Grants, New Mexico
Grants lies in central New Mexico’s high desert in a broad valley below the 11,000’ volcanic summit of Mt. Taylor and the San Mateo mountains to the north. The Zuni Mountains lie to the west, and the Rio San Jose flows east through Grants on its way to the Rio Grande. But the most iconic part of this landscape are the malpais – vast flows of volcanic lava that formed rugged badlands extending south from Grants for about 40 miles. The malpais, so named by early Spanish explorers, consist of brutally undulating terrain that geologists estimate originated from lava flows that occurred at various times in the last million years. The most recent occurred in the last 500 – 1,000 years, which local Native American oral history attests to.
Human presence in this part of New Mexico dates to around 12,000 years ago, a period largely comprised of hunter-gatherer cultures. Evidence from about 1,600 years ago marks a transition from nomadic to Puebloan, agricultural lifestyles. When Spanish explorers first arrived in the mid-1500s, about 500 years ago, they encountered the Zuni people residing in the mountains west of the badlands, and the Acoma people inhabiting the mesas and valleys to the east. These Puebloan groups had long-established footpaths connecting them across the harsh badland terrain.
For the Spanish and their horses, the malpais were impassable. As these new arrivals explored and subsequently occupied the region, they battled the resistant Zuni and Acoma intermittently. Meanwhile, the Navajo of eastern Arizona began expanding their reach towards the badlands, giving the Zuni and Acoma another enemy. Decades of intertribal upheaval and battles with the Spanish eventually led a faction of native people from further east and north to take refuge just east of the Acoma Pueblo in 1692, forming the Laguna Pueblo. The Laguna, Zuni, Navajo and Acoma pueblos still co-exist in the region today.
While present-day New Mexico passed from Spanish control to Mexican, and finally to American governance, the area surrounding the malpais remained a relatively wild frontier compared to the more settled Rio Grande Valley to the east. It wasn’t until 1849 that the first American explorers documented the area for scientific purposes, and in 1862 a military fort was established at present-day San Rafael, which was soon dismantled and settled as a village in 1869. Like most frontier towns in New Mexico at the time, raising livestock was the primary economic activity here. San Rafael served as the economic center for the various small agricultural communities that cropped up in the area through the 1800s. In 1879, the site that would later become Grants, four miles north of San Rafael, was homesteaded by Don Jesus Blea.
The defining moment in this region’s history arrived two years later in the form of the transcontinental railroad. The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad selected the Blea homestead, conveniently halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque, as a railroad stop. The stop was named Grant’s Camp, for the 3 Grant brothers who won the railroad contract to build the tracks through the badlands. The railroad provided ranchers with an economical transportation method to get their livestock to eastern markets, and supported a new timber industry that sustained the regional economy until the mid-1900s.
When deforestation and low timber prices left Grants, which adopted its current name in 1935, facing tough economic times, it found its next economic engine in carrots. The construction of the nearby Bluewater Dam made large-scale farming feasible, especially with soil in the valley made fertile by lava deposits. The neighboring community of Milan got its start as Salvador Milan’s successful carrot farm, and the upper Rio San Jose valley became known as the “Carrot Capital of the World”, if only for about 20 years. By the 1950s, Grants could no longer compete with the cheap produce flowing out of California.
As farming declined, mining was building up steam in the region. Fluorspar and pumice were extracted near Grants in support of World War II industrial efforts, and pumice was still being mined into the 1990s. In the meantime, Grants had found its footing as a commerce center for surrounding ranching, mining, and logging operations, and with a population of 2,500, had outgrown neighboring San Rafael. A major turning point for Grants came in 1950 when a Navajo sheepherder, Paddy Martinez, discovered uranium in a field just north of town. His timing was right – high demand for the ore, to power nuclear plants and for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, spurred an enormous population boom. By 1960, Grants’ population had quadrupled to just over 10,000. Milan, two miles to the west, was home to another 2,700. Unfortunately for this high desert boomtown, the uranium market collapsed in the late 1970s as a result of major shifts in geopolitical and economic circumstances. Several large hydro-electric power stations (such as the Aswan Dam in Egypt and Three Gorges Dam in China), a growing supply of cheap fossil fuels, and global environmental concerns over nuclear power all contributed to the downturn.
Coal mines established in the mid-1980s have helped support the economy since, and nearby natural wonders created by volcanic activity, such as ice caves, badlands, lava tubes, and craters have attracted steady streams of tourists for decades. El Malpais National Monument was established in 1987 and is now one of the area’s most significant draws for visitors. Travelers also come to experience the rich Native American history and visit the existing pueblos, particularly Acoma’s Sky City. Today, the neighboring communities of Grants and Milan have diverse economies sustained by agriculture and coal mining, with an eye towards expanding tourism and high-tech infrastructure projects. Its proximity to outdoor recreation and unique natural attractions means Grants is well-positioned to serve recreation tourists, and makes an ideal Gateway Community to the Continental Divide Trail. Visitors will find a diverse, welcoming community, small-town friendliness, and fascinating history at every turn.
