Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway
central New Mexico
New Mexico is a cultural treasure trove brimming with a fascinating mix of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American history. And while most visitors head to the northern and northwestern parts of the state to experience its complex past, this byway explores the lesser-traveled central area. The Salt Missions Trail makes a great daytrip from Albuquerque and focuses on three distinct historical sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Heading east on I-40, the byway starts just outside metro Albuquerque in the town of Tijeras. Following NM 337 south, the byway cruises through Cibola National Forest and numerous tiny towns on its way to the first of the three ruins. The Quarai Mission was established by the Spaniards in 1626. It dates from the earliest period of European colonization in the area when settlers began spreading Christianity to the native people. If you only have time for one ruin, this is probably the most photogenic. Forty minutes south is the second mission ruin. Before Spanish contact in 1583, Gran Quivira was once a vast city. With a completely different look from Quarai, Gran Quivira is the largest of the Salinas Pueblo Missions. “Salinas” refers to salt, essential for trading during that time. Backtracking a bit, forty minutes northwest of Gran Quivira is the last of the three Salinas Pueblo Missions. Abó was also a thriving community when the Spanish arrived in 1581. In the 1670s, disease, drought, famine and Apache raids caused all three missions to be abandoned. And though settlers would come and go, the missions never regained their former glory.
Keep in Mind
Through part of the national park system, there’s no fee to visit Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. However, each site has a visitor center with toilet facilities and drinking fountains.
Route & Map
This story begins just east of Albuquerque off I-40 in Tijeras, then travels south to the three separate sites of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. It’s an easy daytrip from Albuquerque.
Length & Time
The drive is about 120 miles one-way from Tijeras to Quarai, Gran Quivira and Abó. If you start in Albuquerque and then complete the tour by traveling from the Abó ruin to I-25 and back north to Albuquerque, it's a 200-mile circular route. Plan a full day.
Best Time to Visit
Spring and fall are best but summer and winter are fine, too, if you don’t mind the heat or cold. Just be mindful of snow and ice, checking road conditions before finalizing plans.
Mountainair lies at the center of this scenic byway. You’ll pass through it coming and going from the three sites. The town has some services but eating a big breakfast in Albuquerque and then packing a picnic is my suggestion. I’d fill the gas tank and stay overnight in Albuquerque, too. Lots of great dining options in New Mexico’s largest city!