Where are the missions?
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is located near the town of Mountainair in central New Mexico. The national monument features:
- Main visitor center at Mountainair with a small museum
- Three mission sites with visitor centers and restrooms at each
- Bookstores and gift shops at each visitor center
- Accessible paved walking trails with wayside exhibits
- Periodic night sky events
- Free admission
The park’s website can be accessed here.
Why is this site significant?
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument preserves the ruins of three pueblos which were important trading hubs long before Spanish explorers arrived in the 1580s. Salt was harvested from nearby dry lakebeds (salinas) and became the primary commodity for trade at these pueblos. Due to the abundant salt trade, the Spanish government named the area the Salinas Jurisdiction. Other commodities such as pinion nuts and squash were used for trade purposes as well. The missions were built by Spanish priests who were sent to the Salinas Jurisdiction during the early seventeenth century to convert the Puebloan people to Christianity. Drought, famine, disease, and marauding Apaches drove the occupants of these sites away during the late 1600s. While the mission buildings remain today as important archaeological sites, there are still unexcavated mounds which contain remnants of the original pueblos.
Abo (pronounced Ah-bow) was the first stop on our visit. The site is located nine miles west of the main visitor center in Mountainair.
Spanish missionary Fray Francisco Fonte arrived at Abo in 1622 and took up residence in the pueblo until a church and convento (living quarters) could be built. Over the next six years, the Puebloans under Fonte’s direction, built Abo’s first mission church and convento, Mission of San Gregorio de Abo. In 1629, under the direction of another priest, renovations began on the original church and a larger church was built around it. The remains of the second church are what we see today.
Interestingly, Abo’s church also features a kiva which is where Puebloans held their own religious ceremonies. No one knows why the priests would have allowed a kiva to be built in a Catholic church. However, popular belief is that the priests allowed the kivas as a compromise in order to aid in the Puebloans’ transition to Christianity.
Abo was abandoned in 1673 and remained unoccupied for over a century. Spanish sheep herders settled into Abo around 1815 only to abandon the site in 1830 because of Apache raids. Permanent settlers, namely the family of Juan Jose Sisneros, arrived in the late 1800s and claimed Abo as their home. Descendants of the Sisneros family still live in the area today. The State of New Mexico took over the site in 1938.
After visiting Abo, we backtracked to Mountainair, and then it was on to our next site, Gran Quivira.
Gran Quivira (pronounced Gran Kuh-veera) is located 25 miles south of the Mountainair visitor center. The largest of the three Salinas Pueblo Missions, Gran Quivira is also the most excavated. Contact with Spanish explorers first occurred in 1583, then again in 1598 when the Don Juan de Onate expedition arrived and referred to the pueblo as Las Humanas.
Gran Quivira became a satellite mission of Abo in 1629, and at that time, construction began on the first mission church, Iglesia de San Isidro. Construction of the newer, larger church, San Buenaventura, began in 1659 under the direction of its new priest, Fray Diego de Santander.
Gran Quivira was once a large city occupied by 1500 – 2000 people. A few yards east of the San Buenaventura church lies a small hill, now known as Mound 7. Excavations of the large mound during the mid-1960s revealed the remains of a 226-room pueblo as well as an older pueblo underneath.
According to the National Park Service, indigenous people lived on and around the site for 1200 years. We thought this was interesting because Gran Quivira did not have a nearby water source. Residents had to carry water from distant springs to the site.
By 1672 the people of Gran Quivira had gone, leaving the once grand city to lie abandoned for more than 100 years. Eventually, travelers and explorers began to show interest in the site during the mid to late 1800s. President Taft preserved Gran Quivira by establishing it as a national monument in 1909.
Now on to Quarai…
Quarai (pronounced Quar-eye) is located eight miles north and one mile west of the main visitor center in Mountainair. Fray Juan Gutierrez de la Chica established the Quarai Mission in 1626, and under his direction construction began on the church in 1627. The church, La Purisma Concepcion de Quarai, was completed in 1632.
Like Abo, Quarai has a kiva in its convento. Spanish missionaries most likely thought it would not be a good idea to completely disregard the Puebloan’s old religion while attempting to establish new beliefs. The artist’s rendition below shows what Quarai pueblo might have looked like at its peak.
Like Abo and Gran Quivira, drought, famine, disease and attacks by hostile Apaches caused Quarai’s people to abandon the site in 1678. Settlers Juan and Miguel Lucero brought their families to live at Quarai in the early 1820s when some of the buildings were still habitable. The Lucero family made repairs to the convento and church and then built new homes which are now known as the Lucero Structures.
Apache raiders destroyed the Lucero’s homes and burned the church in 1830, causing the Lucero family to abandon Quarai. Some of the Lucero family returned a few years later and began rebuilding as well as adding additional structures. Miguel Lucero sold the property in 1872. Today, the Hopi and Zuni people claim they are descendants of the people of Quarai.
The state of New Mexico took over Quarai in the 1930s and preserved the site as a state monument. In 1980, the National Park Service expanded Gran Quivira National Monument to include Quarai and Abo. Renaming of the monument to Salinas Pueblo Missons took place in 1988.
Visiting Salinas Pueblo Missions
There are few accommodation options in the small town of Mountainair. However, there are several options for hotels and RV parks in the cities of Socorro which is south of the national monument and Belen which is north. Both cities are less than an hour’s drive via I-25. Undoubtedly, a visit to the missions would make a perfect day trip from Albuquerque, which is just over an hour north, also via I-25.
We didn’t find much in the way of eateries in Mountainair, but there are a couple of cafes as well as a deli in the local grocery store. Furthermore, we found only one convenience store gas station, and of course the prices were high.
Regardless of where it’s located, the national monument was absolutely worth the trip. The history, the wide-open spaces, and the scenery made for a wonderful road trip adventure. We spent about an hour at each pueblo mission site, and the drive time added another hour and a half to our visit. As always, we recommend making the visitor center the first stop. We also recommend visiting during the spring or fall as the summer heat and the winter cold may be uncomfortable for some.
Thank you so much for joining us at New Mexico’s Salinas Pueblo Missions!
Need additional road trip ideas? Take a look at these other great New Mexico destinations:
Happy, safe travels, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.