The railroad helped put Las Vegas on the map and visitors today can still experience the thrill of riding the rails into town and spending a weekend exploring this historic oasis on the edge of the plains.
And that’s just what we did by boarding the daily Amtrak train at the lonely, windswept Lamy station just outside of Santa Fe to take a pleasant two hour rail ride to Las Vegas for an overnight visit and walking tour of the town.
Our trip began with pregnant storm clouds looming overhead and a biting wind stirring up dead leaves under the eves of the rustic Lamy railway station.
With New Mexico in the grip of a long running drought the prospect of a good spring storm was more than welcome and the station’s warm inviting waiting room offered sanctuary if needed.
The storm waited until just as we boarded and then the hail beat a tattoo across the metal roof of the heavy passenger car.
As soon as the conductor assigned us a seat we abandoned it for the brighter, more inviting space of the observation deck in another car.
They say trains run through America’s backyard and here it is no different as we catch quick glimpses of remote homes tucked into secluded canyons or out amid the fields and trees.
Horses, dogs and livestock absently note our passing while the occasional person waves to the lonely wail of the train’s horn.
In time the atmosphere inside the car takes hold and we find ourselves making acquaintance with fellow travelers like a hip, urban, black student traveling cross country from Los Angeles and a traditionally dressed, heavily bearded, Amish farmer from Maryland.
Train travel encourages one to socialize and the concession stand on the lower deck of the observation car helps by serving up beer and wine to its thirsty travelers. The stand also serves hot dogs and hamburgers and other snacks while the adjacent dining car features a much more upscale menu and elegant accommodations to those on longer trips.
The city of about 14,000 now boasts of having nominated about 900 buildings for listing with the National Register of Historic Places and includes a landmark victorian era hotel off the historic downtown Plaza where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders of Spanish American War fame held their first reunion back in 1899.
The city’s museum/municipal court off Grand Ave. features exhibits and displays dedicated to Roosevelt and the all volunteer soldiers of the Rough Riders who were recruited from New Mexico and surrounding states for the war in Cuba.
The city’s other attractions include a downtown state university campus which lends a small town, funky, college vibe to this community steeped in history.
After leaving the railroad station visitor’s center we stroll across the street and stop in at the Rough Riders Antiques shop where many visitors just off the train stop to roam the aisles of antiques and other collectables on display inside.
“The question we get asked most here is where to go eat,” owner Nancy Freeman says.
With many different vendors working the front counter of the shop on a revolving basis the town’s abundance of great restaurants all receive equal billing, she assures me.
The sprawling antiques shop features a tall ceiling covered in shiny, decorative tin and hanging lamps with exposed wooden beams adding to its turn of the century ambiance.
But its the view outside the store’s big glass windows that owner, Freeman, loves most.
Freeman gave up running a daily newspaper in Alaska to move “out to the country” to start a new business venture and she finds being in the same neighborhood as the train station with the old Castanada Hotel next door very promising.
The vacant Castanada, one of the original Harvey House Hotels frequently found in western railroad towns during the grand old days of train travel may soon be revitalized under new ownership with a hotel, bar and artists studios included in the plan.
If the business deal materializes it will only add luster to what Freeman calls Las Vegas, a “diamond in the rough.”
Roaming the streets of Las Vegas can be very entrancing, something many locals seem to appreciate as they show incredible tolerance for a tourist standing in the street taking a picture.
But it was the downtown shopping that these visitors found so appealing.
Saleswoman Jeannie Urioste says she’s been working at Prices for 14 years and that she’s seen lots of customers come from places like Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque because of they’ve heard about the great variety, reasonable prices and free delivery to anywhere within a 150-mile radius.
“And a lot say it’s great to have a good excuse to visit our cool, little town,” she added.
We ended up buying a well built, solid wood, chest of drawers in honey pine with matching mirror at a very reasonable price and they delivered it for free to my northern New Mexico home. We’d been looking for such a piece and found the selection here far better than many of the big box stores that we’ve been in.
Store manager Dennis Lujan says he started working at the store as a young clerk more than 50 years ago when Levi’s were $3.99 a pair and he made .45-cents an hour.
In those days it wasn’t unusual to see real working cowboys come to town and leave the store fully outfitted from head to toe, he said.
These days out of town tourists like a visitor from Finland can also be found looking through the racks of durable Carhartt clothing for a jacket to take home.