Population: 9,182’ (2010 Census)
The Essentials: Where to Stay and Eat
Blue Spruce RV Park: 1708 Zuni Canyon Rd (south of I-40 Exit 81), (505) 287-2560
Sands Motel: 112 McArthur St, (505) 287-2996
Southwest Motel: 1000 E Santa Fe Ave, (505) 287-2935
Grants Travelodge: 1608 E Santa Fe Ave, (505) 287-7800
Motel 6: 1150 E Santa Fe Ave, (505) 287-2843
Find more options here.
Asian Super Buffet: An iconic hiker favorite. All-you-can-eat, and they can eat a lot! 1508 E Santa Fe Ave, (505) 285-5505
El Cafecito: Mexican and American diner. 802 E Santa Fe Ave, Grants, (505) 285-6229
WOW Diner: Pasta, salad, steaks and the like in a 50’s style diner. 1300 Motel Dr in neighboring Milan, (505) 287-3801
La Ventana Steakhouse: A variety of Mexican and American dishes. 110-1/2 Geis, (505) 287-9393
Cocina Camacho Cafe: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner all day, from 6:00 AM – 9:00 PM. 317 Stephens Street, Grants, (505) 290-0083
Kendalben Barbeque: Smoked pork, beef, and bison. Restaurant at 314 W U.S. Highway 66 in neighboring Milan, with a food truck in Grants. Call for location. (505) 287-5095.
Find more to eat here.
Smith’s: 700 E Roosevelt Ave, (505) 285-6336
Famer’s market: Saturdays, 9 AM – 12 PM from August – October. Fire & Ice Park, 800 W Santa Fe Ave
Walmart Supercenter: 1000 Robert Rd, (505) 285-3350
Perk Ranger Coffee House: Salads, wraps, and a variety of baked goods. 741 Roosevelt Ave, Grants, (505) 287-1459
Coco Bean Café: Coffee, tea, and sandwiches. 333 Nimitz Dr, Grants, (505) 285-4143
Other Resources: Gear, Information, etc.
Walmart Supercenter: 1000 Robert Rd, Grants, (505) 285-3350
Mother Whiteside Memorial Library: 525 W High St, (505) 287-4793. Mon – Thurs 10 AM – 7 PM, Fri 9 AM – 6 PM, Sat 9 AM – 3:30 PM.
Grants Post Office: 816 W Santa Fe Ave, (505) 287-3143. Mon – Fri: 8:30 AM – 5 PM, Sat 8:30 AM – 12 PM, closed Sunday.
Capri Laundromat: 604 1st St, (505) 285-4179
Rosie’s Laundry: 749 Roosevelt, (505) 287-4040
Holiday Cleaners & Laundry: 715 1st St, (505) 287-2446
Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center: 1900 E Santa Fe Ave, (505) 876-2783. A BLM and NPS partnership facility.
New Mexico Mining Museum & Grants-Cibola County Chamber of Commerce: 100 Iron Ave, (505) 287-4802
Transportation & Trail Access
Only an hour west of Albuquerque, NM on Interstate 40, Grants provides easy access to the Continental Divide Trail. The Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) is serviced by most major airlines, and Greyhound buses make daily trips between Albuquerque and Grants. (Rio Metro provides transportation between Albuquerque’s airport and the Greyhound station.)
The Cibola Transit Authority operates the “Carrot Express”. Fare is $0.50. Call for a ride – (505) 287-9816.
Continental Divide Trail Access
One of the ancient pathways connecting the Zuni and Acoma pueblos, this hike across the rugged lava flows of El Malpais is also part of the Continental Divide Trail and makes for a hiking experience like no other. The route is marked largely by rock cairns, many of which were constructed by the Ancestral Puebloans. For day hikers, this journey is best done with a shuttle, as the rugged terrain and the nature of navigating the malpais means the hike can take 6-7 hours one way.
“The Zuni-Acoma Trail spans not only 7.5 miles of lava flow, but also centuries of history and use. It is a remnant of the past and yet it still holds the promise of adventure, exploration, and accomplishment for modern day traverlers.” (National Park Service)
Directions: The western trailhead is located 16 miles south of Interstate 40 on NM 53. On the east, the trailhead is 15 miles south of I-40 on NM 117.
