Above: Meadows reach up to mountains outside of Las Vegas.
PHOTO BY INGA HENDRICKSON
IN LAS VEGAS and the adjoining Mora Valley, New Mexico’s vast high plains meet the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Generations of ranchers, merchants, and artisans have thrived here, their livelihoods enhanced by the development of the Santa Fe Trail and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. An exceptionally well-preserved frontier town that in 1900 boasted New Mexico’s largest population, Las Vegas contains an enormous trove of architecturally significant buildings, many housing one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, and eateries. In the more isolated and mountainous Mora Valley, the slower pace encourages visitors to linger among a handful of family-friendly attractions, including a restored mill, a military fortification, a raspberry farm, and one of the West’s largest alpaca ranches.
DAY 1: LAS VEGAS
● Architectural Elements
Intrepid traders, peripatetic tribes, swashbuckling military troops, and colorfully named bandits and ne’er-do-wells (Hatchet-Face Kit, Sawdust Charlie) once flourished in Las Vegas. It’s still easy to imagine what the area looked like a century ago, thanks to its abundance of carefully preserved buildings. The town’s timeless Wild West backdrop has featured prominently in numerous films and TV shows, among them Easy Rider, The Hi-Lo Country, Longmire, and No Country for Old Men.
Las Vegas experienced dramatic growth in the 19th century. The original Old Town section, established in 1833, grew into the largest outpost on the Santa Fe Trail; just across the Gallinas River, New Town formed in 1879 as a stop on the new railroad. The two communities functioned independently until merging into present-day Las Vegas in 1970.
A stroll through both halves of town affords glimpses of virtually every American regional style from the Victorian era through the mid-1950s: Italianate, Pueblo Revival, Queen Anne, and Prairie. You’ll find gems around every corner, including the state’s only Carnegie Library still used for its original purpose—this single-level Greek Revival building is modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Drop by the Las Vegas Visitor Center inside the Mission Revival train station or the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center on Bridge Street to snag a free illustrated guide to the town’s dozens of architectural stars.
Better yet, book a guided excursion with local preservationist Kathy Hendrickson, of Southwest Detours. Her tours visit the impressive Castaneda Hotel, a glorious trackside 1898 Fred Harvey property that Plaza Hotel owner Allan Affeldt is currently restoring, and one of New Mexico’s most dazzling buildings, Montezuma Castle, a 90,000-square-foot Queen Anne stunner built in 1882, also as a Fred Harvey resort.
● Rough Riders
Next make your way to the City of Las Vegas Museum, set inside a stone WPA building that contains ranch artifacts and Spanish Colonial furnishings, plus a vast cache of photographs and memorabilia related to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment, which fought bravely during the Spanish-American War and returned to Las Vegas for reunions each year following the campaign.
● Night on
Enjoy dinner at El Fidel Restaurant, set inside a handsome 1920s Mission–Art Deco building that once held a historic hotel. In the high-ceilinged dining rooms hung with local artwork, dine on creatively presented, sustainably sourced dishes, such as Talus Wind lamb meatballs with walnut-mint pesto and wild-caught tuna sashimi salad with a spicy lemon-sriracha dressing. Saunter over to Old Town’s Bridge Street to catch a first-run movie at the new Indigo Theater, which occupies a gorgeously restored Italianate building with state-of-the-art digital video and audio systems. Across the street, cap off the night with a cocktail at Borracho’s Craft Booze and Brews, which uses artisanal spirits and mixers in its drinks, such as the Dude (homemade coffee liqueur, half-and-half, vanilla-infused vodka) and Rosemary’s Baby (house-infused rosemary gin, lime juice, simple syrup).
DAY 2: FORT UNION AND LA CUEVA
● Fuel Up
Kick off the day with breakfast at the down-home New Mexican diner and bakery Charlie’s Spic & Span, which offers some of the best people watching in town. Few can resist the massive, flaky cinnamon rolls. Other standouts include the “stuffys” (breakfast sopaipillas filled with chorizo or bacon plus eggs), blueberry pancakes, and chicken-fried steak and eggs.