An old-school, dry goods store like this, stocked to the rafters with straw and felt hats, cowboy boots, button-down shirts, work and hunting wear and racks of belts is a real find in today’s homogenized retail market.
It was well worth the visit.
Just across the street from the dry goods store visitors will find the offices of the Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation where information about walking tours and other great ideas can be had between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
And a short stroll up the block visitors will find Plaza Park with its gazebo, lawns and towering shade trees. Surrounding the park are stores, restaurants, office buildings and the monumental, landmark Plaza Hotel.
A clerk at the front desk of the Plaza allowed me to check out a guest room on the second floor where the king sized bed seemed tiny amid this huge, elegant guest room. Sweeping aside the draperies covering the tall windows afforded a wide view of the busy street below.
Back downstairs the hotel’s bar is a busy, locals favorite where one is just as likely to run into a movie star as much as a neighbor.
It’s a little over a mile’s walk from the train station to the plaza and there is much to see including the new student union and other attractive buildings found on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University.
But for all of Las Vegas’ historic buildings and railroading history what these visitors found most compelling about Las Vegas was the many genuine friendly people we met who expressed great pride in their town and welcomed us with sincerity and warmth.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago with stops in New Mexico at Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe (Lamy), Las Vegas and Raton. It runs daily with the southbound train scheduled to stop in Las Vegas around half past noon while the northbound arrives at around 3 p.m. Riders can arrange for reliable, affordable shuttle service between Santa Fe and Lamy by reservation. See Amtrak’s website at www.amtrak.com for more information.
The Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation website is loaded with great information about Las Vegas including a variety of walking tours that can be enjoyed. Check it out at www.lvcchp.org.
Visitors to the Northern New Mexico will find plenty to do in and around Las Vegas with plenty to be found just off the highway.
Get the lowdown on New Mexico’s fascinating history at one of the state’s best little museums found inside the visitors center at the Pecos National Historical Park. Features a complete and easily absorbed collection of interpretive displays including artifacts, paintings, photos and dioramas. The park grounds outside also feature the ruins of what was once a great Indian pueblo, a spectacularly preserved Spanish church and great views of the surrounding valley.
Take a Hike:
Villanueva State Park may be just off the highway but once you’re there it seems more like you’re a million miles away. The park features a great little hike across a bridge spanning the Pecos River and then on up to an overlook that provides great views of the surrounding countryside. Follow the trail along the rim for a longer trip back down and then enjoy a picnic under the shade trees found alongside the river.
Discover the Santa Fe Trail:
At one time settlers flooded into the west along the Santa Fe Trail and many found refuge at the Army’s biggest fort at the time, Fort Union, where the tracks from wagon trains can still be seen and the stroll among the ruins of the sprawling fort spurs one’s imagination. A visit to the fort comes cheap, its free if you still have your receipt from your stop at the Pecos National Historical Park.
Take a Dip:
Soak your road weary bones in one of the many natural hot springs pool found along the banks of the Rio Gallinas in the shadow of the Montezuma Castle located on the grounds of the United World College. The hot springs are just five miles out of town on a stretch of two lane blacktop that snakes it’s way up into the back side of Santa Fe National Forest. Expect to find locals mixing it up with all sorts of visitors from all over the world here.
A trip to Mill’s Canyon on the Canadian River out on the plains outside of the farming and ranching community of Roy is a unique experience after crossing the vast plains where the clouds seem as big as mountains and the grass never seems to end. But tucked down in a hard to find lush canyon is a splendid little US Forest Service campground on the banks of the river where visitors can stay after a day of exploring the ruins of what was once a bustling farming, ranching operation including a hotel and fruit orchards. Bring plenty of water and enjoy the solitude.
Take a Drive:
The drive from Roy to Mosquero and down to Trementina before circling back through Trujillo to Las Vegas may be one the most awe inspiring rides in the state. It’s a lonely, scenic trip where one might find cows milling in the road, buzzards pecking away at something in the ditch and other motorists a rarity. The trip cuts through huge swaths of deserted countryside but a stop at the remote post office in Trementina might reveal a local hanging out under the shade tree who’s willing to chat. The scenic views on this road are to die for if you’re a true New Mexico fan.
Originally published in the Las Vegas’s Optic’s summer 2013 Destinations summer guide. Reprinted with permission.