Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cattle Trails

Western Trips takes a visit to the old Magdalena Trail and historic Route 60 through New Mexico. The Magdalena Trail may not be quite as well known as the cattle trails like the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Chisholm Trail or the Great Western Trail that actually ran from the Rio Grande in Texas to the Canadian border. The Magdalena Trail had it's origins back to 1885 and this western cattle trail actually operated into the latter part of the twentieth century.

us highway 60 sign
Like with all western cattle trails, the railroad was very involved. The Magdalena Trail came into being when the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad built a branch line west from Socorro New Mexico. Every old west cattle trail had it's terminus at a rail head. This was true with Abilene, Wichita and Dodge City Kansas. It was true with Las Vegas New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, and it was true with the old town of Magdalena New Mexico.

The Magdalena Trail

Ranchers from the vast area of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona started to drive their cattle and sheep to the railhead at Magdalena. Cattle trails were necessary simply to get your herd top market. The Magdalena Trail is also called the "Magdalena Stock Driveway". The designation of a "stock driveway" occurred in 1916. Essentially it was a designation of land by the government for allowing enough area for ranchers to drive their herd to the railheads. In certain places the driveway could extend five to ten miles in width so that there was ample forage for the herd. This land was open range. Forage was a big concern. Here is why.  Due to the large distances traveled by western cattle, at times ample forage was hard to find and as a result the cattle could arrive at the Magdalena railhead in poor condition. For the rancher this meant lower prices for his herd.

An interesting area you may want to explore is Datil Well where water wells were spaced about fifteen miles apart for use on the Old Magdalena Trail. Today, the area is the Datil Well Recreation Area Campground.

Well is named for the town of Datil, 1 mile to the west. This is the location of one of 15 water wells spaced 10 miles apart along the old Magdalena Cattle Trail.

The Magdalena Trail in the Twentieth Century
cattle drive in new mexico
Magdalena Cattle Drive

When the Texas cattle trails disappeared with the expansion of the railroad and with farming taking over much of the former grazing land, the Magdalena Trail continued in the west. Two sections of the Magdalena Trail merged in western New Mexico. One started near Springerville Arizona and the other near Reserve New Mexico to the south. Yet a third branch trail merged into the main trail starting near Winston New Mexico. All cattle and sheep along the Magdalena Stock Driveway then headed east to Magdalena and the AT & SF railhead. This historic Magdalena Stock Driveway was used annually, from 1885 through 1916 when the stock driveway was officially made into law. This historic Stock Driveway was used annually, from 1885 through 1916 when the driveway was officially designated by law. The peak year on the Magdalena Stock Driveway was 1919 when some 150,000 sheep and about 20,000 western cattle were moved . Generally cattle could be driven about ten miles a day and sheep five miles. The Magdalena Trail was continually used through 1971. The trail was the country's last regularly used western cattle trial.

us highway 60 map
US Hwy 60
The First Ocean to Ocean Highway

Long before the establishment of Route 66 from Chicago Illinois to Santa Monica California, there was an overland trail that extended from Santa Monica to Virginia Beach Virginia. The trail passed through New Mexico from Quemado to Clovis. Today, this is US Hwy 60 or Route 60. The entire length of the highway was 2,670 miles east to west. Route 60, just like Route 66, saw rerouting when the Interstate Highway System was built. The end result was that mileage was lost to the Interstates. Just like Route 66, you'll find signage where the original road is still used. In New Mexico, Route 60 is still fairly intact. It is in other states both east and west of New Mexico where major changes occurred.

Going from east to west in New Mexico, Route 60 today runs from Clovis, on the Texas border, to Interstate 25. You would then drive south on Interstate 25 for about 25 miles to Socorro. You would then pick up Route 60 again in Socorro and it runs westward to the Arizona border. The only interruption of US Hwy 60 in New Mexico is the short distance on Interstate 25. From Socorro New Mexico to Springerville Arizona, US Hwy 60 follows the same general route as the Magdalena Trail.

Three additional Western Trips photo articles you'll find interesting are the Great Western Trail .... the Red River Valley Museum and Doans Crossing on the Western Trail and Wild Horses and Cowboys.

fort sumner new mexico
Billy the Kid mural in Fort Sumner, NM
Driving Route 60 Through New Mexico

Taking a western road trip over today's Route 60 is like taking a trip into history. All along the route are historic towns, landmarks and National Historic Sites. You can compare it to a trip on Route 66 except in New Mexico Route 60 is essentially all intact.

Among the things to see on Route 60 include Clovis New Mexico and the vast BNSF Railroad yards. Fort Sumner New Mexico where Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid. This is the site of two good old west museums with plenty of interesting exhibits and the grave site of Billy the Kid.

West of Socorro you'll view the Magdalena Mountains. The eighteen mile long Magdalena Mountains are about twenty miles west of Socorro and offer great hiking trails. Most of the rocks along the eastern part of the range are volcanic. Some other sections of the Magdalena's that are not volcanic are considered good climbing sites.

In the town of Magdalena you'll want to take the walking tour. The town site has many historic buildings to explore including the old Magdalena Stockyards. The stockyards operated until 1971 when the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad closed the rail line. You'll also want to check out the London Frontier Theatre Company which puts on summer performances. A great addition to your western road trip on Route 60.

new mexico scenery
A road trip through central New Mexico
About thirty-six miles west of Magdalena, Route 60 passes  a section of the Cibola National Forest and the Datil Mountains. This is one of the many sections of the Cibola National Forest which are found in central and western New Mexico. Some nearby good historic old towns to explore include Pie Town and Quemado New Mexico. Pie Town is the location of the of the very large antennas that are part of the Very Long Baseline Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The antennas start west of Socorro and extend westward. Quemado, in the high desert at about 7,200 feet, is another interesting stop near Pie Town on Route 60. When you stop at this unincorporated area be certain to check out "The Lightning Field". Created by American sculptor Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field is a work of Land Art situated in a remote area of western New Mexico outside of Quemado.

Route 60 offers a lot of interesting sites all throughout New Mexico. When you drive it west of Magdalena, the highway is a living history of the western cattle trail days. The route may be a good addition to your New Mexico trip planner.

(Billy the Kid Mural and central New Mexico photo from author's collection. Remainder of photos and images from the public domain)


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