● Fort Union
Drive north to Fort Union National Monument, on the eastern edge of the Mora Valley, which served as a supply depot and military garrison along a critical stretch of the Santa Fe Trail during the late 19th century. You can explore the partially restored ruins of the original Territorial-style compound, and ranger-led 90-minute tours (10 a.m., weekend mornings) provide a vivid portrayal of frontier life.
● Raspberry Rendezvous
Next cut west through the valley to tiny but lush La Cueva, where in 1851 Vincente Romero established a ranch and mill to supply Fort Union. That property and its few surrounding buildings, which include the oft-photographed Mission Church of San Rafael, now constitute a small hive of activity known as Salman Ranch. Forage for fresh raspberries in the U-pick field, shop for raspberry-infused soaps, sauces, and candies in the 19th-century former general store, and have lunch in the cheerful café, where dessert—either the raspberry sundae or buttery-crusted raspberry pie—is a must.
DAY 3: MORA TO VADITO
● The Big Valley
Follow NM 518 north into the heart of Mora Valley, a relatively narrow swath of fertile meadows and ranches hemmed in by steep slopes densely forested with aspens and conifers. As you pass through tiny Sapello, look to your left to admire Hermit Peak, a sheer-faced 3,700-foot mesa that dominates the landscape northwest of Las Vegas.
Intermittently inhabited over the centuries by Ute, Comanche, Apache, and Pueblo tribes, the rugged Mora Valley first experienced a small flurry of permanent development in the mid-19th century, mostly by farmers as well as freighters and traders who came through via a shorter, though more treacherous, spur from the Santa Fe Trail to Taos. According to the WPA Guide to New Mexico, proximity to Las Vegas also encouraged less savory elements: “Mora was seldom a peaceful town; the feuds, murders, lynchings, and terrorism of the scores of Las Vegas gangsters extended” throughout the valley.
The county remains sparsely settled, with approximately 4,500 residents (down from its peak of 14,000 in 1920), most of them living in the approximately 15-mile corridor comprising the small villages of Mora, Cleveland, and Holman.
● Wild and Woolly
You can gain a sense of the area’s traditional Hispanic weaving culture, which has long been vital to the local economy, at the Mora Valley Spinning Mill. Set inside a vintage mercantile, the operation is home to the Tapetes de Lana, which trains Mora Valley locals in traditional weaving. A gallery, yarn shop, and art center carries rugs, blankets, and knitted apparel, naturally dyed yarns, and paintings, retablos, and other local arts and crafts. There’s also a coffee counter serving well-made lattes and hot cocoa.
Detour briefly on NM 434, passing the impressive but timeworn 1864 St. Vrain Mill on your left, which is currently undergoing an ambitious restoration. Just up the road you’ll spy a field of lanky, bushy-eared alpacas at 110-acre Victory Ranch, where you can participate in feedings at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m., Friday through Monday, and learn about shearing, sorting, and spinning during the engaging ranch tours. In the shop, stock up on warm, eco-friendly alpaca-wool socks, scarves, toys, and even reusable dryer balls.
● Next Stop: Cleveland
It’s a 10-minute drive to Teresa’s Tamales, a homey roadside café in Cleveland with several covered outdoor tables offering expansive mountain views. Devotees come for miles to sample the delicious red chile pork and green chile chicken tamales. After lunch, visit the three-story Cleveland Roller Mill Museum, which still contains its original cast-iron waterwheel and ancient milling equipment used to produce flour back in the late 19th century, when Mora served as northern New Mexico’s wheat-farming capital.
● Over the Hill
NM 518 climbs sharply up around the southern slope of 9,288-foot Holman Hill and then into the Camino Real district of Kit Carson National Forest. You’ll pass Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, a family-friendly destination since 1952 for everything from alpine hiking to disc golf—it offers basic lodging and dining, too. Upon reaching the fabled High Road in Vadito, turn right for Taos or left for Santa Fe via Peñasco and Chimayó: You’ll encounter many miles of breathtaking scenery whichever way you go.
