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Big sky country

New Mexico day thirteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Farewell to Cimarron

Breakfast at the St James Hotel was disappointing after the previous evening’s good dinner – a buffet with weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs, but partly relieved by good crispy bacon and hot salsa. But on the whole we had loved our stay here and were pleased we’d come a little off the beaten path to include it on our itinerary.

Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time this morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron. We had a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel which took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall would indicate that some trials are still held here.

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Old Grist Mill, and courthouse parking sign

Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although our walking tour leaflet gave no explanation for that name. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. In 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here and the Indian Agency previously located in Taos moved to Cimarron. The mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. The leaflet went on to explain:

‘However, the 1867 gold rush on Baldy led to a large influx of people and the treatment of Indians suffered. Maxwell's sale of the Grant to an English company in 1870 further aggravated the problem. Troubles came to a head in 1875 when a small skirmish occurred between the Indian Agent and a band of rowdy Indians. Shots were exchanged as agency employees quickly ducked inside the Mill. The Indian Agent and several Indians were wounded and the one Indian arrested was later killed in a scuffle in the town jail. Government troops quickly defused the situation but in 1876 the Cimarron agency was closed and the Indians moved onto reservations in northwestern New Mexico and Colorado.’

You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were just too late in the year to be able to do so.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Further down the lane is the Immaculate Conception Church, which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children. It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...

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On Highway 64

One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love ‘Big Sky Country’, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.

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Big sky country

We reach I25 a few miles south of Raton. And south was our intended ultimate direction of travel for today, but first we had a detour to make, so instead we turned north on the Interstate and then east again on Highway 87. We had a volcano to visit.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Distant view of Capulin

North eastern New Mexico is relatively flat compared with much of the rest of the state – indeed, here you are on the edge of the Great Plains. So the scattering of volcanic mountains across the landscape here is all the more striking. If you approach Capulin from the south west, as we did, you will have descended from the New Mexican Rockies onto this flat plain, thinking maybe that you have left mountain grandeur behind you. Then on the horizon a number of hazy conical shapes appear, of which the most classically volcanic in outline is Capulin itself.

Capulin is an extinct cinder cone volcano, and if you were asked to draw a volcano, this is the exact shape you would probably draw – a perfect cone with an indentation at the top. It rises abruptly from the surrounding grasslands to a height of 8,182 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is about a mile in circumference and the crater itself about 400 feet deep. Scattered over the plain at its feet are the signs of its past activity, with the dark scars of its lava flows interrupting the soft greens of the grassy plains.

There is a two mile road up to the top. The National Parks Service leaflet which we were given on paying our entrance fee warned about the challenging nature of the drive to the summit, and our Moon Handbook said that this was ‘only for steely drivers’. Well, maybe this has something to do with the different nature of driving on the largely straight, open roads of the US, in contrast to the winding country lanes that English drivers often have to negotiate, but we just didn’t get that ‘steely drivers’ thing! OK, you have to be a bit careful – stick to the posted speed limit, don’t stop other than in designated pull-outs, and of course keep your eyes on the road (Chris as driver had to wait until we reached the top before admiring the scenery!). But it’s all pretty much common sense, it would be a shame if the warnings put anyone off driving up and missing out on these fantastic views.

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View from parking lot at the top of the drive

Relatively few visitors to the state come here it seems; there were only two other cars in the parking lot at the top and we met only a handful of other people on the rim trail. But they should! I found this a scenic counter-balance to the busier parts of the state which gave us a strong sense of the wide open spaces that still occupy vast swathes of the United States. On a clear day (and there are plenty of those in New Mexico) you can apparently see about 8,000 square miles of volcanic field from here, and beyond to the west lie the Rockies. Today, with a little haze, we couldn’t see quite as far but it was still an amazing view!

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Views from Capulin Volcano Rim Trai

There are a number of trails of varying difficulty that you can do at Capulin. We chose the Rim Trail, described as moderately difficult due to its steep climbs and descents. This is approximately a mile long and as the name suggests follows the rim of the crater itself. It is paved, but does indeed climb and dip quite a bit, including a few steps in places, so it isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs, and you need to be fairly able-bodied. The altitude also makes it a little harder going perhaps, but anyone of reasonable fitness will cope fine with this walk, and the views amply repay any effort required.

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The crater's rim

Along the path a series of information boards explain the geology of the surrounding Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, as well as some of the wildlife (flora and fauna) that can be found here. Unfortunately a couple of these signs were a little worn so we couldn’t take in all the facts, but we learned a fair bit from them nevertheless.

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The lava field at the foot of the volcano

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On the Rim Trail

Returning to I25 we headed south, on one of the longest legs of this road trip, and also the longest stretch of interstate driving that we had planned. Our usual preference is for the slower roads, with more stopping opportunities, but this was not only the only logical route through this part of the state but also enabled us to cover a bit more ground to reach our destination for the night. But we nevertheless took the chance to stop off at one sight en route.

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Driving south on I25

Fort Union

Fort Union lies about twenty miles north of the town where we were to spend the night, Las Vegas (the New Mexico town of that name, not the more famous one in Nevada!), and was closely linked to the development and prosperity of the town. Built to protect travellers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian raids, it also served as a major supply depot for Union troops during the Civil War.

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Fort Union

The first fort here was built in 1851 from wood, and a second ten years later – a massive earth fortification. The present ruins are of the third fort, built in 1862 of adobe brick on top of stone foundations. It would have been an impressive structure that greeted travellers on the Santa Fe Trail, but when the Trail was replaced by the coming of the railroad, trade declined and the need for the fort with it. Fort Union closed in 1891 and was abandoned. The buildings gradually fell into ruin, until it was established as a National Monument in 1956 and efforts started to preserve what remained.

When we visited the place was almost deserted and perhaps no wonder – there was a cold wind blowing across the plains and it was spitting with rain. Determined to see at least a bit of what had brought us here we paid the $3 per person entry and had a look around the displays in the Visitor Centre. These include displays on what life was life for soldiers and civilians stationed at the fort, and a number of artefacts from when it was at the height of its activity.

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Replica covered wagon

Outside you can do a 1.6 mile self-guided interpretive trail or a shorter .5 mile one. We set off on the latter but in the end opted for just a quick look at a few things that especially caught our eye and were in the immediate vicinity – a replica covered wagon, the ruined hospital looking stark against the threatening sky, the traces of the old wagon ruts still visible in the grassland.

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Hospital ruins, and replica tents

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Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail

One thing the bleak weather did give us was a strong appreciation of how life must have been for those stationed here. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving – extremes of temperature (which according to the park website can vary within 50 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour period), summer storms and winter blizzards.

Las Vegas

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Bridge Street, Las Vegas

Leaving the chill of Fort Union behind us we continued to Las Vegas. When I first planned our route through New Mexico a friend who had lived in the area (the one who recommended the excellent Shed restaurant in Santa Fe) had questioned my inclusion of this town, which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Nevada. In her view it had no real sights to offer and was rather too seedy and run-down to be worth a visit. I ignored her however, and was right to do so!

Unlike its glitzy namesake this Las Vegas is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive. We loved the photogenic old buildings of the Historic Bridge Street District, and the sleepy Plaza.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas

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The Plaza Hotel

But our first action on arriving was to check into our pre-booked accommodation in the grand old Plaza Hotel. If like us you prefer to stay near the centre of any town you visit, able to walk to the restaurants and bars, there is really only one choice in Las Vegas NM, and that is the historic Plaza Hotel. It dominates the north-west corner of the town’s large plaza, and its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms are a delight to visit – the more so because the less fashionable nature of Las Vegas as a destination makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

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In the hotel lobby

The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay, but soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around the new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest,. The hotel was restored in 1882, and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium and converted it too into part of the hotel, linked internally. Our room was in this part, but the sympathetic conversion made it hard to see the difference apart from the change in floor levels of the corridor as you move between one part and the other.

But we didn’t linger in the room, keen to get out and see a bit of the town in what remained of the afternoon, starting in the Plaza.

Exploring Las Vegas

After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

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Adobe building on the Plaza

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – I didn’t take one when we first set out on our explorations, and it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)

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Another view of the Plaza Hotel

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

From the Plaza we walked east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

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Italianate building on Bridge Street

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On Bridge Street

The whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

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Street photography on Bridge Street

But we looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street – a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken. So we were very happy on returning to the Plaza to find that Tapetes de Luna, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on its north-east corner, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there.

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Tapetes de Lana

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Coffee table, Tapetes de Lana

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Loom in Tapetes de Luna

Unfortunately this establishment seems to have since closed down, although the Travellers’ Café which has replaced it looks equally welcoming.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

After our coffee we had a quick look inside a couple of the other places on the Plaza. On its north side we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more – and this one appears still to be in the same spot and thriving (see http://elzocalogallery.com/).

By now though the rain we had first encountered at Fort Union had returned, so we went back to the hotel to relax in our cosy room and take advantage of the free wifi there.

Landmark Grill at the Plaza

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Chris with his chicken enchiladas
(red chilli)

We had planned to try one of the local Mexican restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that were recommended in our Moon Handbook, but that evening there was heavy rain and we decided to eat in the Plaza Hotel’s Landmark Grill instead (nowadays known as the Range Café). From the name we feared it might be a bit posh and expensive, but it proved to be excellent value and very welcoming. We were glad to have ended up eating there. And from the snatches of conversation overheard at other tables, and the mix of customers (young couples, local families, older travellers), it was clear that for lots of people the Landmark Grill was a favourite place to eat in Las Vegas.

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My chicken enchiladas
(green chilli)

Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of complimentary bread with oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping, which I always love. Although clearly inexperienced and young (so young that he was not allowed to serve us our beers but had to ask the senior waitress to take our drinks order instead!), he made a real effort to ensure we enjoyed our meal.

From the varied menu we both chose chicken enchiladas – I with green chilli and Chris with red. We also shared a house salad, which had a nice mix of leaves and a good blue cheese dressing.

Byron T's Saloon

After our tasty meal in the Landmark Grill we decided to check out the bar across the lobby, Byron T’s Saloon. This is named after a former owner of the hotel, and former town mayor, Byron T Mills, who it is claimed still haunts the hotel – or rather, one of its rooms, 301.

We were quite surprised to find that this is much more of a local bar than we would expect a hotel one to be, and all the better for it. Whereas in our hotel in Grants we had found ourselves to be the only drinkers in the bar (!), here we found a buzzing lively atmosphere that was much more to our liking.

We secured seats at one end of the bar, and ordered our drinks – a very good margarita for me, and a bottle of Dos Equis for Chris. The drinkers around us were clearly locals, and were enjoying ribbing the barmaid, who was giving as good as she got. We got talking to the guy sitting next to us at the bar, who then introduced us to a couple of his drinking companions, including his son who was (unusually for an American) a big rugby fan. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting to them, and naturally ordered a second round of drinks. I think the barmaid’s hand slipped while mixing my margarita as it was even stronger than the first, and I have to confess to a bit of a hangover the next morning – but well worth it for such a fun evening! Unfortunately though, the friendly conversation, or possibly the alcohol, seem to have diverted me from my usual habit of taking photos of absolutely everything for Virtual Tourist, so I have none of the bar at all!

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture road_trip restaurant volcanoes history hotel weather new_mexico street_photography

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Comments

The Las Vegas here looks more interesting and characterful than the famous one in Nevada.

by irenevt

I don't find Big Sky landscapes boring in the slightest

by Easymalc

Thank both :) Yes, definitely it is Irene, although a lot smaller! And Malcolm of course I agree but I believe some people do find them so, bizarrely ;)

by ToonSarah

You are distracting me from the work I should be doing (entering photos into a database)

by greatgrandmaR

We have another Las Vegas here in California. It's an old mining town and very picturesque. The New Mexico one is also picturesque. When I think of NM, I always remember the very clear, deep-blue skies. You seem to have arrived in the rainy season! ;)

by Beausoleil

Sorry Rosalie

And Sally, we only had these couple of days of rain - blue skies returned for the last part of the trip :)

by ToonSarah

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