Juan de Oñate, colonial governor of New Mexico, once used El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to travel from Mexico City to a new Spanish settlement near San Juan Pueblo, now called Ohkay Owingeh, where he established the first capital of the province of New Spain.

Now a portion of that route — the Royal Road of the Interior Lands — is set to be part of a new 15-mile trail linking the Santa Fe River Trail to the Municipal Recreation Complex on Caja del Rio Road and to recreation sites farther north, along Old Buckman Road, such as the popular trail through Diablo Canyon.

Once the new segment of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail and the MRC Trail are complete, along with the final stretches of the River Trail, said Tim Rogers, trails program manager for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, “People will be able to go from downtown Santa Fe out to Cajo del Rio and Diablo Canyon on bike or foot.”

The new trail also will link to hundreds of miles of other trails on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Most of the funding for the $4.3 million project is coming from the Federal Lands Access Program of the Federal Highway Administration. Santa Fe County is putting up matching funds of $474,000, and the city of Santa Fe another $150,000.

The proposal began with Steve Burns Chavez, a landscape architect with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service, which administers eight national historic trails, including El Camino Real. Burns Chavez said County Commissioner Robert Anaya took his plan to the county, which applied for the federal funding.

Burns Chavez said he was simply pursuing the mandate of the National Trails Act — which is to give visitors the opportunity to “vicariously” have the experience of a historic trail user.

Much of the Camino Real national historic trail through New Mexico and Texas is already established as a driving tour, with various attractions for visitors to explore along along the way, such as wildlife refuges, mission churches, museums and ancient cultural sites. The route was added to the National Trails System in 2000. Colleen Baker, Open Space and Trails Program manager for Santa Fe County, said this portion of the Camino Real will give visitors a chance to experience a landscape unchanged for hundreds of years.

HDR Inc. in Denver, which worked previously with the county on the heavily used Rail Trail, was hired to do the design.

A 30-day “scoping period” for the project began recently. During this time, public comments are being accepted and eventually will be incorporated into an environmental assessment. Construction is expected to begin on the trail in the spring of 2017.

Tim Fowler, a board member and past president of the local Fat Tire Society, said he believes the project will provide “better connectivity to existing trails and perhaps some possibilities for additional trails, all of which are likely and positive outcomes.”

Steve Washburn, another board member of the Fat Tire Society and a member of the Trails Alliance of Santa Fe, said, “I think anything they can do to help the Caja area is a great idea. Between that and the ‘Big Friggin’ Loop,’ it all ties in and makes sense.” Especially he added, for kids on the south side of town.

What he calls “The Big Friggin Loop” is the Grand Unified Trails System, an initiative to develop a loop of connecting trails around the greater Santa Fe area by 2020. Some of those trail systems include the La Tierra Trails, the Dale Ball Trails and trails in the Arroyo Hondo Open Space.

The Camino Real project contains two segments. The first five miles of the trail, which will connect with the Santa Fe River Trail, will be a 10-foot-wide, paved, multi-use pathway. Beginning at the Santa Fe River Greenway, that portion will proceed north from the River Trail via an underpass at N.M. 599 and then travel parallel to Caja del Rio Road until County Road 62. Then it will cross CR 62, heading south to the U.S. Forest Service Headquarters Trailhead at the entry to Forest Service and BLM lands.

The next segment will be a 10-mile, narrower, unpaved recreation trail that will follow the historic route. The original trail to Oñate’s settlement near Ohkay Owingeh existed for only 10 to 12 years, Rogers said, until the colonial capital was moved to Santa Fe. The traces of it are minimal. But the new trail will look much as the old route did to the conquistadors.

The recreation trail will begin at the Forest Service Headquarters Trailhead west of Las Campanas and will continue north to a new trailhead at the parking area for the Forest Service’s Dead Dog Trail off Old Buckman Road. Then it will proceed north, paralleling Old Buckman Road, and continue to the BLM’s Diablo Canyon Trailhead.

The Camino Real actually went through La Cienega, but this plan bypasses that community because of residents’ concerns about drawing additional traffic.

Baker, of the county open space program, said Old Buckman Road is a heavily trafficked major utility corridor, but as hikers, bikers and equestrians get into the canyon, they will see a nearly untouched landscape. And they may run into grazing cows, so they should be sure to latch any gates they go through, she said.

What’s exciting about the project, Baker added, is that local, state and federal agencies are coming together to work collaboratively. Besides the federal program, the city and the county, other partners include the BLM, the Forest Service, the National Historic Trails program and the National Park Service.

The Grand Unified Trails System also is a collaborative project. The partnership agreement has been signed by 11 groups, including the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, the National Park Service, Rancho Viejo, the Santa Fe Community College, the Santa Fe County Horse Coalition and others.

The Federal Lands Access Program’s Camino Real trail project, Rogers said, is another spoke in the wheel. A portion of it, he said, piggybacks on the Municipal Recreation Complex Trail, which was already part of the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s bicycle master plan, a project he designed. Prior to that, he said, the northwest area of the city was largely an empty corridor, with lots of public lands. Now those lands are being integrated into the Camino Real trail plan.

Rogers said he is looking especially at recreational, dirt trails that can be maintained by volunteers.

Recently, he had a meeting to put together planning teams for 10 segments of the Grand Unified Trails System, and the public is invited to another meeting Friday.

Washburn said Rogers and Fowler are “leading the charge” to map trails and fill in the gaps so that people can hike and bike everywhere, including, “Pecos, Glorieta, the Dale Ball Trails, La Tierra, the MRC and Caja.”

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.