The name is forbidding but the history is compelling along the centuries-old route known as the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man). Two new hiking trails and exhibits allow visitors to sample short sections of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, which extends for 404 miles across parts of Texas and New Mexico.
From about 1598 until the mid-1880s, a steady stream of travelers from Spain and Mexico journeyed along a nearly 1,600-mile route known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—the Royal Road to the Interior. The foot and wagon road tied Spain’s colonial capital at Mexico City to its northern frontier in today's New Mexico.
It's said to be the earliest European trade route in the present-day United States, and although only traces of the old road still remain, its impact continues. Historic camping sites and settlements established by Spanish colonists along the route grew into modern towns, including Las Cruces, Socorro, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and many current residents of the region are descendants of those who made the difficult and often dangerous journey across mountains and desert.
Just over 400 miles of the historic route extends from El Paso, Texas, to San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, and in 1990 Congress designated the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. The Trail is jointly administered by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which work together "to foster trail preservation and public use along the route."
Perhaps the most infamous section of the route was the dreaded Jornada del Muerto, (Journey of the Dead Man), a 90-mile stretch of almost waterless desert in present-day New Mexico. Due to the scarcity of water, firewood and forage, Spanish trade and supply caravans traveling the road between Mexico City and Santa Fe would often move through this section of the route at night, seeking what shade they could find during the day. Wise travelers made the trip in spring or fall, avoiding the blazing summer heat.
According to the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, the forbidding name for the Jornada del Muerto is actually derived from a tragic event in August 1680, when a revolt by the Pueblo Indians against the Spanish forced the retreat of over two thousand refugees across the waterless desert to El Paso. More than 500 perished in the attempt, which Antonio de Otermin, the Governor of New Spain at the time, called a Journey of Death, or Jornada del Muerto. The name stuck, although the translation commonly used today has been slightly modified to "Journey of the Dead Man."
Now, thanks to cooperative efforts between the BLM, NPS, and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association (CARTA), visitors can now sample a brief sections of the route along two new hiking trails that overlook and retrace a piece of the original route. Signage and exhibits help tell part of the trail's long story. A dedication for the new facilities was held on October 30, 2010.
“It is amazing what we can offer to visitors when we work together,” said Superintendent Aaron Mahr. “In addition to enjoyment of the recreational aspect of the retracement trail, we are also preserving the sites of early trail travelers. Today’s trail travelers walk in the footsteps of American Indians, Catholic priests, and Spanish conquistadors, while catching a glimpse of the landscape they saw 400 years ago."
Two primary sites along the national historic trail have now been developed for visitor use.
The Yost Escarpment Trail is a 1.5-mile retracement trail (original trail section) along a portion of the Jornada del Muerto which illustrates the challenges of trail travel. It ends at the top of an escarpment—a steep, rocky slope that was a true test for caravans with huge freight wagons.
The Point of Rocks Trail makes a half-mile loop to the top of a rock outcrop that was a landmark for travelers on El Camino Real. Point of Rocks must have been a welcome sight in years gone by—it told travelers that a source of water was only ten miles ahead.
Both trailheads are off I-25, south of the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and north of the town of Las Cruces. They're about 10 miles apart along Upham Road (County Road AO13). You'll find driving directions at this link.
This addition to the National Trails System is still relatively new—it was designated in October 2000—so you've got to do a bit of homework if you want to follow much of the route. There are museums, historic sites, churches, and original trail segments located all along the length of the trail, and the modern Interstate 25 parallels much of the historic road.
You can reach most trail sites by vehicle along the I-25 corridor, although be aware that some sites are along unpaved roads. The trail's website includes links to some points of interest along the trail in New Mexico and Texas and a link to exhibits at Yost Escarpment and Point of Rocks. You'll also find useful travel information on this BLM website and on the website for the El Camino Real National Scenic Byway.