From Santa Fe, it’s an easy six-hour drive to Denver on I-25N. Back in the 1800s, however, this route – which parallels the historic Santa Fe Trail most of the way – was pretty grueling, thanks in part to the treacherous mountain crossing at the Colorado border. Today the most dangerous aspects may be avoiding hitting an elk or veering into another lane while admiring in the vast scenery.
Following this storied trail – which turned Santa Fe from an isolated outpost into a commercial center – gives you a lot of time to contemplate, given the countless acres of wide open grazing land you’ll pass, as well as several glimpses into history. A stop in Las Vegas (yes, that would be Las Vegas, New Mexico….not Las Vegas, Nevada), an hour north of Santa Fe, is one of the largest eyefuls. With its leafy colonial plaza and creaky storefronts, the entire downtown is like a living Western movie set. (Over 900 structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.) No wonder numerous films, including No Country for Old Men, have been shot here.
Founded in 1835 with a land grant from the Spanish government, Las Vegas was the last Spanish settlement established in the US – and soon became the prosperous epicenter of the Southwest, thanks to its location along the Santa Fe Trail, and later, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. It had four opera houses and electric railcars. But it also had an infamous underbelly. Doc Holliday practiced dentistry and owned a saloon here – until he had to leave town after shooting a local. Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and every other outlaw passed through too, giving Las Vegas a reputation of harboring murderers, con men and bandits.
Storefronts like Tome on the Range and “OK Café” on Old Town's Bridge Street remind you of this colorful history. And of course, there’s the Plaza Hotel (built 1882), which is the epitome of the grand frontier hotels and the place where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders held their first reunion in 1899. Still operating today, it is home to the Landmark Grill as well as Byron T’s Saloon. Many of the nearby buildings still need restoration, though, and hopefully someday someone will pump a few million into bringing them back to life.
Two hours north, Trinidad, Colorado, offers another turn-of-the-century flashback. Now known as the sex-change capital of the US (the phrase “taking a trip to Trinidad” has become code for such a procedure), this mining town was the place that weary wagon-bound travelers would pull into for supplies after making it through the Raton Pass at the Colorado border. It’s another Santa Fe Trail boomtown gone bust – and yet with hints of a comeback.
A prime example is Danielson Dry Goods, a sophisticated café-meets-gift store housed in the restored Five ‘N Dime store on Main Street. The owners wanted to help transform the depressed downtown area – and clearly, they’re leading the way. On the left side of the building, you can order the signature Corazon Chicken Salad and a sparkling soda and sit in a booth lit by a chandelier. On the right side, you can browse picture frames and greeting cards decorated with quotes (manufactured by the owners’ design company, now the largest employer in southern Colorado) as well as soaps, perfumes and more.
After stopping for breakfast or lunch here, you too may get inspired by seeing how the past can be preserved for the future. These two Old Santa Fe Trail towns are not yet widely recognized tourist destinations, but they have all the history required – and just need a little more revitalization. I know it’s possible after seeing my own hometown’s shuttered downtown turned around in two decades.
4 years ago