling in northern New Mexico, especially on Interstate 25, you can easily stop at both of these sites and they are both worth your visit.


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