Mexican Land Grant Overlanding Adventure
A Red Truck And A Road Trip
Several years back there was a woman who loved her Masarati so much she had herself interred (for all eternity) in it. At the time many shook their heads in disbelief, not understanding what she could possibly have been thinking. However, having just completed a 2,800-plus mile (highway, mountain, urban, and 4WD off-road) adventure in a new Ford F-150 4WD crew-cab with a 3.0L turbo charged Power Stroke diesel engine that came married to a 10-speed electronic transmission, what this woman was thinking is now far more understandable. Using this small block diesel for this 2,800-mile adventure was truly a sweet experience!
Totally transparent during this odyssey was the fact that a 3.0L diesel lay under the hood. The vehicle exhibited instant acceleration, no diesel noise, and a level of comfort and luxury found in well (very well) appointed luxury pickup trucks. Even with the added weight of the 4WD hardware (the 4WD performed flawlessly in the mountains of Southwest Colorado) this Ford F-150 pickup truck yielded an average 28.1 mpg (this is not a misprint).
Our odyssey began as all good odysseys begin (especially those that require 4WD), with an interest to poke around in some off-the-beaten-places like those found in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. More specifically we wanted to look at the landscapes and meet the people who today live here on what were once old Mexican Land Grants. A Mexican Land Grant is a huge block of land (sometime millions of acres) that were given to individuals and families by the Mexican Government during the 1830s-40s. Massive in size, they were given to folks on the condition they would hold at bay and stop the invasion of settlers streaming west from the newly independent State of Texas and the endless pool of pioneers arriving from the East Coast and Europe who were on their way to get a slice of the American Dream. Yes, Texas Independence was gained in 1836 and was but a harbinger of things to come.
With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1847 (this treaty ended the Mexican American War), all of the Mexican real estate that lay between Texas and California was ceded to the United States, which included these Mexican Land Grants. Even today land ownership and legal disputes over water rights continue to work their way through the U.S. Court System. However even with the passage of time, most of what was pristine land 175 years ago remains pristine today, with much of it being National Forest and BLM land and these areas are eye catching. Wanting to poke around and into these off-the beaten-path corners of the West to see what there was to discover using a 4WD, the Ford F-150 became our ride. Several of these old Land Grants lie in the San Luis Valley of South-Central Colorado and includes a slice of the Tierra Amarilla (yellow earth) Land Grant that began in what today is New Mexico and pokes up into the Centennial State.
One of the larger Mexican Land Grants was the Conejos (rabbits) Land Grant in Colorado that is bordered in the west by the San Juan Mountains and in the east by the Rio Grande River. The boundary for the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Land Grant is the Rio Grande River in the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east. And there was the Baca Land Grant. This land grant was actually re-granted by the U.S. Government in 1860 to compensate the Baca Family for disputes arising over the duplication of previous Mexican Land Grants. The Baca Land Grant sits tucked in at the foot of what today is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and is part of a large tract of land owned by The Nature Conservancy that is called Medano-Zapata Ranch. Their charter is to preserve this land for perpetuity.
As noted, with the change in ownership of land between Mexico and the United States (1847), sorting out who the individuals are that own the land and who owns the water rights has taken more than a century and a half to resolve, and even today legal issues exist. But what can be said for sure is that the raw beauty and opportunity for back country and cultural adventures found here, and the uniqueness of the people who inhabit the hamlets found scattered about, remain unchanged. Being able to move about at will across varied landscapes in our 4WD F-150, was totally awesome. Many of these places have not been touched by the digital age as evidenced by the lack of cell service which can be spotty to none existent. Keep this in mind when traveling here.
For example, along most of Hwy 17 over Cumbres Pass, between Antonito, CO and Chama, NM, cell service is nonexistent. Once part of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant (today this is mostly National Forest) it can be enjoyed a couple of different ways, and both hold their own possibilities. One is to drive the blue-line Highway 17, and the other is to take the Cumbres Toltec Railroad that uses coal fired steam locomotive s that were built just after the turn of the century (1900) as their source of locomotion. The railroad right-away was finagled (circa the 1880s) away from what had been part of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant, when the D&RGW Railroad built a rail bed between Denver, Antonito, Chama and Durango. Today the Cumbres Toltec Railroad stops at Osier where passengers are served a sumptuous multi-course (Thanks Giving Style) dinner before continuing either west to Chama, NM or east to Antonito, CO. Both towns are starting and ending points for this excursion. The rail line between Chama and Durango no longer exists.
In addition to Antonito, CO being where a ride on ths railroad can begin (or end), this is a town that sits on what was the Conejos Land Grant. It is rich with history, with original buildings that are way-older than the steam locomotives used by the railroad. The exterior walls of many buildings and other structures are adorned with huge murals that tell stories about the Conejos Land Grant. Painted by prolific muralist Fred Haberlein, through his murals he spent his life chronicling the history of this area, where he used the walls of structures of every kind just as a pastel artist would use a stretched canvas. Take a self guided tour through the 1912 Warshauer Mansion which today the City of Antonito uses as its offices. The interior walls are laced with frescos painted by Swiss artists brought over from Europe circa 1910, where they applied their art to the walls and staircases that are not adorned with the finest Cherry wood. Check out the museum that is adjacent to where you board the Cumbres Toltec Railroad.
The Baca Land Grant which is now part of The Nature Conservancy's Zapata Ranch (103,000 acres) hosts a number of opportunities including real Western Ranch experiences. Zapata Ranch hosts a herd of 2000 American Bison, where they roam and live out their lives as they once lived, free to feed, procreate and perish. Horseback riding out among the Bison and guided nature hikes are included during every stay and at the end of the day 5-star lodging is included and family style dining is served. A three day minimum is required.
Immediately adjacent to Zapata Ranch is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. A National Wildlife Refuge is located south of the ranch where twice a year Sand Hill Cranes stop over for the night. This is one of their major flyways and it goes right over the top of Zapata Ranch you will also find deer and elk wander among the cabins and the lodge.
Take the blue-line highway (Hwy 159) south from Ft. Garland to the small town of San Luis and you cut right through the middle of what was the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. In Ft. Garland the military compound has been restored to include a museum and a barrack that harkens back to the mid-1850s when it was used to protect the influx of settlers finding their way into the San Luis Valley.
In the town of San Luis (the oldest town in Colorado - 1851) is found the oldest store in Colorado (1857) and it's still in business. Go inside and see what an old, old country market looks like. And sitting atop the hill overlooking San Luis is the brilliantly colored domed Catholic Cathedral. It can be reached either by driving up or by walking up the path that features the Stations of the Cross Sculptures that are important in the Catholic Religion. These bronze sculptures are amazing life size figures created by a local artist. There is a museum/cultural center in the middle of town (the town is only a few blocks long) where the history of the oldest town in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant are on exhibit.
Here between November and the end of March "snow flies" which means that some but not all of what the San Luis Valley offers can be challenging. However, with the prowess that's built in to the 4WD small block Power Stroke Diesel version of the Ford F-150, this unique slice of America will be at your beckoned call regardless of season.