POSTED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 5:45pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 6:09pm
SUNLAND PARK, NM — From a distance, Mount Cristo Rey may not look like anything special, but get up close and you'll quickly realize this isn't any ol' trailhead. Every year during the last weekend of October, more than 20,000 people converge at the base of Mount Cristo Rey. That's more hikers than iconic peaks like Mount Ranier and Mount McKinley see in an entire year. More than 10,000 people also hike the mountain during Holy Week, before Easter.
"Every time I come it's amazing, every time," said Cynthia Gallegos, one hiker.
So what makes this treeless trail so appealing? For most this isn't just a hike. It's a spiritual journey. A 29 foot tall limestone statue of Christ stands atop the summit. It was placed here back in 1939 by the people of what was then nearby Smeltertown. The town's parish priest looked out his back window one day and had a vision of a monument overlooking not only New Mexico, but Texas and Mexico as well.
"He didn't do it for a long time because he didn't think it was in the U.S. He thought it was in Mexico. Then they had a survey done and told him, yes, it was in the U.S. and he started to build," said Ruben Escandon, Jr., with the Mount Cristo Rey Restoratoin Committee.
Pilgrims have been coming every year since. The reasons why are as numerous as the people who visit.
"I just think it's what it represents, Christ being atop of the mountain, calling his people. It's like we're coming to the mountain, we're coming to Him," said Diana Perez, one of the hikers.
"They may be giving thanks for a miracle they received. They may be praying for someone in their family to get healed, whatever," said David McNeill, Jr., a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
Some people literally crawl part of their way to the top. Others make the five mile round trip hike barefoot. We caught up with Cynthia Gallegos near the summit, softly crying as she gazed out over Mexico.
"I was thinking of Mexico at that moment, and it was kind of emotional. Believe it or not, I came back to my faith in Mexico. I did," said Gallegos.
A lot of tears have been shed on the mountain over the years, and not just tears of joy. While the mountain has a reputation as being a holy place, it's also a dangerous site. Hikers have been threatened, accosted, and mugged on the trail.
"People would come down in their underwear sometimes because people would take their clothes and shoes, but mostly they're after their money,and shoes, and cell phones things like that," said Escandon, Jr.
The trail today is much safer than it used to be, but people are still urged to stay away unless they're hiking with a large group. Once you set foot atop Mt. Cristo Rey it's a celebration that's hard to describe. Pilgrims gather to give thanks to God and to share their faith, with a symbol of peace, the cross, towering over them all.
"We're so fortunate to have this mountain here. We really are. It's just gratitude," said Gallegos.
You can hike the mountain on other days of the year with an organized group. For more information, check out this link: