Las Vegas, New Mexico: Treasure of the Santa Fe Trail

Text and photos by Dorothea S. Michelman

Surrounded by mountains, marshes, and mesas, northern New Mexico’s “City of Meadows” needs no casinos or slot machines to entice the traveler year round. And it’s twice as enticing, at that.

For nearly ninety years – from 1882 to 1970 – Las Vegas was not one town but two. Two modes of transportation as the impetus for their development, two cultural communities, two philosophies toward city planning. Added up, this means today’s visitor has at least 918 reasons to explore Las Vegas, each one a well-earned entry in the National Register of Historic Places.

Originally known as Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de las Vegas Grandes, (Our Lady of Sorrows of the Great Meadows), the first Las Vegas came into existence in 1835 as a land grant from the Mexican government. The Old Town Plaza clearly reflects the heritage of its founders, who laid out one of New Mexico’s finest (and best-preserved) plazas, true to the precepts of Spanish-Mexican colonial style. High above the Gallinas River, streets fan outwards from the plaza like spokes of a wheel. And what could be more fitting, recalling Las Vegas’s early days as a key trading stop for wagon trains traveling the length of the Santa Fe Trail?

The Santa Fe Trail was already well-trodden as part of an Indian trade network long before the Spaniards arrived, but it is William Becknell who gets the credit for its later renown. Becknell was a Missouri merchant with international commerce in mind when he opened the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, not long after the Mexican war of independence. He transported American goods from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico: a three-month trek of over 800 miles. But it was worth every mile. Despite the dangers involved – bandits alone made this business a risky one – trading along the Trail soon brought in a million dollars each year.

By the 1830s, hundreds of wagons were traveling back and forth and, as might be expected, they left their mark. So much so that ruts are still visible at various sites along the New Mexico portion of the Santa Fe Trail (now designated a Scenic and Historic Byway) between Fort Union National Monument and Pecos National Historical Park.

Fort Union National Monument was built in 1851 to protect trade wagons, with three forts in all constructed during its forty-year history. Your self-guided tour path guides you not only to the second Fort Union and the ruins of the third; the largest visible network of Santa Fe Trail ruts can be seen here as well.

In contrast, Pecos National Historical Park is the site of 12,000 years of history. Not all areas are currently open to visitors, but you may take a self-guided tour of the ancient pueblo of Pecos, including two reconstructed kivas (traditionally open only to men for most ceremonial and social occasions) and the ruins of two Spanish colonial missions. Other areas, including the Civil War battlefield of Glorieta and the Santa Fe Trail, are available through ranger-guided tours.

The arrival of the AT & SF railroad in 1879 saw the close of one era and the commencement of another. A second Las Vegas sprang up. This one, on the east side of the Gallinas River, was of a rather different mold. Designed along the lines of 19th-century cities “back East,” its grid plan of streets and parks was a far cry from that of its neighbor. This new town also had a large percentage of European immigrants who had traveled west, adding a more cosmopolitan and polyglot flavor to the area. The two communities did not merge until 1970.

Still New Mexico’s largest city in 1900, Las Vegas’s fortunes began to wane in the wake of competition from elsewhere in the territory, as additional rail lines were built. Further economic decline culminating in the Great Depression of the 1930s sealed the end of the town’s prosperity. More recently, gradual growth coupled with a strong commitment to historic preservation are making a difference in today’s Las Vegas, and beyond.

A good place to see where it all began is the Old Town Plaza, home to a variety of galleries and shops as well as the historic Plaza Hotel (1882). And for those who like to contemplate local history over a bit of local cuisine, there’s Adelia’s Landmark Grill just past the hotel lobby. With delectable dishes from Carnitas Diablo to homemade chiles rellenos, Adelia’s is just right for a relaxing break, whether you’re sightseeing, shopping – or doing both.

To experience commitment of a different kind – assisting rural area residents through training in northeastern New Mexico’s traditional fiber arts – stop by the Tapetes de Lana Weaving Center. A non-profit vocational program which fosters rural economic development in a region of high unemployment and low income, Tapetes de Lana teaches new weavers the art of one of New Mexico’s oldest traditions. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate brought both Spanish colonists and churro sheep to New Mexico, setting the stage for the Rio Grande textile industry, which flourished for 300 years – and may yet again.

Visitors are invited to watch the weavers at work – from spinning and dyeing to weaving the wool and other natural fibers – and to admire the finished textiles, available in both traditional and contemporary designs.

The Old Town Plaza is also an ideal starting point for a self-guided walking tour of the Plaza and the Bridge Street District, two of the city’s nine historic districts. Justly famed for its amazing architectural medley, a walk through Las Vegas is a walk through American building design history. From modest adobe homes to Greek Revival and Queen Anne, the streets of Las Vegas reveal finely preserved examples of nearly every residential style to appear in this country from 1840 to 1940. And with so many styles to choose from and in such a stunning natural setting, it’s also easy to see why filmmakers have been flocking to Las Vegas since 1915.

Another treasured building is the Carnegie Library, built in 1903. Like many other small-town libraries throughout the United States, it was born through a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, it is one of only a few Carnegie Libraries still used as Mr. Carnegie intended.

In comparison, Montezuma Castle (1885), five miles distant from Las Vegas, has gone through a number of reincarnations. The hot springs in Montezuma inspired its first life as a railroad resort: during the late 1800s, eastern doctors often recommended trips west for patients suffering from tuberculosis as well as other maladies. The resort closed in 1903, and the property was successively used as a Baptist college, YMCA, and Jesuit seminary. It is now the home of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West. Founded after World War II to bring international students together to facilitate better understanding and to encourage world peace, its student body includes 200 students from 75 countries. The facility, the only United World College in this country, is open to the public for special events.

For nature lovers, the 8,672-acre Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge offers a fascinating look at the variety of wildlife possible where two ecosystems intersect. You’ll find plants, birds, and animals native to mountain areas. You’ll spot others native to plains. And you’ll discover those that thrive in both.

Migratory birds following the Central Flyway take a welcome respite from their journey here. Some rest, while others – including cinnamon teal and Canada geese – nest. Sandhill cranes arrive in the fall and settle down for the winter. At Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, each season offers its own rewards to the patient observer.

Nearby Sapello offers another opportunity to scan the skies, this time for stars. At Star Hill Inn, the first astronomy retreat in the United States, I enjoyed my first “star tour,” designed to be a communal experience for experienced and beginning observers alike, and complete with both high-powered telescopes and intriguing discussions of scientific and mythological topics. What better introduction for a non-astronomer? And with the site and vacation cabins open year-round, I know I’ll be back.

Elegant creations in hand-forged steel are what you’ll discover at the Christopher Thomson Ironworks in Ilfeld. From home furnishings to sculpture and architectural works, a visit to Ilfeld is an exciting opportunity to witness the transformation of metal into art in the hands of this gifted artist. The subject of a number of feature stories and recipient of many awards, Christopher Thomson’s current project forges aspects of new and old Mexico: to create three replicas of a 16th-century Spanish chandelier.

Thirty miles north of Las Vegas, just outside of Mora, is the Victory Ranch, where friendly, free-range alpacas look forward to being caressed, fed – and possibly purchased – by you. Indigenous to the South American Andes, these small cousins of the llama are equally at home in the Mora Valley. Alpaca fleece is as fine as cashmere, but far stronger. The soft fiber is sold to hand spinners and the yarn to weavers. And you can try your own hand at spinning and weaving yarn as well.

There is also a shop, offering just what you might expect: a seemingly endless variety of handcrafted alpaca-related goods ranging from high-fashion clothing to toys. Still not quite what you’re looking for? Quite a few of Victory Ranch’s 200 gentle alpacas are for sale, and you can even board them at the Ranch if you discover they’re just a bit more free-ranging than you’d had in mind. And what better excuse for a return visit to northern New Mexico?!


Las Vegas/San Miguel County Chamber of Commerce
701 Grand Avenue
P.O. Box 128
Las Vegas, NM 87701

A selection of lodging, restaurants, and sightseeing attractions:


Plaza Hotel
230 Plaza
Las Vegas, NM 87701

El Fidel Hotel
500 Douglas Avenue
Las Vegas, NM 87701

Star Hill Inn
P.O. Box 707
Sapello, NM 87745


La Trattoria
500 Douglas Avenue
Las Vegas NM 87701

Pastime Cafe
113 Bridge Street
Las Vegas, NM 87701

Hillcrest Restaurant and Flamingo Dining Room
1106 Grand Avenue
Las Vegas, NM 87701


Montezuma Castle
United World College-USA
P.O. Box 248
Montezuma, NM 87731-0248

Fort Union National Monument
P.O. Box 127
Hwy 161
Tel. 505-425-8025

Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge
Route 1, Box 339
Las Vegas, NM 87701
505-425-3581 & 505-425-3582

Santa Fe Trail Interpretation Center
P.O. Box 728
127 Bridge Street
Las Vegas, NM 87701

Pecos National Historic Park
P.O. Box 418
Hwy 63
Pecos, NM 87552-0418

Victory Ranch
P.O. Box 680
Mora, NM 87732

Madison Vineyards and Winery
HC 72, Box 490
Ribera, NM 87560

Tapetes de Lana Weaving Center
1814 Plaza
Las Vegas, NM 87701

Christopher Thomson Ironworks
5851 Interstate 25 Frontage Road
Ilfeld, NM 87565

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.