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Fort Union National Monument Overview

Fort Union National Monument

On a road trip, I always look for those off the beaten path or less popular places. Don’t get me wrong, I love the big ticket stops like the Grand Canyon as much as the next person but there is something special about some of the smaller attractions. Fort Union National Monument is just one of those attractions.

The Monument sits about eight miles off of I-25 in northern New Mexico. Admittedly, there isn’t much left to the once massive fort. A few ruins here and there are all that remain. But the monument is done extremely well for those who like history. The stories are there and with a bit of imagination the prairie can come to life once more.

The History of Fort Union

I was lucky enough to come on a day that wasn’t too crowded. Well, maybe not luck, as the ranger told me they weren’t one of the busier monuments. I was lucky that the very generous ranger had time to tell me a bit about Fort Union. The Fort, now just remnants of chimneys and walls, was once one of the most important hubs in the southwest.

Between 30-100 wagon trains, of up to 200 wagons each, made their way through Fort Union on a daily basis at its peak. The thousands of pounds of goods from the train would then be shipped out to any of the 46 regional posts spread through the entire southwest. The ranger at the visitor center told me that even fresh oysters made their way to Fort Union. For those of you who know geography, Northern New Mexico isn’t really close to any oceans.

While Fort Union was a distribution hub, it was also a military fort whose main purpose was to protect the Santa Fe Trail, and all of those wagon trains, from raiders. Fort Union soldiers also were involved in Civil War battles to help protect the northern army and western territories against the Confederate Army from Texas. Unlike most of the forts at the time, Fort Union allowed wives and family members to live on base making for an active, thriving community. There is so much about the history that I can’t put it all here but if you are interested and in the area, I highly suggest you stop in to learn even more!

One of many informational graphics at Fort Union National Monument.
One of many informational graphics at Fort Union National Monument.

The Museum at Fort Union National Monument

There is a lot of history on the outside at Fort Union National Monument. On the inside, they have just rebuilt a really impressive museum/visitor center. The displays looked brand new! There were informational placards explaining life at the fort from many different perspectives.

Historical artifacts from the area are also on display at the moderately sized display. There is also a short movie available to shed even more light on the historical importance of Fort Union. If you love history, you will really enjoy this rich trove of the historical importance of the Fort. Personally, I learned more about the west in the time I spent here than I did in high school and college combined.

Inside the small museum at the visitor center at Fort Union National Monument.
Inside the small museum at the visitor center at Fort Union National Monument.

The Grounds at Fort Union National Monument

The grounds at Fort Union National Monument may not look like much these days. Perfect rows of fireplaces and chimneys surrounded by varying degree of stone walls is all that is really left standing. A couple of spots, like the hospital, can still be made out as a building.

It isn’t what is there currently that is impressive but the storyboards left by each ruin that explains the history of the spot you are standing on. From the canon used to defend the fort to the wagon repair shop, the grounds are covered with information that takes you back to when this plot of land was a bustling hub. The old Santa Fe Trail is even marked a couple of times and you can see the faint resemblance of where the trail once ran.

I have a lot more photos and a video of the grounds on my previous blog, Hiking Fort Union.

Some of the ruins at Fort Union National Monument.
Some of the ruins at Fort Union National Monument.

Visiting Fort Union National Monument

The Fort Union National Monument is located near Watrous New Mexico and is just 8 miles off of I-25. It is pretty easy to find following the signs when you exit the highway. There is a visitor center and plenty of parking at the monument as well as a bit of a museum in the visitor center. There is no fee to visit Fort Union but the monument is only open from 8am – 4pm in winter and 8am – 5pm in summer.

Be prepared for some extreme wind and also a lot of sun on your trip. Make sure to have sunscreen and hat and sunglasses. The ranger also told me that the fort was dubbed “Fort Windy”. I had consistent strong winds that I thought were pretty bad but the ranger just shrugged and said it was a normal day. So make sure you have some protection for the wind as well on your journey.

Wrapping up Fort Union National Monument

Fort Union National Monument won’t be for everyone. For me, it was an amazing look into the past. A past I found out that I don’t know much about. The ruins are fascinating. Perfectly formed fireplaces, standing alone. A red brick wall standing with the help of some modern lumber. The remains of the biggest hospital for hundreds of miles still standing against the persistent winds.

There isn’t a ton left at the fort but if you close your eyes you can almost hear the horses hoofs striking the grass. The hammers hitting a steel wagon wheel in the repair shop. You can imagine soldiers marching the grounds in their blue uniforms. The officer wives planning a social dance over tea near the flag pole.

The fort is now a shadow of itself. It was once such a large part of shaping the future and history of the west and now, it is almost just a memory. If you enjoy the history of the west this will be a perfect spot to stop and see how it was made.

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