WHY GO NOW
This tour offers opportunities for cool alpine explorations on warm August days, as well as mesmerizing views of late-afternoon thunderstorms rumbling across the prairies. On August 6, history buffs flock to Las Vegas for the Places with a Past tour of historic buildings and homes (see “Go. See. Do.”), one of several lively events in town in late summer that include the Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally, San Miguel/Mora County Fair, and Meadow City Music Festival. During Millfest, over Labor Day weekend, the fascinating Cleveland Roller Mill Museum presents live-history demonstrations, an arts-and-crafts show, and music. By mid-month, it’s prime time for raspberry gathering at Salman Ranch.
THE ROUTE Begin in Las Vegas, spending your first day strolling the town’s compact and walkable historic districts. The following day, drive N 30 miles to Fort Union National Monument via I-25 and NM 161. Backtrack on NM 161, through tiny Watrous, and follow the road W. 30 miles, turning N. onto NM 518 for 3 miles to Salman Raspberry Ranch in La Cueva. Return to Las Vegas—you can drive S. 25 miles on NM 518, but for a scenic alternative, continue N. 5 miles on NM 518, turn left onto NM 94, and follow it S. 18 miles through Ledoux until it rejoins NM 518. On day 3, return N. 30 miles up NM 518 to explore the heart of the Mora Valley. Depart the area by continuing N. from Cleveland on NM 518, which climbs dramatically over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, intersecting 30 miles later in Vadito with the High Road to Taos.
OVERNIGHT Use Las Vegas, which contains nearly all the region’s accommodations, as a base camp. The iconic Plaza Hotel has hosted countless dignitaries since it opened in 1882 and has received significant upgrades—the addition of Spanish Colonial antiques, an expanded and refurbished bar and restaurant—since Allan Affeldt bought it in 2014. Plan to dine here on at least one evening—the shrimp paella is sublime. In the bar you’ll find an extensive selection of New Mexico craft beers, plus casual comfort fare, from cheeseburgers to duck quesadillas. Also consider the intimate Crow’s Nest B&B, a Queen Anne mansion overlooking leafy Carnegie Park and containing three period-decorated guest rooms, including a luxurious third-floor hideaway with its own library and double whirlpool tub.
NEED TO KNOW
Borracho’s Craft Booze and Brews 139 Bridge St.,
Charlie’s Spic & Span 713 Douglas Ave., (505) 426-1921
City of Las Vegas Museum 727 Grand Ave., (505) 425-3205; lasvegasmuseum.org
Crows Nest B&B 524 Columbia St., (505) 425-2623; thecrowsnestbandb.com
El Fidel Restaurant 510 Douglas Ave., (505) 425-6659
Indigo Theater 146 Bridge St., (505) 434-4444; indigotheater.rocks
Las Vegas Visitor Center 500 Railroad Ave., (505) 425-3707; visitlasvegasnm.com
Plaza Hotel and Restaurant 230 Plaza Park, (505) 425-3591; plazahotellvnm.com
Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center 116 Bridge St., (505) 425-8803; lvcchp.org
SW Detours (505) 459-6987; southwestdetours.com
Cleveland Roller Mill Museum NM 518, Cleveland,
(575) 387-2645; clevelandrollermillmuseum.org
Fort Union National Monument NM 161, Watrous, (505) 425-8025; nps.gov/foun
Mora Valley Spinning Mill NM 518 at NM 434, Mora, (575) 387-2247; moravalleyspinningmill.com
Salman Raspberry Ranch NM 518, La Cueva, (575) 387-2900; salmanraspberryranch.com
Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort 5224 NM 518, Vadito, (800) 587-2240; sipapunm.com
Teresa’s Tamales 3296 NM 518, Cleveland, (575) 387-2754; on Facebook
Victory Ranch NM 434, Mora, 575-387-2254; victoryranch.com