Sacred to American Indians, this extinct volcano is unique for its high elevation in this part of New Mexico. From the trailhead at 9,175’ to the summit at 11,301, you’ll pass through spruce and fir forests and a variety of flora. With superb vistas reaching to Colorado on clear days, this is an ideal hike in the summer and fall. Though the Continental Divide Trail itself wraps around Mt. Taylor rather than climbing to the summit, you’ll be able to see the terrain of the Continental Divide itself from the summit.
Directions: Drive north from the Mt. Taylor Ranger District Office on Lobo Canyon Road (State Highway 547) for approximately 11 miles. At the end of the pavement, turn right onto the upper loop of Forest Road 193. Continue driving east for about 5 miles to the small parking lot on the right side of Forest Road 193. Across the road from the parking lot is the Gooseberry Springs trailhead. High clearance and 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for Forest Road 193, especially in wet weather. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Events & Attractions
Historic Route 66 Fall Fiesta
October 8-9, 2016. The biggest fiesta of the year, featuring authentic New Mexican food, live music, arts and crafts, games, a green chile stew eating contest (sanctioned by Major League Eating & International Federation of Competitive Eating!), cake decorating, kid’s activities, and a craft beer garden.
Mt. Taylor 50K
October. Join us in the Navajo tradition of waking up before dawn and running east to greet the sunrise from the La Mosca Lookout. See the views of the volcanic plugs to the north, the forested Continental Divide Trail, trails through open high mountain meadows, and the 360 degree view from the summit of Mt. Taylor at 11,305 ft. (Courtesy of Mt. Taylor 50K)
Mt. Taylor Quad
February. This 4-sport adventure race incorporates a 13-mile bicycle ride, five mile run, two mile cross-country ski, and one-mile snowshoe climb from Grants to the top of Mt. Taylor. Includes a smaller-scale adventure for kids.
Rockin’ the Riverwalk Summer Concert Series
Select summer Fridays from 7-9 PM. Live music at the Riverwalk Amphitheater.
Keep an eye on this page for more events throughout the year.
The crest of this range southwest of Grants forms the Continental Divide. Trails and roads make this gem, with its aspen groves, lush meadows, red-rock mesas, and Ponderosa pine forests easily accessible.
El Malpais National Monument & Conservation Area
The “land of fire and ice” – The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Wildlife abounds in the open grasslands and forests. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. (Courtesy NPS)
New Mexico Mining Museum
100 N Iron Ave, (505) 287-4802. A top-notch look into the history of uranium mining in Grants, offering the opportunity to head underground just like the miners of decades past. This museum is highly recommended.
Ice Cave & Bandera Volcano
For a real experience in contrast, visit the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, “The Land of Fire and Ice.” Situated on the Continental Divide you walk through the twisted, old-growth Juniper, Fir and Ponderosa Pine trees, over the ancient lava trail to the Ice Cave. Here the natural layers of ice glisten blue-green in the reflected rays of sunlight. Another trail winds around the side of the Bandera Volcano to view one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country. (Courtesy Ice Caves Trading Co.)
El Morro National Monument
A reliable waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff made El Morro (the headland) a popular campsite for hundreds of years. Here, Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish and American travelers carved over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs. (Courtesy of NPS)
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a rolling landscape of badlands which offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the Four Corners Region. Time and natural elements have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations made of interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt. The weathering of the sandstone forms hoodoos – weathered rock in the form of pinnacles, spires, cap rocks, and other unusual forms. (Courtesy of BLM)
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Chaco Canyon served as a major urban center of ancestral Puebloan culture. Remarkable for
its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, astronomy, artistic
achievements, and distinctive architecture, itserved as a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration
for the prehistoric Four Corners area for 400 years—unlike anything before or since. (Courtesy of NPS)
Pueblo of Acoma Sky City
The Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, rich in cultural architecture, serves as the reception center and museum for visitors to the Pueblo of Acoma. It is the gateway to Acoma “Sky City”. Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America and the 28th Historic Site designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Acoma history is also the story of the Southwest, from its initial role as the home to the Anasazi people, to the thirteenth century founding of the Pueblo, which is still alive and well as a community and touchstone for Native Americans in the area and nationwide. (courtesy of Acoma Sky City)
The Zuni Pueblo is nestled in a scenic valley, surrounded by the enchanting mesas, located about 150 miles west of Albuquerque. The main reservation, is located in the McKinley and Cibola counties in the western part of New Mexico. The estimated number of acres encompasses about 450,000 acres. The tribe has land holdings in Catron County, New Mexico and Apache County, Arizona, which are not adjoining to the main reservation. With elevations that range from nearly 8,000 feet on the western slope of the Continental Divide to about 6,000 feet in other areas, Zuni lands encompass a great variety of habitats and natural resources. (courtesy of Pueblo of Zuni)
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