I’M POISED ON A SANDY riverbank in the heart of Farmington, at the point where the Animas and San Juan rivers converge. A distant birdcall pierces the quiet rumble as translucent green water pushes up against a second flowing channel of deep gray. Neatly framed by sandstone bluffs that arch over spindly trees along the banks, these rivers served as a place for meeting and trading for centuries.

Settlement in the region stretches back some 2,000 years, when Ancestral Puebloans built pit houses and later lived in structures in the natural sandstone rock. “Going back to the Puebloan people that settled here, it was the river,” says Joan Monninger, executive director of Aztec Museum & Pioneer Village. “Water is life. That brought settlement.”

The Navajo name for this area is Tóta’, or “in between water.” Footprints of those early communities can be found in the large public buildings, earthworks, and ceremonial buildings at Aztec Ruins National Monument. Originally an outlier of the Chacoan people, who built a far-reaching center of culture, trade, and community about 55 miles south, Aztec became a hub in its own right. When Ancestral Puebloans left the area, it became home to Navajo, Ute, and Apache peoples.

Spanish settlers arrived by the 16th century, and San Juan County was established in 1887. The rivers allowed for irrigation, with water flowing through acequias, which yielded fields of crops in Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield, and Kirtland that fed generations. “It’s all about the rivers,” Monninger says. “Early homesteaders were farming.”

Fifth Generation Trading Company in Farmington features authentic Navajo jewelry.

Agriculture remains important to the region, both culturally and economically. Visitors can experience San Juan County’s local produce, arts, and culture at several local growers’ markets, organized by the Northwest Growers Alliance. “We’re all partners that work together to not only promote our community, but also to share, produce, and invite growers to come to our markets,” says Flo Trujillo, Northwest New Mexico Arts Council president. “It works out nicely for everyone.”

While fields of cantaloupe, honeydew, squash, and sweet corn continue to flourish, San Juan County is also nurturing a blossoming outdoor recreation movement that complements the natural beauty, culture, and history that permeates northwestern New Mexico. “The idea was to create an economy that would get people outdoors,” says James Glover, co-director for endeavOR, a Farmington-based outdoor recreation organization. “People are taking advantage of it in a variety of ways.”

Consider the small community of Navajo Dam, for example, where campers, hikers, and especially fly-fishing enthusiasts can spend days along the San Juan River. Flanked by sandstone mesas, the four-mile stretch of specially designated trout-fishing waters attracts anglers from around the world hoping to nab a hefty rainbow or big brown. The few miles of San Juan that represent the Quality Waters feel tiny in comparison to the monumental impact they’ve had on the angler community since the dam was built in the 1950s, which gave the San Juan a steady flow of cool water, creating ideal conditions for trout to thrive.

The Animas River Trail is perfect for families.

But this region is more than a fishing mecca. Rafters navigate the family-friendly waters of the Animas. Mountain bikers carve up the single-track along the Alien Run Trails, near an alleged 1948 UFO crash site. Photographers capture the strange rock formations molded by erosion into caps, pinnacles, and spires in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. Hikers can choose from eight miles of riverwalk trails along the San Juan or take on the badlands of the Piñon Mesa Recreation Area. Off-roaders challenge their nerves and four-wheel mettle at the Glade Run Recreation Area. History enthusiasts step back in time at Aztec Ruins, where an easy, half-mile self-guided tour winds among the original rooms and kivas. Foodies can sample New Mexican favorites at the Chile Pod, authentic Native cuisine at Ashkii’s Navajo Grill, food-truck fare at Locke Street Eats, and local craft beer at Three Rivers Brewery.

Despite all this, northwestern New Mexico is often overlooked when compared to nearby outdoor hot spots like Durango, Colorado. “Farmington and Aztec share the exact same outdoor recreation amenities,” says Glover. “They just don’t have the same recognition.”

The Museum of Navajo Art and Culture includes an impressive collection of weavings.

For an introduction to these gems, Farmington Museum and travel center presents a window into the city’s past and its connection to the rivers. The travel center offers information on outdoor recreation in the area, including the best stops along the Animas and San Juan rivers in Farmington and beyond, and the museum features a variety of permanent and traveling exhibitions, such as a summer installation featuring Navajo weavings from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.

More developments are in the works as well. In April, Farmington broke ground on a market pavilion that will serve as the home for the farmers’ market. The 93-acre Juniper Basin Recreation Area is getting new biking and hiking trails. An adjustable water-wave feature is planned for the Animas River that allows for surfing, kayaking, or tubing using generated waves.

“People love to come down, walk along the rivers, and partake of what they produce,” says Julie Baird, deputy city manager and former director for Farmington Museum. “The rivers have always been a source of pride for the community.”

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